top of page

A forgotten legacy: Cinema through the eyes of a painter by Khalid Mohamed

(An ink sketch of Gaja Gamini by MF Husain)

To begin with an analogy, the art of music did not arise as soon as man learned how to create pleasing sounds. It was necessary to arrange those sounds into scales, to organize them into harmonic systems, and to devise appropriate musical forms for them.

Similarly, the art of poetry required more than the mere existence of a list of words. These words had to be arranged according to rules of grammar and organized into intelligible literary structures.

When the poet writes an epic, his words must be capable of telling a story. And when he writes a sonnet, the words must fall into specific rhyme schemes and structural patterns.

One of India’s iconic artists, Maqbool Fida Husain aka M.F. Husain (1915-2011) had thought about the art of cinema in a similar way, spontaneously and with an ingrained sensitivity to a form which is as visual as it is aural and sensory. His cinema asserted that this medium requires more than the mere ability to make moving pictures of reality. Indeed, it requires much more than the sterile discovery of prime components such as cinematography, editing, sets and sound design.

But what is this much more? What is it that transforms a technical ability into film art? The answer: It is above all, an individualistic vision and an intuitive heart followed by a rigour which can master the mechanics, besides interweaving pieces of film into larger units – first the scene, then the sequence, and then the complete film.

Clearly, Husain possessed this fluid, self-taught ability to integrate the camera’s total range of shots, from extreme close-up to distant panorama. His grasp over marrying form to content was young, inventive and original. I emphasize the form or the technique, at the outset, because he had not studied film craft formally or even observed filmmakers at work for a substantial length of time. His filmmaking had his own signature, the kind which he executed with a satisfied flourish on completing a canvas.

More than any other art, film is still technologically determined. Music, dance, drawing, painting, sculpture, literature, even architecture need for their rudimentary forms either no materials --or materials lying everywhere at hand. But cinema cannot begin without laboriously invented and precisely constructed equipment. The history of film is the history of the invention of its means.

Aestheticians of the cinema may often be differentiated by how they react to various aspects of its lenses and emulsions, the conditions of production, the style of direction and even marketing or the cumbersome process of getting a film before the public. Wonderfully, Husain’s significant film oeuvre was unencumbered by any signs of labour or effort. Or even market diktats. There was no awkwardness or even a visible transition from the paint and brush to the camera lens. It happened.

Like his art, his cinema was bravely free of compromises or any genuflection to the fads and trends of the time. Today, special effects and techno-flash tricks may be the calling card of cinema. Gratifyingly, this artist did not feel any obligation to take that showy FX route. Yet he achieved visuals which were astonishingly imaginative. His close encounters with the film camera are not of the Steven Spielberg inter-planetary kind, rather they are close encounters of the artistically independent kind.

Take Husain’s first encounter with filmmaking, back in 1966. Titled Through the Eyes of a Painter (1967), here was a 15-minute black-and-white documentary commissioned by India’s government-controlled Films Division. In a bid to raise the bar of documentaries, which were mostly propagandist or to put it plainly, boring, Films Division had been asked by the government to recruit artists – artists who could give their singular-minded take to the documentary medium.

The artist presented his take on Rajasthan, the royal desert state, firmly avoiding the conventional images of grand palaces, shimmering lakeside tourist hotels, camel caravanserais and local women bedecked in earthy colour clothes. Rather the vivid black-and-white shots of objects like an umbrella, lantern, a shoe, birds, frescoes, paintings of animals and occasional human forms conveyed the enigma, the beauty and even in a sense the colors of Rajasthan.

Paper kites, skulls, the lantern --these are images which featured recurrently on his paintings as well. The flute music by Vijaya Raghava Rao enhanced the documentary’s spirit, indicating that Husain could entice that essential teamwork spirit of filmmaking. The music, the rhythmic editing, the burnished black-and-white camerawork, added up to a groundbreaking film which spoke eloquently – believe it or not without a word of dialogue or commentary.

