Atul Dodiya with his painting, Shanti Moving House, at Chemould Prescott, Mumbai (Photo: Shreya Wankhede)
WHEN THE ARTIST Atul Dodiya was growing up in the working-class neighbourhood of Ghatkopar in Mumbai, his home, and much of the neighbourhood, was obsessed with the movies. He describes his mother as a movie buff. His father almost always had the radio turned on, often to film songs, and one of Dodiya’s distinct memories is listening to Ameen Sayani on the popular show Binaca Geetmala. Television had just entered the locality, and much of the neighbourhood would descend into these homes. His sisters—five of them—would drag him to the theatres for the latest movies. And some of the earliest admirers of his artwork were his sisters’ female friends. In an attempt to impress them, the young artist would present sketches of their crush, the-then superstar Rajesh Khanna.
Films so consumed Dodiya back then, that when he neared the completion of his schooling, he briefly considered a career in filmmaking. “But I soon realised that films required team work, that it was an expensive medium, took months to complete, and involved a lot of technicalities from editing, sound recording, cinematography and all that,” he says. “With painting, an individual could just sit in a corner with a notebook, and that was sufficient.”
Dodiya went on to pursue a fine arts degree at JJ School of Art in Mumbai, and has since gone on to become one of India’s most distinguished contemporary artists. But he has always retained an interest in cinema, both as a medium in itself and one he can explore in his own artworks.
In his latest exhibition, Dr Banerjee in Dr Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and Other Paintings 2020-2022, Dodiya furthers this interest. He reproduces on canvas, snippets from a few of the most popular movies of the late 1950s to early 1970s, and featuring some of the biggest stars of that era. Each of these 24 works, drenched in colour, on display at the gallery Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, evokes both nostalgia and mystery. The viewer cannot know them completely, as the characters have their backs turned to the viewer.
Dodiya worked on these pieces over the last couple of years. But he has for long nurtured his interest in reproducing these moments. “What happened was that for the last six or seven years, when I was watching movies at home, whenever someone called on the phone, or rang my doorbell, I would pause the film with my remote. When I came back, I started noticing those paused images. The visual would appear strange, sometimes it would be shaky, or a person would only be partly seen. When you pause at random, you can get anything. I found this very interesting,” he says. “So I started taking pictures of these scenes and saving them on my phone. Not for any purpose but just because I enjoyed them as images.”
When the pandemic struck, like many who were forced indoors, he began to watch more movies, particularly those from his early youth— made by Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray, Hrishikesh Mukherjee. But this time, he took screenshots of the scenes that caught his fancy on his phone. Sometimes he would pause the film to take a picture of that scene. Other times he would take screenshots as the film played, almost randomly. And then being led by his readings of movies of that era, and its stars and filmmakers—occasionally even going down the rabbit hole of YouTube movie recommendations— Dodiya began to navigate the movies of this period. He soon turned so compulsive, he says, that he found himself hunting for scenes that he could take images of and download on his phone instead of watching the film itself.
He re-watched these movies for another reason as well. Back in 2019, Dodiya received a private commission to do artwork for a newly built house on Carter Road in Mumbai. This house had come up where Rajesh Khanna’s iconic bungalow Aashirwad had once stood. The new owner had pulled down the old bungalow after purchasing it, and built a new house on that space. “I suggested why don’t we do something very specific with Rajesh Khanna as the main focus since the house (once) belonged to the superstar, and also because I was a big fan of his,” Dodiya recalls. It turned out that the new owner was a fan too, and he readily agreed.
Dodiya re-watched the late superstar’s old films to firm up his ideas for this new commission. And slowly an idea for a new series of paintings began to emerge.
Dodiya has, what he calls, a love-hate relationship with movies. He enjoyed popular Hindi movies as a child, but as he got exposed to more regional and international cinema growing up, he became frustrated with the limitations of Hindi movies. Films however have been constantly appearing in some form or the other throughout his career. Back in 1994, for instance, he did a self-portrait titled, The Bombay Buccaneer inspired by the poster of the film Baazigar (1993). A few years ago, he did an entire show where he took a pivotal scene of about seven minutes from the Alfred Hitchcock film Blackmail (1929) and recreated that dramatic moment as artworks. By his own estimate, he must have done over 120 works that reference movies in some way.
CATCHING DODIYA, 64, just a day before he flies to Paris—where he will be speaking at an event on the late artist SH Raza— he sounds tired on the phone. He has been laid low by a flu for over a week. “There have been just so many events over the last few days,” he says. “What I need is rest, but that’s not happened.” But Dodiya soldiers on with the interview, despite the fatigue, muffling the occasional cough, to explain what he was trying to do.
