Sheetal Mallar’s world of transience

In her debut show, the photographer traces the ‘inbetweens’ of life through forgotten spaces, destroyed cinema sets and scenes from a film shoot

January 17, 2020 09:56 pm | Updated 09:56 pm IST

For the intuitive ones, whiffs of a past linger even in the emptiest of spaces. Old walls narrate tales of characters that once occupied the place—sometimes temporarily. The building, and shedding of these walls, worlds, and characters, popularly exists on film sets, where fleetingness is often the only permanence. Photographer, Sheetal Mallar, experiments with visuals depicting this thought, in a new solo show titled, Transients.

Between performance and isolation

For Mallar, the element of performance has been a recurring theme, be it in her early life as a supermodel through the 90s and early 2000s, or as a photographer. She’s fascinated with the variety of personas that actors are continuously embracing, and letting go of. The artist in her, relates to the garb of pretence required to be in front of the camera, and the isolation and quietude that seeps into thoughts, as soon as she’s behind it.

The ‘inbetween’, is attempted in brightly coloured photographs that line the gallery space, shifting between heightened reality, and clearly defined acting. Without context, certain photographs such as people lying in a pool of blood, or a perfectly lit portrait of a woman in a tub, might confuse the viewer, even though Mallar’s intention lies in the space between fiction and gritty reality. Art writer, Ranjit Hoskote, breaks this down in his exhibition note-“ [Mallar] explores the sets of a noir thriller that recreates World War II Calcutta, its compositions of violence, its behind-the-scenes levity. She traverses the ruins of a fire-ravaged film studio, with decades’ worth of memorabilia charred, blowing in the wind. Beneath these outward and visible subjects – ephemeral spaces and evanescent trades, aftermaths and afterlives – Mallar’s constant theme is transience.”

Creatures of passage

As the viewer walks through the photographer’s world, they might mistake the frames to be staged events, with predefined roles assigned to each subject. But the photographer is quick to clarify that the scenes were already playing out in front of her, mainly shot during her time spent on Dibakar Banerjee’s set of Detective Byomkesh Bakshy! (2015). One of her favourite photographs, is of an actress performing in a bright orange saree, as the director, producers, and cameramen watch on. “It’s my comment on the world we live in, where women are often seen voyeuristically by a majority of men.” It’s in images like these where Mallar ties the cinematic world with a real-life scenario.

In photographs of a tattered curtain resting on a worn out mattress, a prop of a witch lying on a crumpled bed sheet, remnants of burnt posters painted with the famous faces of Raj Kapoor and Nargis, and ruins of a torn-down film set, Mallar continuously revisits her theme of ruined worlds. As Hoskote puts it, “encountering [Mallar’s] protagonists, we recognise them, as well as ourselves, to be transients: creatures of passage afforded a brief leasehold by the cycle of time.” In a long exposure photograph of a run-down building, the theme is put forth rather literally, introducing the viewer to the artist’s thoughts.

Fantasy world

Mallar invites the viewer into her fantastical world with an image of a video game parlour lit by a neon green light emanating from the screen. Photographed on the outskirts of Mumbai in 2014, the parlours barely exist because of stricter piracy laws, and the availability of content on streaming platforms. Right from screening regional language films, cricket, B Grade films, to porn, these parlours once attracted a number of men. Mallar explains, “While photographing there, I’d try to stay completely invisible, and leave after a bit,” much like the characters in her photographs, those who exist in reality, but only in passing.

Transients is ongoing at Art Musings, Colaba until February 10.

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