To all those who follow art, Raja Ravi Varma is a familiar name, while those who don’t, are more likely to be familiar with his creations, especially paintings of Goddesses Saraswati and Lakshmi. Ketan Mehta’s film Rang Rasiya, a tribute to the artist and the cause of artistic freedom, has from all accounts, failed to impress the audience.
This, despite the “steamy sex scenes” that a lot of its publicity is hinged on. To reduce a film on one of India’s greatest artists to merely his amorous past is surely a travesty. Fortunately, Ketan Mehta who has directed illustrious films like Mirch Masala and Bhavni Bhavai also tackles the question of artistic freedom, the stranglehold of cultural and religious politics over art; an issue that has great resonance in present times.
Varma, as a character points out in the film, brought out the gods and goddesses from temples into the homes of the rich and the poor alike. The omnipresence of his gods found in all corners of the country courtesy his printing press at Malavali (near Lonavala) which printed calendars and posters with Hindu deities was a testimony to the widespread appeal of his work.
Unfortunately, unlike the wonderous artist whose life the film is based on (a biography by Ranjit Desai) the film, failed to connect with the masses.
The silver lining of this development is that besides sportspersons, politicos, business honchos and film personalities, lives of artists too are now being mined for films. Europe with its deep abiding association with art perhaps does its best. The Best Offer by Italian film-maker Giuseppe Tornatore (who has made films like Cinema Paradiso, Malena) is a good example of a film about the world of art. In The Best Offer it is the life of Virgil Oldman (Geoffrey Rush), an old eccentric art auctioneer that we are lured into watching. As matters progress, Oldman is revealed to be a man of impeccable knowledge, although not of impeccable integrity. The auctioneer, with a little help from his friend Billy (Donald Sutherland) has amassed an enviable and priceless collection of masterpieces, old paintings of women in particular. However, his work as an auctioneer brings him in contact with Claire, a reclusive heiress who wishes to auction off her family’s valuable collection of art. Oldman, falls in love with the heiress and opens up his secret world to her only to realise that he’s been outsmarted, and eventually, robbed of his secret ill-begotten wealth! The film is languorous in its pacing allowing art, gloriously displayed and detailed, to be the real star of the film. Oldman’s seduction and ultimate submission though pivotal to the story is never merely carnal. The ruse as both Oldman and the audience realise, is an artistically created trap.
There is a scene in the film when Oldman says, “When simulating another’s work, the forger can’t resist the temptation to put in something of himself. Often it’s just a trifle, a detail of no interest. One unsuspected stroke by which the forger inevitably ends up betraying himself, and revealing his own utterly authentic sensibilities.”
It’s equally true of the movies—in simulating lives and reinterpreting them, film-makers, often run the risk of betraying their own creative limitations.