“Yeh daag nahi, rang hain!” says Raja Ravi Varma (Randeep Hooda) to his muse, Sugandha (Nandana Sen) in a scene where the artist and muse are drawn towards each other. It’s a scene that sums up the theme of Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya – The ‘daag’ of obscenity and ‘rang’ of art. Though set in the 19th century, the film is still relevant in a nation where hooligans attacking art exhibitions, fashion shows, plays and movie theatres is a commonplace.
The film, based upon Ranjit Desai’s biography on Raja Ravi Varma, takes us to the world of a legendary artist who gave face to the gods and made them publicly available. This journey isn’t easy to cruise through, as every artist is destined to stumble upon pebbles of criticism, boulders of accusations and pitfalls of archaic traditions.
Artist Raja Ravi Varma’s journey is no different. Along with the age-old debate of divine v/s obscene, director Ketan Mehta practices restraint in his screenplay and equally emphasizes on an artist’s relationship with his muse, and that’s precisely where the film works wonders.
An artist being accused of falling for his muse reminds me of an anecdote shared by my friend, Giri Sharma: Raj Kapoor was once asked why his heroines fell in love with him and he replied, “My heroines don’t fall in love with me. They fall in love with the imagery I portray of them on the silver screen. In fact, they fall in love with themselves.”
After rummaging through a couple of interviews of Raj Kapoor, I stumbled upon statements where he said that he often made himself believe that he is in love with the particular heroine. “It’s important for the film,” to put in his words.
The film Rang Rasiya resonates with this sentiment in a scene where Raja Ravi Varma tells his muse Sugandha that she doesn’t exist beyond his imagination. It’s the same muse whom he worshipped as a goddess before painting her as Maa Saraswati, raising her to the highest pedestals of divinity and eventually being instrumental in making her labelled as a loose woman.
Just like every film, Rang Rasiya, too, suffers few flaws of choppy editing, especially in the first half. There’s a Kathak dance performance that seems completely out of place and context. The scene neither delights nor takes the film forward or explains the character of Ashish Vidhyarthi (Aptly cast as Rajah Ayilyam Thirunal, the king of Travancore, Kerala).
There’s a scene where Raja Ravi Varma meets Sugandha in Bombay and prods her to watch his paintings in Baroda before anybody else does. She hesitates and says that she isn’t allowed outside home after sunset and finally agrees. The next scene shows her at the exhibition premise. Did she travel from Bombay to Baroda? Nevertheless, the scene where Raja Ravi Varma shows her the paintings is one of the memorable scenes of Rang Rasiya, which makes this minor flaw (perhaps) passable.
Randeep Hooda lives and breathes his character, especially in the court drama scene, where he proclaims the philosophy of his life, “Jeevan ka uddeshya hona chaiye kala se sundar hona.” Any artist worth his salt will find himself nodding, in reflex action. The film delves deep inside the mind of an artist and boldly debates on art v/s commerce, without making it loud.
Nandana Sen as Sugandha is a rare find as she convinces you that she belongs to the era the film is set in. The ‘Saraswati scene’ is something that will be etched on the viewer’s mind for a long time after watching the film.
The much-talked scene of Nandana Sen exposing her breasts while posing for Urvashi’s character has been shot aesthetically and is completely justified and doesn’t come across as vulgar, though a tad shocking for Indian audience. This particular scene surviving censor board’s scissors is in itself an achievement, just like Raja Ravi Varma walking out triumphant after being accused of commercializing gods and goddesses and creating obscene paintings.
As a citizen of Baroda (or Vadodara), it was a sheer delight to watch Laxmi Vilas Palace on big screen (Can we forget the fact that Grand Masti was shot there too?). Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwad makes a brief appearance in the film, which made the audience go, “Ae jo jo…Maharaja Sayajirao!” The shots of the palace and paintings by Raja Ravi Varma left one awestruck, especially because of those frequent visits to the museum as a kid.
Well, I also had an opportunity of meeting up director Ketan Mehta. The best takeaway that one could thank for this brief session was the line, “Filmmaking is all about self-expression and celebrating the grandeur of your idea. The joy of watching your film together in a packed theatre and noticing their reaction, be it laughter, sobs, contempt or awe is something that can never be described, for it can only be understood by someone who makes a film and watches it with the audience.”
I am sure Ketan Mehta must be experiencing the joy of watching his film in a packed theatre after waiting 5 years for it to release. Way to go, sir!