Friday, November 07, 2014

Rang Rasiya

Talk about mixed reviews. The reviews for Rang Rasiya is out and they are decidedly mixed. Here is a sampling/

Rang Rasiya is not a consistent film, but one that tells a story of a pioneering artist and visionary, a story decidedly worth telling.

We need to treasure our creators and innovators, and while I wish the film was carved by the blade of the edgier Ketan Mehta (of Mirch Masala vintage), I’m relieved that at least films like these are being made and -- in relation to the exposure important in context of the censorship debate -- that we’re getting to see them.

And one scene, in particular, involving a certain Indian cinematic pioneer gave me goosepimples.

One odd moment, however.

After Sen bares herself to Hooda and the two cavort passionately on the floor, painted merrymakers celebrating each other’s bodies while a song plays, the scene ends with a topshot, with their painted, naked bodies lying against each other.

And while she lies there brazen and defiant, Hooda awkwardly drapes a leg around his own thigh in an utterly-misplaced bid for modesty. Perhaps, then, our censorship issues stem from the fact that our women are just fine, but our men can’t quite deal with themselves just yet.

A fun sequence displays India's first cinema show leaving Varma so impressed, he backs a movie by his protegee - Dadasaheb Phalke. Rang Rasiya portrays Varma as India's first cultural rock-star, adored, attacked, commercial, inspired, excited and challenged by a new consciousness he sees - and shapes. Vitally, Rang Rasiya emphasizes Raja Ravi Varma's commitment to the freedom of ideas which creates philosophy, science and liberated love, ephemeral, yet lasting - like the pages of his calendars.

But the trouble is that ‘Rang Rasiya’ feels like a choppy costume drama marred by false notes and static ‘acting’ : the fluidity and the authentic sense of time and place needed for a film like this, qualities so beautifully woven through Mehta’s classics ‘Bhavni Bhavai’ and ‘Mirch Masala’, are missing. Both Hooda and Sen are presented as gleaming bodies on ample display we are meant to fall in lust with, and both are eminently drool-worthy. But in all this, the characters go missing. Varma deserves a deeper, more layered film.

Randeep Hooda as Raja Ravi Verma is a great choice. He has a regal enough face (especially with that perfect nose), that can as easily look lecherous and manipulative. He particularly sparkles when he argues in court against the imprisonment of his thoughts and art and when he cruelly dismisses his muse's claim to a life outside his imagination. Randeep is so comfortable embodying the legendary painter that you believe him and want to support his fight almost all the time, except when he ages dramatically and somehow no one else around him does. And when he looks as uncomfortable as the audience in those unnecessary love making scenes.

Ketan Mehta has amalgamated the essence of love quite aesthetically. A particular sequence, which also got the makers into trouble, is filmed in a beautiful way. It’s the portrayal of the ancient story of Pururava and Urvashi through Sugandha and Ravi Varma. Hindi cinema has taken a brave foot forward in Rang Rasiya, as it features frontal nudity, but there would hardly be any eyebrows raised or heads hanged in shame. This sequence is tenderly designed, amazingly shot, fantastically edited and gently eased off. It’s vibrant, touching and stirring.

But, the film has much more than just this sequence. The idea of making a film on Ravi Varma is compelling in itself. After all, he is the artist who gave face to gods on cheap posters and in a way made them available for all. Wasn’t this the highest form of social service? The posters with Hindu gods and goddesses that we purchase from market today were first conceived by him. He acted as the bridge between the deities and their worshippers, to say the least.

The film’s screenplay has been kept simple and it works because it doesn’t have complex scenes and maintains the right pace.

During the court room battle in the film, the magistrate, played by an ever-charming Tom Alter, very teasingly asks Ravi Varma, “Mr Varma, aap kanoon ke baare me kitna jaante hain,” and the man replies, “Utna hi jitna aap kala ke baare me jaante hain.” This statement is the backbone of the narrative.

In another moving scene, Kamini (Rashaana Shah), an untouchable, grabs Ravi Varma by hand and takes him to a place, where her community members are worshipping the poster designed by Varma as they were not allowed inside temples. She says, “Aap bhagwan ko bahar le aaye.” This dialogue is the philosophy behind the story.

During the dramatic climax, one of the loopholes of an otherwise fantastic story is when Ravi Varma says, “Jeevan ka uddaishya hai kala se sundar hona.” This is the resolution of the film.

No complicated dialogues and greater focus on the environment than the protagonist supplement for the correct feel. Yes, one can easily spot the problems with accents and over acting on part of secondary characters, but the premise has been laid in a manner which covers up for small glitches.

Rang Rasiya is bolstered appreciably by the strong performances by the two principal actors - Randeep Hooda as Raja Ravi Varma and Nandana Sen as his muse in Bombay, Sugandha Bai - as well as by the formidable supporting cast (Darshan Jariwala, Vikram Gokhale, Sachin Kedekar, Ashish Vidyarthi, Paresh Rawal, Vipin Sharma, Gaurav Dwivedi).

Randeep does not strike a single false note in a complex interpretation of a towering figure, capturing the highs and lows of Raja Ravi Varma's life with effortless ease.

Nandana Sen, too, is pitch-perfect as Sugandha. She is the ideal foil to the moody male protagonist, traversing an entire gamut of emotions - from the charmingly coquettish to the deeply conflicted and anguished, from moments of ecstatic love to the trough of a death wish - without losing her poise.

The surfeit of music, both in terms of songs and the background score, strikes a discordant note in a film that is otherwise well modulated.

Why must a film about art be overlaid with so much music? As difficult to grasp as that might be, very little else in Rang Rasiya is out of place.

This film has been in the cans for several years, but given the timelessness of the story it tells and the crucial issues it addresses, it has lost none of its relevance.

Rang Rasiya is as good a film as any you have, or will, see this year. Strongly recommended.

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