Unintentionally but with exactitude Husain had made a work which was in consonance with the ideals of the great documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty. According to Flaherty the elementary demands of a documentary include the observation of natural material on its actual locations, from which the theme then arises naturally.

Flaherty had also stated that an interpretation of that material was a must to bring it alive as reality on the screen. This can be obtained only by an understanding “from the inside” of such material and its relationships. Husain offered that understanding.. as well as the inclusion of a non-fictional, narrative. He communicated the daily routine of Rajasthan’s life, as evidenced through the eyes of a humanist painter.

(Through the Eyes of a Painter)

Ironically the powers-that-rule at Films Division thumbed down the result, terming it as too abstract, off-the-point and vague. This attitude which persists, decades later, is typical of those who believe in mediocrity and the conventional. Change, in other words, threatens. Not to be fazed, Husain did not bow down to the pressures of altering his vision.

Cleared after much hair-splitting and mandatory controversy, Through the Eyes of a Painter was awarded the topmost Golden Bear prize at the Berlin film festival. The artist’s earlier years as a painter of film hoardings are key, of course, to his unwavering passion for cinema. Recreating the delicate as well as the feisty heroines on mammoth-sized hoardings in the 1930s and ‘40s– in vibrant colours even during the black-and-white era – drew him close permanently to the close-up, a device which he has used more frequently in his cinema than in his paintings – which more often than not tend to be mid-shots.

Cinema, by its very nature, deals with human beings, attractive human beings largely. The root of art, after all, is a human being. Facial expression is more subjective than even speech. In fact, vocabulary and grammar are subject to more or less universally valid rules and conventions. On the other hand, the play of facial features is ungoverned by objective canons. Feelings, emotions, moods, attitudes, thoughts can be immediately perceived through a great close-up.

Gaja Gamini, released in the year 2000, literally means The Stride of an Elephant. In my view, Husain’s first feature film was his most accomplished cinematic work. Here close-ups brought us close to the hearts and minds of his people, an assembly of contemporary as well as classical characters. Dedicated to his mother, who passed away when Husain was but just an infant, the film besides discussing issues such as the clash or the commonalty between art and science. As significantly, here is a personal, extremely eloquent and multi-layered tribute to woman shakti.

The woman has multiple avatars as the mother, the beloved and procreator. She emerges, as it were, from a metaphorical black brick wall of Pandharpur, the smalltown where Husain was born. The wall is not a dividing block but allies two diverse spaces and antagonistic eras – the traditional and the modern.

As the woman moves forward -- depicted excellently in a sequence with her striding ahead with other lantern-carrying women in the indigo blue of the midnight sky -- she leaves her chains and societal prejudices behind. She is seen as four different characters – Sangita a blind songstress, Shakuntala the subject of Kalidas’s monumental epic, Monica a ‘today woman’ who can out-smart the most charismatic of men, and as Mona Lisa wandering through the Louvre.

The film presented Madhuri Dixit with an unconcealed obsession. She was Husain's muse He saw her in the epitome of Indian beauty in the film Hum Aapke Hain..Koun..! (1994) And he went on to preserve his regard for beauty for posterity with Gaja Gamini, photographed ravishingly by Ashok Mehta.

He did this the way an artist unveils his painting, with drama and tension. The film’s viewers have to wait for over 20 minutes before they see the real Madhuri Dixit. Before that her full figure moves with her back to the camera, and at a point, even performs a dance number with four other women. It’s as if Husain is asking – go on, now tell me what’s real and what’s ethereal?

Madhuri’s close-ups, the opening black-and-white prologue, the painterly studio sets (particularly of the Varanasi ghats and the Kerala forests) and the poetic dialogue are still spectacular. Gaja Gamini, in fact, merits repeated viewings to fully relish the artist’s discourse on the inevitable coming together of our yesterdays and todays.

(Gaja Gamini opening dance sequence)

Decades ago, the film had presciently emphasized that the internet age is here. Technology which facilitates – business and the establishment of conglomerates cannot be ignored or wished away -- it has to be assimilated for economic progress. Art, however, he suggested, is free of the zones created by the advance of time. Not surprisingly, then, Husain cinema like his art, can be alternately classic as well as immediately topical.

