Kalpana was my niece and I noticed in her an interest in the arts from her early years. I suppose her interest was natural — she was Guru Dutt’s niece and her mother, Lalita Lajmi, was an eminent artist. Kalpana was about 17 and in college when she started to apprentice with me. She was deeply involved in my children’s film, Charandas Chor. After that, she decided to take up filmmaking and assisted Mahesh Bhatt, who also later produced her films. Her films had a strong feminist content. She didn’t carry that flag but her protagonists were chiefly strong women fighting social norms. I would say they were rooted in her liberal and intellectual background.
She fell in love with the legendary Bhupen Hazarika at the young age of 17. They made an unusual couple as he was much older but it was a successful partnership that lasted till Hazarika passed away. In those years, she devoted her life to him, choosing to take care of him and his work. She was, understandably, heartbroken after his death. She wrote a book on him, Bhupen Hazarika – As I Knew Him, which was released a few weeks ago. She couldn’t attend the launch as she was terminally ill then. It was tragic as she lost her kidneys to cancer. Her death is a loss of a massive talent.
I first worked with Kalpana on Rudaali and later, Darmiyaan. What drew me to that film was that it had been penned by Gulzar. As I started to interact with Kalpana, I realised how invested she was in the subjects she chose and the space she set them in. Her lineage, perhaps, naturally lent her mind an artistic bent but she also chose to stick to a space that wasn’t too commercial. As one of the handful of filmmakers at that time, she stuck her neck out for what she believed in and did so without compromise.
I worked with Kalpana Lajmi on Daman. As a woman, she had a lot more understanding of women’s issues and worked towards women empowerment way ahead of her time, when it was really difficult for people to accept films made on those issues. The fact that she was a strong woman came out in her stories. Most mainstream actors would have been apprehensive to work with her. But the very fact that she believed in me, in fact every artiste she worked with, was a huge draw. She gave us a sense of individuality and freedom in our work. She believed in my craft, trusting me to pull off the character. She never restricted her work but always gave us the freedom to react the way we wanted to. As an actor, it’s very important to give that kind of space and bring our individuality into existence.
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I’d say Kalpanaji didn’t get as much recognition but the first National Award I bagged was for Daman, which is a big proof of her work. She struggled a lot to bring out issues like domestic violence and caste discrimination. She used to fight for what she believed in. I remember Daman was shot in difficult circumstances. There was conflict in Assam and she got permissions to shoot in sensitive areas. She didn’t get that kind of recognition back then but her work is remembered even today.