Shakti Samanta, one of the most influential Bollywood filmmakers from the 1950s to the 1980s has died aged 83 at his home in Mumbai with his close family in attendance.
Bengali-born Shakti, graduated from Calcutta University in Science in 1944 and immediately moved to the Mumbai region as he had his heart set on joining the movie industry. After working for a few years as a school-teacher, he was able to join Bombay Talkies in 1948 as an assistant director. It wasn’t until 1954 that he directed his first feature Bahu. There then followed his first wave of critical and commercial successes in the late 50s using Bengali actors Ashok Kumar and Pradeep Kumar as his lead men — Inspector, which also starred the beautiful and tragic Geeta Bali; the magnificent Sheroo; Detective; Hill Station and the outstanding Howrah Bridge with a heart-stopping Madhubala. During this sequence, Shakti developed a naturalistic film-noir type style, also heavily influenced by the Italian school of realism at the time – and each of these movies still holds up when seen today.
Soon after his first golden period, Shakti began working with the iconic Shammi Kapoor. Shammi’s exuberance lightened Shakti’s style at the exact time that he needed it — as cinema progressed from the gritty fifties to the stylish sixties. Singapore, which featured Shammi and Helen was a sign of things to come — and the period culminated in such all-time classics as China Town (1962), again with Shammi and Helen; Kashmir Ki Kali (1963) with Shammi — at this stage looking increasingly like Elvis — with Sharmila Tagore; and the truly wonderful An Evening in Paris (1967), again with Shammi and Sharmila, and possibly once of the most fun romantic comedies ever made.
After the stylish sixties, Shakti continued to be at the forefront of commercial trends as he moved into the emotional seventies and the then popular field of romantic melodramas. Shakti probably did as much as anyone, though rather more knowingly than most, to popularise the tree and the mountain as movie icons of the period. Continuing to use the breath-taking Sharmila Tagore as his leading lady, he moved towards Rajesh Khanna as his lead man with Aradhana (1969) and Amar Prem (1971). Rajesh also appeared in the lovely Kati Patang (1970) with the equally lovely Asha Parekh; Anurag (1972); Ajnabee (1974) with Zeenat Aman; Mehbooba (1976) with the Dream Girl Hema Malin and Anurodh (1977) which also saw Asho Kumar return in the role of Rajesh’s father. Meanwhile, a second series of more serious movies with the talented actress Sharmila Tagore included Charitraheen (1974); Amanush (1975) and Anand Ashram (1977). This second series allowed Shakti to revisit his Bengali roots and to experiment more with his creative style.
Most people would be content with having achieved as much as Shakti had by the end of the seventies, but it was then that his career took a final small turn into the stratosphere — when he teamed up with Amitabh Bachchan for two great movies. The first was in 1979 with The Great Gambler which also starred Zeenat Aman; and then the second was Barsaat ki ek Raat (1981). After this, with increasing age and some health problems, he decided to slow down a little.
Retiring from mainstream cinema, Shakti contined to make films for the next twenty years, focussing on Bengali cinema and finishing with his own version of Devdas in 2002.
Most actors, producers and directors would be happy if they had one movie in their name that could be considered a classic and would continue to entertain and bring joy to millions after their death. Shakti’s great legacy will be that he has a dozen such masterpieces to his name and that he will never be forgotten as long as people love to watch great character-driven stories and yearn for true romance and great adventure.
Shakti Samanta (1926-2009)