‘Colours of Passion’, reaching the very Soul of the Mortals
by Elizabeth Menon

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‘Colours of Passion’, reaching the very Soul of the Mortals

“A real film must touch the heart of the audience, and make them feel and think”: a film that does all this and more was screened at the 52nd London Film Festival -- ‘Colours of Passion’, otherwise known as ‘Rang Rasiya’, directed by Ketan Mehta based on the famous Marathi writer Ranjit Desai’s novel, ‘Raja Ravi Varma’, and produced by Deepa Sahi and Anand Mahendroo. It is mainly about the turbulent life and time of Raja Ravi Varma, centered on the obscenity case and how he was dragged through the courts of Bombay in 1898. It is breathtakingly beautiful and one is shown how exquisite the human body can be through the eyes of a painter -- and when that painter happens to be the legendary Raja Ravi Varma from Kerala (1848-1906), there is no need for explanations. It also deals with the restriction on freedom of expression and religious prejudices existed then, and Ketan Mehta brings home the fact that nothing has changed over the years.

Raja Ravi Varma was born at the Kilimanoor Palace in Thiruvananthapuram, where music, painting and other art forms were an integral part of life. He had the opportunity to learn the Tangore style of painting from his uncle, Raja Raja Varma, and oil painting from the European artists who visited Thiruvananthapuram palace. He gradually developed a style of his own combining the Eastern and the Western style of painting. He gave human image and their own identity to the gods and goddesses of Indian mythology. He single handedly brought the gods and goddesses to the masses! His fame came after winning the first prize at the Madras painting exhibition in 1873 and international fame, after winning the painting exhibition in Vienna in the same year. Beauty of his paintings is such that women take it as a compliment, when compared to a Ravi Varma painting!

Raja Ravi Varma and his inspiration in the form of a beautiful Devdasi called Sugandha form the pivot for this exquisite piece of art -- an example of the finest in film making. The film starts with a scene of violence at a recent auction of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, followed by a flashback of the blasphemy charges and the court case in 1898, intermingled with events in his life spanning over thirty years -- about his life in Kilimanoor and Trivandrum Palaces, marriage to the princess Bhageerathi Bayi, how he jumps to life with a paintbrush at the sight of something beautiful, how he and his brother travel all over India absorbing the exotic scenes, his auspicious meeting with the King of Baroda, and then back to his turbulent life in Bombay. Randeep acts as Ravi Varma over a wide span of 30 years with such ease that one felt like being taken to the time when Ravi Varma was facing the court – this shows the depth of his acting, having the ability to become that person and not merely acting the part. I have witnessed the great Kathakali legend Kalamantalam Padmanabhan Nair transforming on stage at the Shakespeare’s Globe in London, into ‘Giant of a man’ as King Lear by his sheer acting and I was reminded of him while I watched Randeep ‘living’ as ‘Raja Ravi Varma’!

Ravi Varma’s life in Bombay and how he meets with his muse, Sugandha, were shown with such brilliance that the audience knew from the start that they were in for something special -- and Ketan Mehta did not disappoint his audience! It was breathtaking to watch the expression on Randeep’s face when he first set his eyes on that vision of exquisite beauty – it was as if lightning had struck -- brilliant acting at its best -- credit goes to the two cinematographers too, for absorbing that precious moment without loosing any of its magic – Christo Bakalov and Rali Raltschev from Bulgaria showed excellent skill in bringing out the beauty of every moment in this film.

Ravi Varma finds the face and soul of a goddess in Sugandha, and Nandana looked every inch the seductress with the innocence of a beautiful young girl, almost celestial. Sugandha, a Devdasi who was trained to be irresistible and to give pleasure, found her life transformed after she met Ravi Varma who told a very reluctant Sugandha that her beauty will vanish but his painting of her will be for eternity; this clinched her destiny and the beginning of an intense tale of love, betrayal and passion. Ravi Varma finds the divine in her and transforms that exquisite beauty on to his canvas: beautifully draped goddesses emerged along with Urvashi and Pururavas, Tilothama, Menaka and Vishwamithra, to mention a few. Ravi Varma narrates the story of Urvashi and Pururavas in such a way that Sugandha posed for the painting voluntarily, with a very subtle exposure of part of her breast – what emerged was the most exotic painting, and the electrifying passion, smeared in oil paint!

