SARASWATHY Nagarajan

Shaji Karun's next film delves into a turbulent phase in Raja Ravi Varma's artistic career.

He was the first person to unite India through images Shaji N. Karun

Cine matographer and film director Shaji N. Karun's films have always had a sharp focus and a richly textured structure that narrates the story without relying on melodrama or high-decibel dialogue. The individual was never lost in the storytelling. Whether i t be `Piravi,' `Swahom,' or `Vanaprastham,' his films took the viewer into the mindscape of the protagonist, exploring the bewildering complexities of situations and emotions that the characters had to under go. And yet, there is a universality in the th emes that go beyond the boundaries of language, region and culture. A lyrical quality to his cinematic idiom and ambience that is a hallmark of all his films. Perhaps it was because of his long association with Aravindam, as an award-wining cinematograph er. True to Shaji's filmography, his next film, which is on the royal artist Raja Ravi Varma, will not be a mere biography of the artist. Instead, it seeks to delve into the Raja's intense relationship with the model who inspired some of his best works. Being produced by Bobby Bedi of `Mangal Pandey' fame, the film in Hindi will have Ajay Devgan in the lead as the Raja. However, Shaji is still in search of an actor who will play the role of the model, Sugandhi. "Thousands of Indians know her through the pictures of Lakshmi and Saraswathy that Ravi Varma painted and popularised through his printing press. So, it has to be someone who can do justice to her role in the film," says Shaji.Why Ajay? "Well, Ajay is a star who is a good performer. He is a vers atile actor who has acted in some offbeat films. We wanted someone like that," explains Shaji.Most of the film will be shot in Pune and on locations in Maharashtra as Ravi Varma did some of his most famous works in Mumbai where he met the model whose fac e launched a series of iconic paintings. The pictures of Gods and Goddesses that used to adorn Indian homes used to roll off his press in Malavi in Mumbai. Shaji says, "This year, we are observing the centennial of Ravi Varma who was the first artist fro m Kerala, and perhaps India, to use his brush and canvas to visually translate the rich imagery and narration of our epics. Like a photographer, he knew the moment to freeze. For instance, the famous painting that shows Shakunthala taking a look at Dusha yanth. He could have chosen any scene from the text but his deep reading of the drama and discussions with scholars helped him select a very visually riveting scene. We also get to see a slice of society through his paintings. While his technique was Eur opean, his subjects and themes were very much rooted in our psyche."He was the first person to unite India through images and till now no one has been able to better him in terms of his interpretations of our mythology. His images reached out to Indians like never before."Enumerating the contributions of this artist, whose art was sometimes criticised as calendar art, Shaji says, "Ravi Varma had a terrific sense of colour and design. His idea of beauty and Indian womanhood influenced many artists. Even the sari, as we know it today, was popularised by this artist."Shaji plans to concentrate on the period the Raja spent in Mumbai, when he bought a press in 1894-95 and became the first `artist-turned businessman.' The press left him in debt and he was fo rced to sell it to his German partner who also won the rights to his pictures. Shaji plans to zoom in on the angst of the artist who was forced to compromise on his art to make a success of his business venture. In course of time, his partner made a kill ing by marketing Ravi Varma's iconic images to sell matchboxes and calendars. "However, the compromises depressed the artist and when he tried to paint a nude of the model, there was an uproar. Eventually, disturbed by the anguish of the artist, the mod el kills herself. My film will be on this turbulent phase of the artist's life. The film will present her view of her relationship with the artist," he explains.The shooting of the film will begin in April, says Shaji who is busy polishing the script of the film.