Atul Dodiya: The cinema that made me

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The artist reveals how he almost became a filmmaker and how he continues to be inspired by the moving medium

Dodiya’s Charu
Dodiya’s Charu

Unmerry Monarch

Dodiya’s Portrait of a Dealer - I
Dodiya’s Portrait of a Dealer – I

Bindu (after Raza)

Dodiya’s No Studies, No Keeping Count

BEFORE JOINING art school in 1977, I was in a dilemma over whether I should opt for painting or films, as they were both intense passions. Gradually, I felt I should paint and draw. Sometimes, while watching a movie I’d write my own scene of the sequence I’d be watching. Cinema is a complete medium — it includes moving image, sound, acting, storylines, a timeline — and I get totally involved in it. For me, as a painter, my viewers are extremely important, just as the audience is to a filmmaker. When I started painting figures and portraits of my friends and family, it was like creating a character on a picture plain. I felt I knew their nature, their specific locations and the things they did and didn’t do. It wasn’t just visual, there was either a hidden or an obvious narrative with which I was playing. I care about how and what people see and don’t see in my painting. My work gives certain clues to my viewers that they recognise, and often they are puzzled by the complex juxtaposition of the specific images.

Today, my art practice has changed from what it was 25 years ago. Art from the West has influenced me immensely. Now every time I paint, I choose a different theme. Every work is rendered in different materials according to its content. When I expand the scale of my paintings, I need to have a profound reason to do so. It can’t simply be to impress the viewer. I’ve understood that an artist has to have a control over his medium. Masters like Fellini, Ray and Kurosawa had a profound grip over their medium. One can’t only work with passion in cinema or painting; one needs to know the hard realities and the technical aspects.

I WAS BORN in 1959, the year Satyajit Ray made Apur Sansar. I’ve always loved cinema. My early days were full of movies. My mother was a film buff, a great fan of Dilip Kumar and Talat Mahmood. She’s 80 and still enjoys them. My father would talk of the earlier generation like KL Saigal, of films like the superhit Kismat with Ashok Kumar — he saw it 18 or 19 times. I was familiar with early Hindi film stars like Dev Anand, Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and, later, Rajendra Kumar, Dharmendra and Manoj Kumar. I have vivid memories of being taken to watch Aradhana in 1969. Among the comedians, I really enjoyed Johnny Walker and Mehmood. I don’t remember how many times I’ve seen Padosan, while being scolded by my mother. She preferred serious cinema. Today, I argue with people that Saira Banu’s brilliance is underestimated in Padosan.

I still love the old Bollywood villains. In fact, I’m doing a big series of iconic villains from Pran to Prem Chopra, Madan Puri, Jeevan, Kanhaiya Lal, Gulshan Grover and others. These villains were one of the things I enjoyed the most in Hindi cinema. Contemporary Hindi cinema is getting more realistic, possibly better made too. But I miss the wonderfully stylised and memorable villains of old Hindi cinema. I also miss the music from the 1950s and ’60s. There’s no comparison with the music of that golden period. I’m a great fan of Mohammad Rafi and Geeta Dutt. This is the music I listen to while painting.

As a kid, I used to draw a lot and create portraits of film stars. I could achieve a likeness with realism. My sister and her friends were great fans of Rajesh Khanna and I’d impress them by drawing his portraits. That’s how it started. By the time I was in Class 6, I was clear I wanted to be a painter. This was 1969, and I was drawing and painting like I was possessed. There was simply nothing else for me. Then, cinema and literature came. I was reading mostly Gujarati poets, and soon the new wave of Hindi cinema came with Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome. A little later came Duvidha and Uski Roti by Mani Kaul, and Kumar Shahani’s first film Maya Darpan. They had a huge impact on my young mind and inspired me to experiment very differently. However, Satyajit Ray remains my favourite. Bombay Doordarshan was launched in 1972. They’d show regional films every Saturday, plus Hindi films on Sunday. There was a programme called Montage with European films too. I remember one Saturday, Ray’s Nayak was on air. As we all know, the story is about a film star, played by Uttam Kumar, traveling from Calcutta to Delhi by train to receive a national award. Let me tell you a specific scene — during the journey he meets a journalist, played by Sharmila Tagore. They both talk on the way and when the train stops at a remote station, Kumar’s character comes down to drink tea in a kulhad. At that moment, he sees the lady at her window watching him. He lifts his cup a little higher, offering her tea. She shakes her head and says no. That’s it. I felt I’d never seen anything like that shot before. It made a huge impact; I was 13 or 14. It was incredibly life-like, real and human. The tone of the shot, the shades of the evening light, the quality of expressions, and the way the gesture was made — it made me feel as if I was part of the journey.

