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Rang Rasiya is to Raja Ravi Varma’s life and times what the lithograph was to his oeuvre—allowing ‘many eyes’ access to a canvas stretching to what is basically a dissertation on the sacred and profane, high and low art, printing press capitalism, the idea of a separate consciousness and nationalism, whether citizenship equals to freedom of spirit (the colonial judge, the White Man and his transplanted sense of free play could gather what was spiritual in Varma’s work that the local could not). However there are times when this very approach causes Mehta’s project to falter. There is this kitsch calendar art kind of feel to this project; sadly it seems like a reproduction of what could have been really astounding.
Ketan Mehta takes a stale vehicle—an obscenity trial to bring us up to speed on the artist’s journey. Unfortunately the journey is as ho hum as the denouement, a ticking of all boxes. So—discovery of the boy genius, an interchangeable parade of muses (all very Katrina in any of the Veet commercials, with the depilated armpit the 1800s new erogenous zone) the cocky man about town defies the religion/business collective, and the Sophisticated (Androgynous) Woman as the guide, for you know she resists from the arm raised casually over head angpradarshan. Varma for me comes across as a Howard Hughes—artist, stimulus to the freedom struggle and collective identity, enamored by the camera, the moving image, the printing press. For me it was a two hour something rendition of the Devil Wears Prada “cerulean sweater” scene, how Ravi Varma and “high art” trickles down to our nukkad. An episode relating a wily business man’s decision to churn out paan ki dukaan ki shaan prints of certain Varma’s paintings in his trust (that were for Not For Public Viewing) had all the feel of that loathsome character who will make for sale CDs of a leaked MMS.
And that is what we take away from the film—that ‘the more things change the more they are the same’. Lunatic fringe, sensitive lovers who may turn callous when it comes to their art, the gatekeepers at the temple of priveleged art that is for priveleged patrons only. But somehow it is all so hackneyed—by the time they recycle the whiny “But but but look at Khajurao look at Ajanta” I am exasperated for the lack of a fresh argument. I am sorry “India is the Land of Kamasutra” is to the war against prudes what “But but but they are not Muslims. For Islam...” is to discussing the black sheep of political Islam. Sharpen up your act, please.
If film makers can past thin-skinned relatives that insist on whitewashing history and taking out anything that was human about their Dearly Departed, perhaps future projects can be more joyous ushering new debates. Until then, the not so colourful Rang Rasiya has to do.