His second feature film, Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities (2004) lensed evocatively by Santosh Sivan, was an ode to the cities. Hyderabad, Jaisalmer in Rajasthan, and Prague. It was as much an unconditional salute to womanhood, who like Gaja Gamini assumes plural personalities. She is a tantalizing Muse, a social activist and a Prague café waitress who resides in a nunnery besides giving herself to the demands of theatre acting. It becomes apparent that here are women whom Husain had known personally and admired.

Unbeknownst to many, Husain was a writer of poems, lyrics and essays through which he caught the currents of the world around him. In Meenaxi, his male protagonist, a bestselling wordsmith, is afflicted by the writer’s block, the dilemma suffered by every creative person at some point or the other in his or her life.

On screen, the writer portrayed by Raghuvir Yadav, is criticized mercilessly by his Muse, he seeks inspiration consistently from her but cannot meet her demands for a story that goes beyond the realm of the ordinary. Meanwhile, the media and his publisher breathe down his neck for the ‘masterpiece’ which he knows he cannot deliver under pressure.

The writer travels, journeys into situations – imagined and corporeal – but it is the woman, his material, who won’t allow him to plunge into the abyss of mediocrity. It’s better to die than to be dishonest to oneself, a point that serves as the leitmotif of the film which like Gaja Gamini calls for repeated viewings. Every time it yields new signs, new meanings.

Technically, Meenaxi is stupendous, especially for its dynamic use of colors, free form choreography and a mise-en-scene that soars like an eagle to periodically alight on the foibles of the shifting ensemble of characters. The writer Nawab is contrasted with an impetuous car mechanic. Each has a particular talent but both are similar in their state of alienation from social norms. The writer is expected to deliver pages at the push of a button, the car mechanic must repair jalopies, although he would like to become a musician.

(Chinnamma Chilakkamma from Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities)

Again, Husain’s close-ups of Meenaxi – portrayed with a mystical edge by Tabu – are remarkable for using the face as a landscape of latent emotions which surface before the eye of the probing camera. It is rare for any director to focus on an eye but when it is done here, we are one with the inner soul of his people, as likeable for their little flaws as for their abundant moral rectitude.

Music was another forte of Husain. In Meenaxi, he tapped the genius of A.R. Rahman to extract a soundtrack that has a Sufi resonance. Noor-un-Allah, a lyric written by Husain himself, asserted that he could always initiate an alternative career as a writer of verses which are as poetic as they are epistles to the glory of the Almighty.

Husain’s cinema cannot be slotted into any one recognisable genre of cinema. His cinema, above all, is an extension of his art. He would consider filmmaking as the most complete of all the art forms evidently because he could create something that was contemporary, of the moment and evolutionary.

Before him Salvador Dali had collaborated with Luis Bunuel in creating surreal vignettes. Jean Cocteau saw cinema as much a part of his raison d’etre as his art. Pablo Picasso’s brush with cinema was in the form of opening in an unusual interview before the camera -- wielded by the French auteur Henry-Georges Clouzot.

There are several short films which he had rescued from his storerooms and which could be seen on DVDs if any curator took the trouble to locate them. These shorts are documenting moments as well as chronicling the zeitgeist around him. Certainly, these short films require widespread exposure and analyses.

M. F. Husain had been nurturing a long-standing dream

of making an unbridled, Buster Keatonesque comedy. That’s one genre he had been drawn to, but unfortunately could not realize, since he had to flee India – after a controversy raised by right-wing forces about some of his paintings. He had little or no option but to accept the citizenship of Qatar conferred on him.

Undaunted though, he would long to return to India some day. He had bought a range of film cameras and would chuckle that his next film would be shot, or etched and painted, by himself. He passed away at the age of 95 in London, with that dream of one more film in his heart.

Khalid Mohamed is a film critic, screenwriter and director.

286 views0 comments
bottom of page