It was Ravi Varma who started India’s first Oleograph press in 1891, as it was his wish to bring Mahabharat and Ramayan to the common man; the oleograph prints reached every corner and even the ‘untouchables’ could finally worship their gods outside the temples and in their homes -- it was Raja Ravi Varma who brought out the gods and goddesses from the confines of the temples to the untouchables, changing the way how Indians visualised their gods. The Hindu fundamentalists felt threatened and took him to court for insulting the gods and goddesses, and charged him with obscenity, although those particular paintings were based on the stories from the Hindu mythology. He lost almost everything and when his financier refused to give him any more money, he was forced to give his original paintings as security for another loan. The shrewd businessman printed and sold Sugandha’s semi-nude paintings without the knowledge of Ravi Varma, which results in Sugandha loosing her reputation and dignity in her neighbourhood. She felt betrayed by her lover, as she believed that those paintings represented their private moments, and she confronts him with it.
The restraint that Ketan shows in what follows, brings out the best in Randeep Hooda and Nandana Sen. Ravi Varma denies his love for her by declaring, “You don’t exist outside my imagination”! Anyone could see that the pain in his voice was not that of a selfish man, but of a man in turmoil, deeply in love and unable to express it, pushed to the limit – it was more like self-denial. Randeep was at his best here, and then it was Nandana’s turn to show the world what she is made of -- she just sat on the floor and one could see the pain and agony of all that lost to her displayed in her face and whole body. As she alone understood the real man in Ravi Varma, she came to his rescue in court with her heart-wrenching statement, “ He made a woman like me into a goddess and you people want to make me look like a whore; you and I will perish, but his paintings will last forever”; and she runs out of the court in total rejection.

Ravi Varma addressed the court with such conviction that the Judge set him free of all charges: “Yes I am guilty of painting, I am also guilty of painting gods and goddesses modeled on a woman; but I saw the divine in this woman. Who are these people acting as the guardians of morality, and by whose authority are they passing judgment on my paintings and my life; my paintings are my life. I was not ashamed of our culture when I saw the naked sculptures on the walls of Khajuraho, Ajanta or Ellora; I saw religion and eroticism hand in hand and I felt liberated. And I do not think the great Indian culture will be even shaken by a mere fleeting display of nudity or eroticism”. Randeep’s performance in court was power-packed and one was reminded of Jack Nicholson’s explosive speech in ‘Few Good Men’!

Paresh Rawal has given an outstanding performance as the ruthless businessman, and he tells Ravi Varma, “Nothing sells like religion in this world”, which is true even after 100 years! Ravi Varma’s brother, and his servant, ‘Pachan’ bring warmth and stability to the artist’s chaotic life, both actors excellent in their roles. Music is hauntingly beautiful, composed by Sandesh Shandliya, written by Manoj Muntashir, and rendered by Sonu Nigam and Sunidhi Chauhan– ‘Kamini and Rang-Rang Rasiya leave the audience wanting more!

Ketan Mehta shows his exemplary directorial skill in bringing Ravi Varma’s passions, obsessions and the desire for creative freedom to the audience, and to show them how he became the pioneer of modern painting in India. Ketan deserves all the credit for bringing this most beautiful and yet heart-wrenching love affair to our screens. The paintings of ‘Urvashi and Pururavas’, and Tilothama are exquisite and quite revealing, but so beautifully done that even the Sensor Board spared them-- a change of direction for Indian films, and highly commendable. After the screening in London, Ketan told the audience, “I wanted to bring out the real beauty of Ravi Varma’s paintings and didn’t feel the need to change anything, especially since these paintings originated in our country that gave ‘Kama sutra’ to the world!” The goddesses in the paintings shown in the film had an uncanny resemblance to Nandana and when asked about this, Ketan said with a smile, “That’s the magic of digital technology, with the permission of the owner of those paintings, of course”! One must understand that it is not a documentary about Ravi Varma’s paintings and therefore, the artistic choices and freedom taken in the film, do not affect the authenticity of the original paintings.

The most sensuous love story was cascading in front of the audience and one was at a loss as to decide which was more beautiful, the most erotic poses by Nandana, the tenderness and intensity of emotion that Randeep showed in his ritual of transforming his muse into a goddess, or the colours of passion that permeated out of the canvas. Randeep Hooda and Nandana Sen bring Raja Ravi Varma and Sugandha to life so much, that one doesn’t feel that one is watching a film! Ketan Mehta has brought out the best in these two very talented actors and I feel that all the other actors will have a difficult time to better this, once Ketan Mehta’s 'Colours’ are released into all corners of India! The chemistry between Ravi Varma and Sugandha was so electric that the audience felt it; and towards the end of the film most of them were sitting on the edge of their seats with tears in their eyes, holding their breath. Audience felt that they were in the presence of the real Raja Ravi Varma from Kerala, the ‘Prince among the painters and painter among the Princes’!

© E Menon



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