The official definition of the word rowdy is a ‘noisy and disorderly person’. But a rowdy in Bengaluru-based British photographer Clare Arni’s world could be anybody or anything. From a brothel owner to the butterfly effect, the choices that fit your idea of what a rowdy could be are endlessly exciting. In her third solo show at Tarq, titled ‘Notorious Rowdies’, Arni invites her friends and family to reinterpret the term for themselves and then enact their findings out for her camera.
What we get as a result is a variety of colourful portraits, each with a narrative of its own.
What started out as a “purely personal experiment”, when Arni stumbled across interesting ‘rowdy’ characters in the crime section of newspapers, ended up as an elaborate photography project.
“They’re all friends and family, yes. So there is an amount of trust… because in a way it’s a sort of a whole cathartic experience, being a rowdy. It’s not just an image,” says Arni. “These people transform… and it almost releases something within [them]. That was what was so interesting about it.”
She explains how the process is extremely “collaborative” as the rapport between the photographer and subject plays an important role in what the final image looks like. If the subject isn’t comfortable enough to bare all, emotionally and mentally, the frame will be weak and bland.
Catwoman on the prowl
It’s a show where the more you know about each portrait, the more layered it gets. A closer look and the nuances come through. An expression or a gaze, a certain turn of the wrist, all moments caught at the exact fraction that make a photograph.
Arni’s sister, Oriole Henry, whose rowdy persona is Greek goddess Fury, has four images. She recollects how she “…didn’t really know what to do, because I’m not a rowdy,” but she confesses it was strangely
liberating. “I was thinking… it should sell as therapy!” She poses a part that is a complete antithesis to her normal self where psychotic Gothic grunge meets ladylike, gentle and polite.
Since none of her subjects is a professional actor, the direction and guidance of body behaviour and angles usually came from Arni. The shoot normally went into hours and it was only when the subject came into her own that they “started to play”, as Henry puts it, acting out the stories in their heads.
Henry’s outdoor shots show her walking the streets at night, owning them in a way and at an hour that “as a woman” made her feel “liberated.” Arni’s rowdies are not all black and white. They’re also the good guys who take to crime for vengeance and to fight for justice à la Batman or in, Henry’s case, Catwoman.
This is reflected again in Arni’s image of the man in the black cape, re-enacting Zorro, from the Mask of Zorro fame. Shot within the stunning white arches of Tipu Sultan’s palace in Mysore, one realises how the spaces used — the forests, the abandoned, semi-collapsed homes, the traditional mud-pits of Bengaluru’s old quarters, an old dilapidated factory — are important to how Arni lets her rowdies unravel their fantasies.
Besides the locale, Arni draws inspiration for this series from the aesthetic of the garish movie poster that one can find in not just Bengaluru’s but in all of India’s streets. Action-packed and in your face, the actors in these posters jump out at the viewer with no room for subtleties. Her series on the madam who runs a brothel, the munshiji counting money, and the pimp bring out the flashy tackiness of the film
Patrick Wilson, who plays the role of the madam, is unrecognisable in this female avatar. Arni reminisces how he took longer than most women would to get dressed, diligently painting his finger and
toenails, making sure he got a bit of the lipstick on his teeth as well. “You get so caught up in your own play,” says Wilson, referring to how he forgot the make-up and almost answered the doorbell at home before stopping midway and saving his food delivery guy from what would have clearly been a rude shock.
The only giveaway, for lack of a touch-up, was the bit of green stubble. “It’s part of the whole thing… you don’t want to completely pretend. It has to have artifice about it… that’s the idea,” says Wilson.
The idea behind keeping the shoot basic and functional, so that there is a certain connect with reality, was also in a way to question what is real and what is not. Or how much of yourself you retain while playing another.
All about the journey
Hence, at the same time questioning pretence versus reality or truth. The process of arriving at end results was probably not as important as the journey getting there.
It was a journey where the photographer was part director, part observer and sometimes also participant. Because photographers work alone most of the time, a team project like this, where you are required to lean on and learn from one another, comes as a welcome change.
The demands of a photo project like this do not end at location scouting or convincing friends to play their roles but go deeper into production logistics. Arni had to hunt for props from local markets. From costumes to weapons like the ‘long’, a sword-like object made from a car’s chassis (and a popular item with rowdies of the area), Arni found a way to acquire them all.
Her dedication was paralleled by her rowdies, people like writer Zac O’Yeah and Vinayak Varma, the CEO of mixtape.in, who got so swayed by their roles that she feared they might actually end up causing grievous injury to one another while playing their parts in the mud-pit.
Just as her characters who created entire imagined stories from scratch with just an inkling of what their inner rowdy was like, Arni is eager to know what contexts the viewers can spin around these vivid frames.
“Perhaps there’s a latent rowdy in each of us, wanting to be released,” she says. The show in a sense hopes that we will “search within ourselves” and push our hidden rowdies to the front, even if in only imaging their tales of adventure and debauchery.
On Show ‘Notorious Rowdies’ till October 21, Tarq, Colaba, Mumbai
The author is an independent photographer-cum-writer based in Mumbai.