A daughter’s moving tribute to her father

Director S Sukhdev’s daughter Shabnam was at AISFM to celebrate her father’s legacy. Suchetana Bauri reports.


Do you remember that young girl with dark-eyes and short-hair who featured in the hard-hitting documentaries: Violence: What Price? Who Pays? and After the Eclipse? She has now made a film on the director of those films.

She is Shabnam Sukhdev, daughter of S Sukhdev, one of the most celebrated names from the Films Division (FD) glory days in the 1960s and 1970s.

The documentary The Last Adieu, investigates the complicated relationship the two shared. Sukhdev died in 1979, when he was 48 and Shabnam just 14, after gloriously focusing his camera on social corners during 20 years of India’s independence. From human rights violations in East Pakistan, to India’s Emergency.

Shabnam Sukhdev’s film offers a counter perspective to the director’s public image as a whisky-guzzler who lived for cause and comrade.

We see a carefree Sukhdev who would jump into a car and drive to Pune just for biryani if he so wished — but who was a difficult man to be married to. While his wife Kanta was alone responsible for the household, as he indulged in his artistic and socialist quavering – which were of course, without any second thoughts, absolutely worthwhile, but he nevertheless tried to fill the emotional distance.

During the course of the documentary, Shabnam confronts her mother about not intervening when she should have, and asks her father’s friends about whether her sense of neglect is justified.

“I had this absence of a parent — he drank a lot and that had an impact on our relationship,” she says. “I stayed angry with him for a very long time.”

The Last Adieu is about the contradictions in Sukhdev’s life and career — his reformist inclinations, and his justification of the Emergency-era excesses. The film also shows how his beliefs and passions distanced him from his family and particularly from his daughter. His relationship with Shabnam was so troubled that when she  heard the news, she went out with her friends to watch a movie.

It was only when she enrolled for a direction course at the Film and Television Institute (FTII) in Pune in 1992 that Shabnam began to accept her father’s celebrity status. “I realized the kind of commitment that might result in somebody or something being neglected as a result,” she says.


As The Last Adieu proceeds, we realize the daughter’s desire to assert Sukhdev’s legacy more than her emotional anguish. This Shabnam articulates through film clips and interviews with Sukhdev’s friends  and associates, which included all the big names such as Vellani, Sharma, Shyam Benegal and Shashi Kapoor.

So we see Sukhdev along with his comrades making disastrously well-meaning documentaries that look at its subjects directly and gloss over the complexities and nuances of India’s realities.

Each one of them was intelligent, beautifully crafted and sensitive explorations of the Indian experience. As FD director-general V.S. Kundu, remembered him, “Sukhdev is one of the main FD film-makers whose work we are really proud of.” He goes on to add, “I have found several film-makers inspired by him, especially by India 67. He inspired them to consider documentary film-making as the work they wanted to do—he created respect for documentary as a genre of film-making.”

In the film we see a flamboyant, yet curious Sukhdev, who used to soar over, dive into and burrow under the pageantry of the everyday, resulting in “restless cinema”.

Sukhdev’s documentaries spoke in Nehruvian-era tone of a social change that could, and should happen; trickling down from above, but his stylistic flourishes endeared him to the FD top brass.

Tapan Bose confirmed this when he said, “He believed that documentary films should honestly represent reality that exists before us and that reality is multidimensional and that there was no single answer or a single truth. His films got substance and depth from the details that his camera captured. He captured sweat breaking out on the forehead, trickling down the nose and dropping on the floor, tears forming in the eye and smiles dying on the lips. He was constantly at war with Films Division bosses who did not agree with his critical shots and ‘negative’ approach to government.”

We learn about Sukhdev’s distinct style which was both classic and cozy, thus continuously interchanging the individual against the landscape with intense close-ups, freely using hand-held camerawork, tracking shots and zooms, cutting rapidly and insistently between contradictory images (poverty and plenitude in And Miles To Go…, for instance) and layering the soundtrack with songs.

In India 67, in the opening sequence, he uses close-ups again and again to concentrate on the line of some bugs carrying food,” says Vijaya Mulay, documentary filmmaker and historian. “One is first not sure what the bugs are carrying and the repeated use of close-ups reveals what it is all about. His camera work was impeccable.”

The Last Adieu is part therapeutic exercise and part celebration of the great filmmaker who is so little known 30 years after his death.



  1. awesome article. must read

  2. such a great article, proud to be a daughter. OJAS

Speak Your Mind