It’s the wedding night. The groom is the man who will go on to become the famous painter, Raja Ravi Varma (Randeep Hooda). His bride, smiling shyly, makes a move to blow out the oil lamp. He stops her. “Let it be,” he says. “I want to look at you.” She doesn’t comply, but we get the teeniest glimpse into a side of the painter, a side not many people may know about. He has his kinks (later, he will make love to his muse on a floor splattered with paints of every hue), but he’s also interested – as any painter should be – in anatomy. It must not have been easy, in those conservative times (we are talking about the nineteenth century), to study a woman’s body in detail, and when his wife doesn’t cooperate, he enlists the help of a curvy maidservant, who is only too happy to pose in fine clothes and jewels, and, sometimes, far less. Going by the stately photographs of the greying Ravi Varma we’ve seen in books, would you picture him as a man this obsessed with female flesh? No wonder his descendants are livid. Who wants to see their stately ancestor as this… sari chaser?
But then, how did Ravi Varma paint the men in his paintings? How did he study the shape, the proportion, the musculature? Did he look at himself in a mirror? Did he look at the men around him, in Kerala, who usually wandered about shirtless? Was it easier to get male models then? Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya (adapted from a book by Ranjit Desai) doesn’t tell us, and it’s easy to see why. It’s so much more fun showing female nudity on screen. Even in the scene where the artist lies spent, after making love to a prostitute named Sugandha (Nandana Sen), we see him with his legs crossed. (She, however, has bared a breast.) I am not trying to make too much out of this. A filmmaker shows what he wants to show. But by focusing only on the (nude) female form, the film becomes slightly suspect. We begin to wonder if this nudity was really necessary, or if this is one of those cases where the filmmaker decided to thrown in a nipple so that people who wouldn’t usually see this kind of movie would end up watching it.
I suppose we wouldn’t be asking this question if the film had paid more attention to the process of painting, which, surely, takes more than just an easel and a willing muse like Sugandha. There’s a promising early scene where we see Ravi Varma attempting to portray her as the goddess Saraswati. When he asks Sugandha to pose like a devi, she laughs and says she doesn’t know what a devi looks like. So he lays flowers at her feet, thrusts a veena in her hands, and kneels and prays to her. He sees her as a devi, and now she feels it too. And voila, the painting is done. But he’s just prepared her – what about the rest of the process? When we watch a film like La Belle Noiseuse, we witness the gestation of art, not just its delivery. We see the painter, we see his tools, we see his muse, her impatience, we sense his struggles, his frustrations, his thoughts. All we see here is Sugandha smiling beatifically, completely convinced about the worthiness of Ravi Varma’s art. We look at La Belle Noiseuse and we think, “What a terrible, destructive thing it must be to want so badly to create art.” We look at Rang Rasiya and think, “All these women just waiting to drop their clothes? Where do I sign up?”
Then again, Mehta – who’s a wan shadow of the filmmaker he was in the 1980s – isn’t too concerned about the art itself. He’s more interested in the Big Questions – about censorship; about how our conservative society, despite prodding from Khajuraho and the Kamasutra, has always failed to understand a certain kind of art. And to this effect, he opens his film with a sequence that intercuts a present-day art auction (of Varma’s paintings) with an angry mob outside. Then he cuts to Raja Ravi Varma’s obscenity trial in British India, where he has been charged with “humanising” (or simply put, naked-ising) gods and goddesses. And then, we have a second flashback structure – and this is where the film gets all Wikipedia on us. Childhood in Kilimanoor, Kerala. Marriage. Title of “Raja”, courtesy an early benefactor. Move to Bombay. Fame. Buys a printing press and floods the country with reproductions of his paintings, making art – and gods – accessible, for the first time, to the man on the street. We keep turning the pages. Scenes just drift by. There’s no atmosphere – just plot. Instead of zooming in on one aspect of Ravi Varma, Mehta tries to show us everything – and we come away with very little insight into the man. Well, other than the fact that he liked his women. I would have liked to know more about his attitude towards these women, especially Sugandha. He tells her that she doesn’t exist outside his imagination. Is that all she was? Was he just using her? Did he have real feelings for her, or was she just someone who helped his painting and someone he could occasionally, um, dip his brush into?
Rang Rasiya suffers from the two major problems that plague our biopics (and, in general, our films set in the past). One, there’s very little actual sense of slipping into a period – everyone seems to be wearing freshly laundered clothes and playing dress-up in freshly furnished sets. The contemporary actors look stiff, formal – they don’t look like they belong in the nineteenth century. And two, the tendency to portray a period through lazy invocations of what else was happening at the time – like a Congress party meeting where we see Tilak. All this is so perfunctory, we can only laugh. And in between, we get the melodramatic story of Ravi Varma and Sugandha, which, despite all the screen time, is utterly generic. They are painted in the broadest strokes (we never see her with her clientele; she seems to spend all her time with him) – but at least, they fare better than the supporting characters, like Ravi Varma’s brother, who’s just required to stand in a corner of the frame, a hunkier Ramu kaka. Late in the film, we get a scene that tells us he had artistic ambitions too, and we go “Huh?”
For a film about art, it’s shocking how little artistry there is in Rang Rasiya. I liked the stretch where a ganja-stoked Ravi Varma experiences a hallucination, imagining himself and Sugandha enacting scenes from the epics – to others, the man and woman in his pictures may be Vishwamitra and Menaka, but to him, they are Ravi Varma and Sugandha. How you wish this had been the crux of the film. We come away feeling nothing – except maybe that we’ve seen a routine Bollywood melodrama in artier garb. Bad music. (It’s unbelievably loud.) Bad lines (Sugandha simpers: “Mujhpe daag lagaane ka haq tumko kisne diya?”). Bad scenes – like the one where Sugandha runs through a street and her sari catches fire, and then… nothing. Bad characterisation. (We know the moneylender played by Paresh Rawal is trouble because we hear “ominous music” in the background when he makes a deal with Ravi Varma.) And bad writing in general. A court case, naturally, means that all the movie’s thesis points can be stuffed into the mouths of the accusers and the accused. And the minute we hear the Urvashi-Pururavas legend, we know what’s in store for our leads. The difference: that story soared to the heavens, while this one stays resolutely earthbound.
* Mujhpe daag lagaane ka haq tumko kisne diya = Who gave you the right to… oh, never mind.
Copyright ©2014 Baradwaj Rangan. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.