Movie Review: Rang Rasiya
Star Cast: Randeep Hooda, Nandana Sen, Paresh Rawal, Darshan Zariwala, Vikram Gokhale
Director : Ketan Mehta
“Till now, we have had no access to our gods and goddesses. You are the one who’s made it possible”. A character, presumably of ordinary origin, says this to Raja Ravi Varma in ‘Rang Rasiya’, after watching the first public exhibition of his paintings.
This sentence tells us just how deep the influence of the painter is not just in the Indian art world, but in all the worlds that are created when art and culture and society collide. Varma was a rare radical break-away in a country which was, when he was in his prime, fighting enslavement not just by the British, but by the gatekeepers of high art, who happened, naturally, to be ‘high-caste’.
Ravi Varma, who was given the title of Raja, by the king of the Kerala principality he grew up in, was a prodigious talent, who honed his skills in the world outside, not just cloistered in riches and privilege. He could easily have done that, given that his wife was of royal lineage. But his outward seeking abilities, celebrating the sensualist in him, led him away from his stifling life (and wife), to a stint with the Baroda maharaja and Mumbai, which helped him bloom.
Ketan Mehta’s film, based on a biography by Marathi writer Ranjit Desai, sketches the life and tumultuous times of Varma ( Hooda), starting from vignettes of his childhood, lingering at his flowering, and ending with an important point—how free is the artist, how free are we? There are moments where you feel that this, right here, is the film that the director set out to make, particularly in a lyrical sequence which shows the passion between Varma and Sugandha, his beautiful muse who happens to be a ‘woman of ill repute’ (Nandana Sen).
Woven through are some startlingly brave dialogues, especially relevant in our times. Sample this: ‘dharam se zyada kuch nahin bikta: hum bahut paise kamayange,’ says a canny businessman played by Rawal, who helps Varma set up a printing press, which in turn, helps make the prints (of his paintings of gods and goddesses) which spread across the country.
And this one, which I feel like framing: “parampara agar ek nanga badan dekh kar toot jaaye yeh desh itna kamzor nahin” (or words to that effect). In the way he painted— nudity was no taboo, it was just an aesthetic representation of the real– Varma was a true modernist. The statement is as true of that era, the turn of the century that Varma inhabited, as it is today. In fact, even more so today, when self-proclaimed ‘ dharm-rakshaks’ are busy telling people what to write, and read, and create.
But the trouble is that ‘Rang Rasiya’ feels like a choppy costume drama marred by false notes and static ‘acting’ : the fluidity and the authentic sense of time and place needed for a film like this, qualities so beautifully woven through Mehta’s classics ‘Bhavni Bhavai’ and ‘Mirch Masala’, are missing. Both Hooda and Sen are presented as gleaming bodies on ample display we are meant to fall in lust with, and both are eminently drool-worthy. But in all this, the characters go missing.
Varma deserves a deeper, more layered film.