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Cinematic vision

Ace cinematographer Santosh Sivan talks to GOWRI RAMNARAYAN about his involvement with M.F. Husain's "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities".

AS one of the best cinematographers in the country today, Santosh Sivan can afford to be selective about his projects. So why did he agree to shoot "Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities", directed by artist M.F. Husain, with son Owais Husain as associate director? True, the film has seasoned Tabu in the lead, and A.R. Rehman's multi-shaded magic. Noted modern dance exponent Astad Deboo and Odissi artiste Ileana Citaristi are among the choreographers. Editor Sreekar Prasad can be expected to give it a crisp flow. As against this, Husain's earlier feature "Gajagamini", despite a similarly impressive team, had not risen above splashy razzmatazz.

"`Gajagamini' may not appeal to all tastes," says Sivan. "But remember, if an artiste of M.F. Husain's eminence makes a film, he is under no compulsion to do anything other than what comes from within." Sivan should know. When he made his own films was he not directed by an inner impulse to produce films as different in texture and content as "The Terrorist" and "Asoka"?

"Meenaxi" seems to have more theme than story, weaving scenes where a Hyderabadi nawab (Raghuvir Yadav) facing a writer's block, interacts with a woman (Tabu), who is "in search of perfect love". Admitting that the narrative is but an excuse for the painter to make love to the three cities where they meet — Hyderabad, Jaisalmer and Prague — the cinematographer nevertheless believes that the film scores in structure, as also in its song and dance sequences ("Definitely mass appeal here"). More over, steeped as he was in the folk cultures of his cities, Husain was able to evoke their distinct identities, each with its unique flavour.

"It was exciting to work for the first time with a painter. I realised from day one that the sensibility was something different. Husain has a deep understanding of colour and tone, volume and dimension. Though he used a lot of colours, they never swamped him. Clever! His visuals bore the imprint of a painter's feel for colours, arising from constant experimentation, and years of exploring their possibilities." Husain had such a wealth of fascinating experiences to share that working with him developed into a sort of daily class for Sivan.

Indoor spaces were carefully designed for action, but outdoor locations demanded craftiness, "Very often you had to find the colours and the moods on the spot, an enjoyable challenge for me." Any effect would not do, what was shot had to realise the painter's vision. No, this vision was neither naturalistic nor stylised, nor anything which had a brand or label to it.

"Like all great artistes past and present, Husain believes that a painting need not be — it cannot be — explained." Whether Salvador Dali or Andy Warhol, painters have their own approach to creation. "I would say that Husain's films, whether "The Eye of a Painter", "Gajagamini" or "Meenaxi", are all part of his whole body of expression. Through the camera he explores another medium to create moving images on the screen, instead of on paper or canvas." This conviction gained strength as Sivan watched Husain on the sets, "Why, he was sketching all the time. For him it was a compulsive daily riyaz."

At times, the man came up with different strokes. They could be eccentric. " `Today we will shoot wild peacocks,' he'd announce," laughs Sivan. "Then the script would shift to accommodate the visual."

The project interested Sivan from the day Husain talked to him from a hospital bed in Chennai, totally ignoring his physical ailment as he discussed his ideas of creating a narrative linking the three cities he loved. "I empathised with his views then and there. I also realised that working with Husain could open my eyes to new ways of looking at things. In any case I like to learn from others. I try to find ways of depicting their visions rather than stamp every scene with my own perspective. I like to experiment rather than insist on putting my signature on every shot."

Husain's obsessive energy and single-minded eagerness for the task on hand were intriguing. "This time he had son Owais to help him, but no question about it, he was involved in everything from start to finish. And finally, I'd say, look, if a man makes a film at age 88, I certainly want to be a part of it."

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