I admire the aesthetic control Ray exerted on emotion; not too loud or too restrained. There was always the right pitch at the right time. The characters and the Bengalis’ use of English were all so precise. The layouts of the rooms familiarised the viewer with the ambience and timings. Ray started as a commercial artist who studied fine arts at Santiniketan. He could draw well enough to be one of India’s finest painters. I love his sketches and drawings for his film scripts and book jackets, which he designed as a commercial artist in his early days. He had a profound grip over the visuals — from cinematography, tonality, close-up, long shots to the faces. It’s been 35 years since I saw them but I still keep going back to the Apu trilogy, Jalsaghar and Charulata. And every time I’m blown away by the great visual experience. Just before joining art school I joined a film club that gave me an opportunity to see great movies (since video cassettes and DVDs weren’t really available then). In 1991, when I was a French government scholar, Ray’s last film Agantuk was officially released in Paris, though its India release was limited to Calcutta. I was still in Paris when he died. There was enormous media coverage of his genius. I also got to know great French filmmakers like Bresson, Truffaut, Godard, Chabrol. I joined two or three clubs just to see their works.

What happened to cinema in the ’50s and ’60s was fantastic. I admired Fellini and Antonioni in Italy, Bergman in Sweden and Kurosawa in Japan. A retrospective of John Cassavetes in Paris turned out to be a new kind of American cinema that I enjoyed. Generally, we think of American films as typical Hollywood fare. And I enjoyed those too, from James Bond to Clint Eastwood’s Westerns to Al Pacino in The Godfather. Paris gave me the ability to accept and appreciate various art forms. I remember seeing Kieślowski’s films like Camera Buff and his Three Colours trilogy, and realising that cinema is still alive. Much later, I also saw filmmakers like the Spaniard Pedro Almodóvar and the Turkish-German Fatih Akin. From an artistic standpoint I too, like many people, call some films good and some bad. I don’t mind people making categories like an art film and a commercial film because I know the approaches are different. Both commercial and art cinema have their share of good and bad movies. There are various approaches to filmmaking and one should look for good or bad within those approaches. Different artists concentrate on different aspects, so why not accept that?

I wanted to paint Gandhi with irreverence’Artist Atul Dodiya, 52, has been exploring Gandhi for decades. His latest show at Chemould Prescott, Mumbai (on till October 20) returns to the theme with his customary good humour. Bako exists. Imagine consists of 12 paintings and an installation of nine wooden cabinets. Dodiya spoke to Nisha Susan on the phone about Gandhi and the fun he had with this series.

Atul Dodiya
Atul Dodiya

Edited excerpts from the interview

Your text is based on the work of Gujarati poet Labhshankar Thaker. What excited you to work on it for over five years?
I read Thaker’s Bako Chhe in Gujarati and found it fascinating. He calls it fiction, but these are poetic conversations between a boy and Gandhi in the boy’s dreams. Bako is slang for small boy, likechotu. I found these conversations to be easy and simple, as if between a small boy and his grandfather. I had a friend translate it and then spent a lot of time thinking of how to work with it.

How’d it take this form?
The final form is paintings that are mounted on wooden stands like blackboards with written text. I painted dark grey surfaces and smudged white oil sticks to imitate a blackboard. I rejected three full canvases with other fonts, till finally I wrote it with my left hand so that I would be forced to write carefully like we write as children in notebooks. Luckily, I write in straight lines. Then there are images of shadows, leaves and plants not necessarily relevant to the text. More of an abstraction.

How has Gandhi changed for you over the years?
I have been painting Gandhi forever. But in 1997, when they were celebrating 60 years of Independence, it suddenly struck me that Gandhi was everywhere. Every third street is MG Road. Busts. Statues. Notes. But we didn’t have enough of him when we needed him. After Babri Masjid. Or for the massacre in 2002 in Gandhi’s Gujarat. I feel like we can’t afford to forget Gandhi. So in 1999, I painted a series in watercolours, which for me was a medium transfused with purity and spirituality. There is a lot more Gandhi in my oeuvre. But more recently I thought: Enough of so much greatness. I want to paint Gandhi, but with irreverence. In his encounter with this child I feel like they both long for freedom. The child from school and Gandhi from the statues on the crossroads.

Nisha Susan is Features Editor, Tehelka.
nishasusan@tehelka.com

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