When Dodiya began working on these paintings, his idea was to treat these visuals in the way black-and-white photographs used to be hand-painted in the early part of the 20th century. So after capturing these images on the phone, he explains, he would transfer them on to a computer, and then project the selected ones onto a canvas. He then began painting the entire scene as a black-and-white photograph, even those from colour films, and only later added colour to them. “That way my own imagination about colour, about what kind of background it should be, how loud or subtle, all of that would come in,” he says.
To view the exhibition is to be immersed in both the familiar and the mysterious. You may recognise certain figures in their gait or the turn of their heads, for instance Rajesh Khanna in some paintings, and you will recognise Amitabh Bachchan in one painting from Anand, but otherwise the figures remain with their backs to us. Dodiya had decided right at the outset that he would hide the faces of the actors. “It was very important for me that a viewer did not recognise, say, a Sharmila Tagore, a Waheeda Rehman or Rajesh Khanna,” he says. “I wanted the viewer to just see a man, or a woman or a housewife or whatever in an interior space. That way you get more engaged as a viewer.”
These scenes, frozen abruptly this way, thrum with suggestions that were not part of their original films. The exhibition seems to invite viewers to take these visuals out of the context of their films. Two paintings for instance are placed side by side. In one, the figure of Rajesh Khanna walks out of the room seemingly in a huff, and in the other, Amitabh Bachchan carefully descends a flight of stairs, both from the film Anand. Their juxtaposition seems to suggest the moment of the departure of an old star and the arrival of a new one. Another painting titled, Renu after the Act, where a woman in dim light appears to be fixing her night dress, is hung beside another where a man who appears to be in distress carries something torn in his hands, while a woman watches on. Could this be a suggestion about adultery and a failing marriage? Frozen this way and removed from the film’s narrative, it is entirely up to the viewer to decide.
“It was very important for me that a viewer did not recognise, say a Sharmila Tagore, a Waheeda Rehman or Rajesh Khanna. I wanted the viewer to just see a man, or a woman or a housewife. That way you get more engaged as a viewer” Atul Dodiya, artist
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There are also differences in the way men and women are depicted, hinting perhaps at the different kinds of roles they performed in the films of this era. Men seem to carry an air of insouciance, with their long strides, hands in their pockets, and perhaps a whistle on their lips. Women by comparison seem contemplative, even meditative. In one painting, a woman watches almost apprehensively as her husband, hands in pocket, walks out of the room. In another, a woman holds a doorknob as if wondering whether to leave the private space of her bedroom to enter the common room outside.
Then there are moments, which as viewers of these films (such as Kaagaz ke Phool, Awaara, Ittefaq) we missed—or were perhaps never meant to notice— but which, frozen here, take on a life of their own. The scene of the character of Isabhai Suratwala played by Johnny Walker breaking down in Anand, which lasts no more than a few seconds in the film, here, as a painting, looms larger than life, the flamboyance of his gestures dominating the rest of the exhibition.
Every scene interestingly is set indoors. And here the kitschy representations of middle-class life and the bright sets of that era come alive, from homes with gaudy colours to the placement of random objects like water bottles, clocks, hats and photographs, and flower vases that keep showing up. In one painting, a man is carrying a blue bag with a Lufthansa logo, while on the wall, the skin of a tiger has been pinned as part of the decor. In another, a woman dries her hair in a bedroom, but strangely atop a high cupboard, there is a flower vase.
Dodiya chose such indoor scenes, he says, because he was interested in the artificiality of the film set. “When I was working on the show, I realised that more than the actor, I was interested in the background, which is all interior sets, full of furniture, and diverse sorts of things,” he says. “I wanted the mishmash of furniture, the way things were put together, the dramatic light used, the garish green, blue or pink walls. I had a lot of area to play with in terms or colour, and the objects seen. In a natural setting outdoors, I wouldn’t have that.”
A certain level of abstraction, Dodiya says, was always a part of this project. And that is what interested him. “I mean there is a person who is acting, in an (artificial) set, for somebody who has said something like, ‘Okay, now act.’ And then I have come in, paused a certain moment, and chosen to make a painting of it,” he says.
(Dr Banerjee in Dr Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and Other Paintings 2020-2022 by Atul Dodiya runs at Chemould Prescott Road till February 25)
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Return to Greatness Zakia Soman
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