The death of filmmaker Kalpana Lajmi, who was suffering from kidney ailment, signals the end of an era for middle-of-the-ground cinema that looked at post-modern feminist themes through a prism of empathy and realism. Born in 1954, Lajmi worked her way up, assisting director Shyam Benegal on films such as Bhumika (1977) and Mandi (1983) before moving on to making documentary and feature films of her own. She was influenced by the work of contemporary art-house filmmakers, but her cinema combined both the realism of parallel cinema and the emotional appeal of mainstream films.
Her first film, Ek Pal (1986) was ahead of its time — it told the story of female desire without apology or explanation. It marked what would become her trademark: Narratives that were bold and outside the preserve of mainstream cinema. Lajmi followed it up with Rudaali (1993), a film based on a story by Mahasweta Devi — another indication of her wide ambit of inspirations — about a widow who is a professional mourner, whose burden of personal woes leaves her bereft of tears. It was the high point of Lajmi’s career, cementing her position as a filmmaker of eminence, alongside contemporaries such as Mira Nair. Lajmi’s Darmiyaan (1997) was prescient in the way it addressed the problems faced by the third gender — with empathy rather than ridicule — at a time when queer politics was far from mainstream. Likewise, Daman (2001) addressed the darkness of domestic violence, facets of which continue to be legally unrecognised in India.
Lajmi’s last directorial outing, Chingaari (2006), that tackled the theme of abuse of power by priests in an Indian village, did not meet with critical or commercial success. But it established once more her keen understanding of contemporary India and its politics, and, the urgency of translating that on celluloid. That is the legacy that she leaves behind.