Visual arts isn’t always the easiest subject to shoot a film on. And Onir — known for work such as the National Award-winning anthology, I Am — hasn’t tried anything along these lines before. But the last year saw the 52-year-old travel across India (tough as it was to do in the middle of a pandemic), to shoot SAMA: Symbols and Gestures in Contemporary Art of Italy and India , Vol 1, an Indo-Italian documentary.
“It isn’t a technical documentary, but a journey of experiencing and understanding the long history of art in the context of nature, culture, tradition,” explains Onir, who scripted it with Italian director Allesandra Galleta. “For me, the beauty is in finding threads that are diverse while having a commonality because that is what humanity is all about.” It is like poetry, he adds, “where you use different languages to convey the same emotion. You see nature, tradition, patterns, forms and colours of, say, Kashmir resonate [with those] in Gujarat, while being different. This has changed the way I see form and design, and will affect the way I shoot films.”
Sama means ‘similar’ in Sanskrit and Latin — making it an apt title for the film and the intention behind it. Steered by cultural producers and curators Myna Mukherjee and Davide Quadrio, the film started as a deeper investigation into sensibilities that were first touched upon by the duo in their 2021 exhibition at Artissima. “I was already collaborating with Davide and it made sense to look at India and Italy because they are at the two ends of an artistic ‘trail’ of Asia and Europe,” says Mukherjee. “The artists we interviewed are in constant conversation with the very new and very old, and both countries have a long history of aesthetics that draw upon classical traditions and bring them in dialogue with contemporary styles.”
The 70-minute film — commissioned and produced by ArtHub Asia and Engendered — was screened a little over a month ago for a select audience at the Italian Cultural Institute in New Delhi. As the audience tracked the slow movement of a shikara across Kashmir’s Dal Lake, the rising waters of Venice, the vigorous performance of an Italian dance troupe cut by a shot of an impassioned Bengali Baul singer, they also entered the quiet studios of artists in India and Italy, talking about their work and their process: from Italian glass sculptures to gorgeously painted Indian contemporary canvases, helping them connect the dots that is our cultural inheritance.
“I have always been interested in the arts, but since I left Kolkata and [moved to] Mumbai to work in Bollywood, I lost touch with it,” shares Onir. “So, when Myna got in touch with me for this project, I immediately said yes. It was a way of exploring different art forms, meeting artists, and travelling.”
A collective whole
The film lends context to Indo-Italian contemporary art by investigating the semiotics (study of signs and symbols) surrounding them in history and culture. “ SAMA allows the audience to glimpse the aesthetics of the two regions, imagined as a collective continuum of different narratives that echo artists’ voices across continents and heterogeneous contemporary art practices,” says Mukherjee. “They also excavate now-rare and valuable forms of craftsmanship in Italy and India.”
The project involved 50 artists from both countries, and includes names such as photographer-filmmaker Sheba Chhachhi, folk singer Parvathy Baul, multimedia artist Ranbir Kaleka, designer Andrea Anastasio, artist-choreographer Alessandro Sciaronni, and artists Rekha Rodwittiya, Marzia Migliora, Stefano Arienti, and Tanya Goel.
Onir will begin shooting volume two in July/August, with the second film concentrating on abstraction, religion and how it encounters arts and aesthetics. Meanwhile, SAMA will travel to global film festivals, before releasing on an OTT platform.