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Reinterpreting cinematic memory

Mainstream Indian cinema is now being seen as the repository of fantasy. `Cinema Still', an exhibition curated by Gayatri Sinha, explores the relationship between art and cinema, says MADHU JAIN.

"Naika," Rekha Rodwittiya oil on canvas, 2002.

IT was all quite clear until not very long ago. There was high art and low art, and they never met, like rail tracks. Bollywood was for the masses, its excrescences like posters and billboards and lobby cards just so much kitsch. Bad Taste.

It wasn't quite the seventh art: only the other cinema — variously labelled art, serious, alternative or good cinema — made it to the high table of art, to be nibbled upon by scholars and critics. Once in a while, however, an academic went slumming in popular cinema while the odd eccentric collected cinema posters and stills.

Today Bollywood is the new Next Best Thing. Scholars, analysts and sociologists now mine it for clues to the collective Indian psyche and a better understanding of what really makes Indians tick. Bollywood and its artefacts — iconic and nostalgia-imbued old or new and instantly, even digitally, iconic — have become the stalking ground for artists in search of inspiration and imagery — and yes, the new buzz word: energy.

Naturally, art aficionados and collectors are not far behind: the rush is now on for old cinema posters and stills, as it was, and one supposes still is, for Raja Ravi Varma oleographs and prints.

No wonder then, that art dealers and curators have now got into the act: recently there's been a spurt of exhibitions of film memorabilia and paintings inspired by popular Indian cinema. Neville Tuli's show in Delhi and Mumbai showcased old cinema posters. Earlier Riyadh Wadia had an exciting show of old cinema posters featuring his amazing great-grand aunt, Nadia "Hunterwali".

And more recently in Harsh Goenka's eclectic "Art Mela" at the Jehangir art gallery in Mumbai, where high art was cheek and jowl with low art, characters from popular Hindi cinema were clearly the muses for several painters. Artists were emulating billboard painters. Were we seeing the M.F. Husain phenomenon in reverse gear?

And just last week Bhupen Khakar's show at Delhi's Vadehra Gallery Bollywood loomed large and bright. Life size cut-outs of Amitabh Bachchan and Rekha were painted on both sides: a billboard artist had painted the actors' luridly colourful celluloid personas on one side and Bhupen Khakar had created a rather troublesome world of violence and confusion with his inimitable pictorial vocabulary on the other. Had Pop Art finally arrived on these shores, unapologetic? Perhaps.

"Rajnikanth", Aramugam, oil on canvas, 2002.

The time is obviously ripe for "Cinema Still," imaginatively curated by Gayatri Sinha. Presented by Apparao Galleries at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi, the show explores the relationship between cinema and art. In fact, artists have used media as varied as painting, video and photography to examine the influence of cinema, even of cinematic icons, on the popular imagination, or indeed on their own. It is obvious that mainstream Indian cinema is increasingly being seen as the repository of Indian fantasy. Certainly, it is a place wherein one can browse through an assortment of archetypes. It is the changing library of our emotions, desires, impulses and compulsions.

For Sinha, the importance of cinema lies in the fact that it serves as our collective memory. The use of visual metaphor and art in cinema became a persistent interest for her.

She began mulling over the paintings — frames within frames — used in films: there must be some reason for them to be there, she wondered.

For instance, in Raj Kumar Santoshi's film "Damini", Meenakshi Seshadri is often framed against Tyeb Mehta's "Falling Man" when she defends her maid who has been raped by her brothers-in-law. And in Bimal Roy's "Sujata", when Lalita Pawar (playing the nasty Brahmin mother-in-law) extols conservative values, you can see paintings of gods in the background.

In India, we are more inclined to "read" visual images. "We are used to reading caste and community marks on the body," explains Sinha.

Sinha writes in her catalogue: "The photograph or painting has been used to create social context in Indian cinema...In `Cinema Still' this dual interface, of drawing on memory and inscribing the cinematic moment within the artist's frame seeks to extend the nature of this relationship.

The artist responds by reinterpreting cinematic memory in the light of our times. The influence of the cinematic icon on politics and the popular imagination, or the recreation of narrative creates new images..."

The show includes the works of 17 painters and photographers. While some of the works are weak, stretching the point to fit the theme, a large number of the artists have, in individual and refreshingly diverse ways, rendered their own ``evocations of cinema''. This then is their cut.

Sinha's inclusion of a series of seven portraits of the actor-icon Rajnikanth (full-torso and almost about to leap out of the frame in his varied screen avtars) by Aramugam, a traditional hoarding painter from Tamil Nadu, gives the show a certain frisson. Here you have it neat and vibrantly loud — and confected from concepts internal to the celluloid world. While the works of most of the other artists in the show come with a fair amount of intellectual distancing: concepts outside the world of cinema are the filters here.

Many of those filters are personal, with the artist as subject. In his intriguing painting titled "Eclipse", Nataraj Sharma is at the centre of it all: the gaze is turned towards the self in a quasi-cinematic sequence.

Mapping a personal journey, Sharma has, in another work, unspooled to his childhood: studio-like portraits of a young boy are repeated throughout the work, superimposed as it were upon a photographic image of the artist as an adult.

Subodh Gupta continues his odyssey of making himself the subject of scrutiny — his body as tabula rasa to take on any imprints. In this case, he has literally become a cinema still: he has used his cameo as a university mafia goon in Tigmanshu's film, "Hanshill" to create a work in which he combines a still from the film with a comic blurb.

In Jogen Choudhury's painting titled "Eyes", a large head (typically Jogenesque) serves as a receptacle for the collective imprint of cinematic memory. The eyes freeze cinematic moments.

While several painters like Ghulam Sheikh, Arpana Caur (interesting retake on the iconic umbrella-and-rain scene in "Awara" with Indian screen's most immortal couple Raj Kapoor and Nargis) and Shibhu Natesan have gone down cinematic memory lane to retrieve and recreate images, others have gone down the same path to reinterpret archetypes and representations.

In "Nayika", Rekha Rodwittya puts in photographs of a heroine of what seems to be the silent era — she's like a desi Odalisque — in her paintings, which are dominated by a contemporary woman to examine the modes of feminine representation.

Meanwhile in "Warrior/Saint", Shebha Chachhi has used the cinematic device of consecutive frames to look at "globalised masculinity'' and the endorsement of violence by the heroes themselves.

Hrithik Roshan with his Popeye muscles and almost-baby face is quite intriguing as the steroid cowboy of the Eastern world. Meanwhile, Baiju Parthan examines the dichotomy of the hero and the villain and the attributes of good and evil.

Sinha's inclusion of photographers in her show give it a certain freshness. Dayanita Singh's wonderful series, "Masterji", zooms in on dance choreographer Saroj Khan.

It's almost a fly-on-the-wall approach. For in these frames you can actually see the making of sexual fantasy — the stuff that cinematic wet dreams are made of.

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