Direction: Ketan Mehta
Cast: Randeep Hooda, Nandana Sen, Gaurav Dwivedi, Paresh Rawal, Jim Boeven, Darshan Jariwala, Suhashini Mulay, Sachin Khedekar, Tom Alter, Vikram Gokhale
Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya, based on Ranjit Desai’s biographical novel Raja Ravi Varma, states and shows many important things given that the painter-artist lived and worked in a period of political and social churn and turmoil -- 1848 to 1906 -- during which he challenged the sensibilities of the time by painting nudes and portraying Hindu gods and goddesses in human form. But Mehta doesn’t portray the artist and his times very well.
That’s partly because Mehta’s focus is entirely on mythologising Ravi Varma and that enterprise begins with the film’s first scene itself, where at a present-day art auction his painting, Vishwamitra and Menaka, is being sold for Rs 7 crore, but there are also hordes screaming "Shame! Shame!" outside and fighting to come in to desecrate Ravi Varma’s "dirty painting". There’s more than a hint of M.F. Hussain here, and a comment on the fact that we haven’t really changed.
Rang Rasiya -- Colors of Passion traces Ravi Varma’s life from his village in Kerala, Kilimanoor, and establishes with one episode that the genius and mettle of Ravi Varma were on display right from childhood. It also underscores a fact of Ravi Varma’s life -- he always found a patron. First in Travancore, and eventually in Baroda and Bombay that led to him starting a lithographic printing press in Ghatkopar, Mumbai, in 1894 where Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, known to us as Dadasaheb Phalke, worked, and which Govardhan Das (Paresh Rawal), eventually, through deceit and greed, made his own.
It’s this enterprise, the printing and distribution of his paintings, that, according to Rang Rasiya, led to two things -- to allowing "untouchables" to finally worship Gods and Goddesses and even bring them home, and to Ravi Varma being "arrested and tried on charges of obscenity, and for offending public morality and hurting religious and cultural sentiments".
These bits are poignant and powerful and packed with political commentary, even if they are all artificial and stagy. But the film’s focus is not so much on this social change, or on Ravi Varma’s paintings or the man, it’s on the artist’s obsession with his art and affairs with his muses. It’s for this purpose that the film spends most time in his studio where he makes women, often from a lower social strata, pose. There are maids and prostitutes, of whom the most significant is Sugandha (Nandana Sen) who poses for Ravi Varma for the sake of being immortalised in his paintings.
It’s upon her arrival that the film starts building up to showing us how Ravi Varma painted two of his famous paintings -- "Fresh from Bath" where a lady has emerged from the pond in a white saree, with one breast tantalisingly peeking out, and "Urvashi and Purooravas", a mythological episode whose story is interestingly linked to the story of Sugandha in the film.
Nandana does the daring act of being the nude muse. It’s very artily done and while it’s stunning for its daring and spunk, it doesn’t aim to titillate us. It’s aimed at titillating the artist. But in these scenes it’s eerie how Nandana Sen, beauteous though she is, has been made to act and been captured like Ketan Mehta has, in the past, recorded his wife, Deepa Sahi. Except that Ms Sen doesn’t have Sahi’s spunk or edginess.
Though we get the plague and a meeting of the Indian National Congress, and Ravi Varma undertakes a tour of India, the film and its protagonist is untouched by what’s happening in the country. It’s mostly cooped-up in the studios, with the bare-chest painter and his muse. Which is fine. But the tone and tenor of what transpires here is totally out of sync with the period the film is set in. Rang Rasiya is not just anachronistic. It is down-right lazy, shabby.
Though the film is encased in an antique, vintage Indian setting that’s often gorgeous, the film’s soul is modern and Western. The dialogue are so jarring that at times it sounds like Ravi Varma and Sugandha are at a costume party and talking to each other in SMS language.
Both the actors are constricted by tacky dialogue. And they don't try to rise above. The way they behave, make out, is all very contemporary and takes away the whole point of them being in a period setting.
Though the film is seemingly devoted to making a point about freedom of expression, then and now, I couldn’t help but think of similar it is in content and visuals to Anant Pai’s Amar Chitra Kathas. Ketan Mehta tells the story of Raja Ravi Varma exactly how Pai would have told it: in episodic, embellished panels, at times pausing for an elaborate and beauteous splash where each asset and curve of the woman is enhanced, with her pert bits taking centrestage.
The film’s high point is seeing Ravi Varma’s paintings. It establishes that the painter-artist's life is a powerful story that needs to be told by a better, more accomplished director and actors.