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Screen + Sound + Stage
July 23, 2014

Art-Stopping Moments

Text by Shashi Baliga

Proactive paintings, poignant artworks and pivotal canvases. Verve looks at the role of family portraits in the movies

  • Lootera
    Lootera
  • Dhobi Ghat
    Dhobi Ghat
  • Jaane Tu Ya Jaane Na
    Jaane Tu... Ya Jaane Na
  • Taare Zamen Par
    Taare Zameen Par

The artistic life is not a particularly popular theme in Hindi cinema (why are you not surprised?). Bollywood doesn’t believe in art for art’s sake. In Hindi films, a painting (unlike our leading ladies) can’t do an item number; it has to serve a deep, meaningful purpose. It has to have a role to play – which means it has to do serious stuff like fell a villain, haul a ghost out of the woodwork, bring estranged lovers together, help keep the heroine from dying or make a man of a dithering son. As the starlet with a two-minute appearance would say, it has a ‘crucial role’. So, all you high-brow collectors, stop accusing Bollywood of not taking its art seriously. These films definitely didn’t.

Suryavanshi: Mighty strokes
If you’re one of those connoisseurs of filmi kitsch who can spot a masterpiece amidst the dross, you will acknowledge the importance that Sushma Seth’s portrait plays in this cult classic. For those who are floundering here, this is a painting that can only be described as proactive. Like the dog in Hum Aapke Hain Koun! or the elephant in Haathi Meri Saathi, it knows a villain when it sees one. Thus, in the climax, set in an underground hideout, when Amrita Singh, a bejewelled, besotted bitch, tries to bump off the competition aka the heroine (Sheeba), the painting strikes. Literally! It zooms off a crumbling wall and, like a military drone finding its target, lands strategically on Singh’s arm before she can perpetrate the foul deed. An evil spell is broken, the heroine and the hero are saved, and they climb out of the cave swearing eternal love. I’ve spared you the details, but do take my word for it: such climaxes are the stuff of legends. Oh, did I forget to tell you the hero the girls are fighting over is a bare-chested, golden-haired Salman Khan?

Bhool Bhulaiyya: The ghost in the room
Look closely at the Bhool Bhulaiyya poster. Behind the line-up of stars in the fuzzy background, is a painting. Peer even closer and you will see that it’s a portrait of a certain dancer of yore – Manjulika, whose ghost now haunts a picturesque ancestral haveli (but of course).

To cut a spooky story short, a young bahu (Vidya Balan) enters a forbidden room in which she finds Manjulika’s portrait among other assorted belongings and gets possessed by her ghost. Balan thereby gets to do some rip-roaring scenes of a woman possessed, complete with guttural screams, murderous eyes and crazed hair. From there to the climax is a long haul with plenty of midnight noises and blood-curdling cries – nothing like a ghost to pep up a screenplay.

Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na: The walking, talking picture
Like Suryavanshi, Jaane Tu…Ya Jaane Na believes in being proactive. Only, in this movie, it’s not the portrait but the man in it, the late Amar Singh Rathore (Naseeruddin Shah) who springs out of the frame and the after-life to make a fighter of his mild-mannered, nonviolent son, Jai, which he does at various points by giving his wife Savitri (Ratna Pathak Shah) unheeded advice. So much smarter than staying put on the wall and being choked by the ubiquitous agarbatti smoke and syrupy beseechments from wives and wayward sons, don’t you think?

Lootera: The leaf of life
Lootera was a quiet whisper of a movie, unhurried and underplayed. Not your typical masala movie. But some traditions don’t change. So the art plays a part – from the beginning of the romance between Pakhi (Sonakshi Sinha) and Varun (Ranveer Singh) right up to the very end. It begins with Pakhi teaching Varun to paint. Years later, as Pakhi lies dying, a tree outside her window snowed under in a harsh winter and shedding its leaves, becomes a symbol of her own mortality. Pakhi believes that when its last leaf falls, she will, too. But Varun, determined to not let that happen, paints a leaf and pins it firmly to the tree. It becomes Pakhi’s last hope and makes for a poignant ending to a delicate love story.

Dil Chahta Hai: Brush with romance
It’s that rare thing in Hindi films – a tender love story between a young man and an older woman. He’s a painter; she has a sorrow-tinged beauty. May I paint your portrait, he asks her. She says yes, he rushes to get his colours and brushes, but she’s gone by the time he returns. Then, one day, he finds her standing before him, ready. He paints her, they sing a song (how could they not), and love blooms. What was the portrait like, did you ask? Shades of ochre and brown, broad brushstrokes, and an intense Dimple Kapadia.

Dhobi Ghat: Different hues
Aamir Khan seems to have a cinematic soft spot for painters — he’s played an artist in three movies — Dhobi Ghat, Mann and Taare Zameen Par. In Dhobi Ghat, as Arun the painter, who is a loner, it’s his art that brings him and photographer Shai (Monica Dogra) together. Painting and art pop up all through the movie. Shai mentions that her mother is an avid collector (“We’re running short of walls at home”). Every now and then you see Arun mixing some colours, daubing some thick blobs of paint on a canvas. His fingers are invariably paint-stained, he has an exhibition, he’s working on a project – but you never actually see a painting up close and colourful till the end – and even then it’s for a few moments. Strange,  especially since artists Jitish and Reena Kallat feature in the acknowledgements. Oh well, never mind, at least it’s an artistic movie.

Mann: The tragic artist
In Mann, there’s no such coyness. We get a clear, unobstructed dekko at the all-important painting – one of Manisha Koirala sitting at the lotus feet of a (badly) ageing and greying Sharmila Tagore who, as a daadi maa, wears the regulation drab colours and a sickly smile. It’s a painting that the artist Dev Karan Varma (Aamir Khan) has sworn not to sell because it captures a precious moment between his grandma and his lost love Priya (Manisha). But when his manager tells him a physically challenged girl has fallen in love with the painting, he gives it away to her – without bothering to meet her. A true Hindi film buff will realise instantly that the girl could be none other than Priya. When Dev finally tracks her down, it’s the painting that finally clinches the deal. What greater purpose could art have than to bring two pining lovers together?

Taare Zameen Par: Colour therapy
The colours take on a life of their own as they swirl, blend and merge on the canvas. And a painting takes shape: a little boy sitting all by himself on a river bank, watching the fish swim by, his frail body speaking of a deep loneliness. It’s the painting drawn for a competition by troubled, dyslexic Ishaan (Darsheel Safary), encouraged by his art teacher Nikhumb Sir (Aamir Khan). When Ishaan submits it he notices that his teacher has drawn a colour-filled joyful, carefree portrait of him. It’s a vision of the happy child waiting to break out of the introverted boy that Ishaan has become. And it breaks the last barrier between the unhappy young boy and his mentor in one of the movie’s many moving scenes. Taare Zameen Par is one film that uses art organically, sensitively and ultimately, therapeutically. And it also features a painter, Lalitha Lajmi, playing herself as the judge of the painting competition. It has the trappings of a mainstream Hindi movie, but that said, you couldn’t really fault this one!

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