As Guru Dutt’s niece, Kalpana Lajmi was perfectly poised for a smooth entry into Hindi cinema, and to coast along on pedigree alone. But she made a mark for herself right from her debut feature. Ek Pal (1986) was about female desire and an extra-marital affair, set in the tea-gardens of Assam. It featured Shabana Azmi, Naseeruddin Shah and Farooq Shaikh.
Lajmi co-wrote the script with Gulzar. The plot, based on a short story, was revolutionary for its time: the unfaithful wife gets to keep her marriage and baby; the cuckold has to learn to accept both. Ek Pal made quite a stir when it came out, because of what it said, and how it said it: Lajmi had a spare, uncompromising style which went straight to the story’s core.
The film came out in the dreaded 80s, the decade in which mainstream Hindi movies were drowning in a sea of sex and violence. Perhaps because of the decay, independent filmmakers had a better chance of coming to the fore, and Lajmi was an early feminist voice. Soon after, in 1988, Aruna Raje made Rihayee, another crackling tale which foreground female sexuality, starring Hema Malini, Naseeruddin Shah and Vinod Khanna, and there’s no doubt that Ek Pal paved the way for it.
Kalpana Lajmi, who began collaborating with Bhupen Hazarika soon after, and became his partner, continued to choose unconventional subjects for her films.
Rudaali (1993), based on Mahashweta Devi’s short story about women hired as professional mourners, who come and weep long and hard in a house of death (‘rudaali’), toplined Rakhee and Dimple Kapadia, who was on a quest for ‘performance-oriented’ films. Rudaali gave Lajmi a bonafide star Kapadia who won a national award for best actress. And us a song that still echoes – “Dil Hoom Hoom Kare”.
Her 1997 Darmiyaan is a touching story about the ‘third sex’, with Arif Zakaria essaying the role of a life-time: it was a film far ahead of its time, and would perhaps have had a better run today, in post 377 India.