This review was first printed in Caravan.
|TRAVELLING LIGHT by British playwright Nicholas Wright is about cinema. The play, which opened this January in London, is a fantastical retelling of the beginnings of Hollywood. In Travelling Light, the history of blockbuster films is traced to a nondescript shtetl in Eastern Europe where one Motl Mendl chances upon a cinematograph. Everyone wants to be filmed by Mendl because they want to see themselves as moving images, going through their everyday motions in what is in equal parts performance and reality. This is, perhaps, the fundamental draw of cinema: it is a delectable mix of fact and fiction. It draws from life and then renders it magical.
In Project Cinema City, organised by the National Gallery of Modern Art in Mumbai and the Ministry of Culture to mark 100 years of Indian cinema, more than 20 artists, designers, technicians and architects present an exhibition that seeks to do what Mendl did—capture the relationship of cinema and life. Instead of a nameless village, their setting is what is perhaps Indian cinema’s most beloved city. Just as Travelling Light suggests that all the key tropes of Hollywood had their genesis in Mendl’s village,Project Cinema City would have you believe that Bollywood is a completely local product, born out of life in Mumbai rather than a magpie’s nest of shiny, borrowed elements. Although the theory is flawed, it’s romantic, which, alongside the elaborately presented exhibition, helps persuade the viewer to buy the illusion.
Put together by Majlis, an interdisciplinary arts initiative, and the Kamla Raheja Vidyanidhi Institute of Architecture (KRVIA), and curated by filmmaker Madhusree Dutta and artist Archana Hande, Project Cinema City is an ambitious and expansive show. It was conceived because of the duo’s interest in those that Dutta describes as “the invisibles of cinema”—technicians, extras and other little people who are integral to filmmaking but are rarely noticed by the viewers. (Fittingly, every exhibit in Project Cinema City has detailed credits, acknowledging the contributions of all those involved in the making of a work, including technicians and fabricators—a welcome change that is rarely seen in art shows.) The curators were also eager to explore the idea of “negotiating the city through cinema”. While roaming around the exhibits in Project Cinema City may not improve your understanding of Mumbai’s geography, it does leave the viewer with a sense of how critically important cinema has been to the city in terms of both reflecting aspects of society and moulding the collective imagination.
Project Cinema City’s participants comprise a number of well-known names from contemporary Indian art, such as Atul Dodiya, Nalini Malani, Pushpamala N and Shilpa Gupta. Some have contributed prints for ‘The Calendar Project’, which draws upon the role of printed images in consolidating the iconic stature of cinema. It uses found objects and images to create kitschy reproductions of the humble calendar often seen hanging in modest shops and restaurants. Typically, such calendars perform certain functions: providing dates, offering visuals that are meant to be attractive, and (frequently) advertising certain brands or products. The artistic versions at the exhibition, which appropriate the imagery of the original, serve no particular function and embody the now hackneyed idea of Indian kitsch being used ironically to depict social attitudes.
Pushpamala N has conceptualised and starred in ‘Return of the Phantom Lady or Sinful City’, a performance photography piece that is a sequel to her brilliant 1996-98 work, ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’. Shot by Clare Arni, ‘Phantom Lady or Kismet’ saw Pushpamala take on the persona of a heroine inspired by actor and stuntwoman Fearless Nadia. The black-and-white series presented Mumbai as the setting of a noir thriller, with shadowy bars, the underworld and this masked heroine. ‘Return of the Phantom Lady’ is a reprisal of Pushpamala as Nadia, but this time the photographs are in colour and the villains are modern (in one photo, public artist Tushar Joag strikes an acrobatic pose usually seen in hip hop dance routines). The story is about a kidnapped girl whom Nadia—still in her Zorro-esque mask, hat and cape—saves. Like so many cinematic follow-ups, ‘Return of the Phantom Lady’ is not as powerful as the first instalment. In a number of the photographs (taken by Clay Kelton), you see little of the scene and more of your own reflection. However, Tushar Joag makes for a very convincing thug and Dodiya stars as a rather dapper mafia don.
Atul Dodiya’s more substantial contribution to Project Cinema City is ‘Fourteen Stations’. The 14 large paintings depict names of train stations alongside the faces of familiar Bollywood villains. They are hung in a row so that when you walk past them, it’s almost like seeing the names of stations out of a local train in Mumbai. The journey Dodiya invites the viewer to take is one past the stations crossed when going from lowly Ghatkopar—where Dodiya was born, raised and still lives—to Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST, formerly Victoria Terminus), which has signified Mumbai in numerous films. This is the route one would take on a Central Railway line, well known for its frequent malfunctions. Local commuters would agree that while Western Railway line is more suited to heroes, Central Railway’s regular disruptions often feel pernicious.
It’s an amusing visual trip, though one can’t help but feel bad for some of the stations. Byculla, for instance, has Shakti Kapoor as its ambassador, and the sign for Kurla has Gulshan Grover’s mug. Mumbai’s grandest station, CST, fittingly has Gabbar Singh of Sholay, one of the icons of Bollywood villainy. It is, however, unnerving to remember that in recent times, CST has been associated with a real trigger-happy villain—Ajmal Kasab—who with his partner unleashed terror at the station in 2008. It’s a disturbing twist to Sholay, in which two good guys are outnumbered by the bad guys but still fight (one of them to his death) out of a sense of honour.
Many of the exhibits in Project Cinema City seem frivolous but have serious undertones. Pushpamala’s ‘Return of the Phantom Lady’, for instance, contains veiled references to the land mafia. The clattering wooden pieces of Anant Joshi’s installation subtly allude to the spindles of weaving looms and the textile industry that was once an important part of Mumbai. One of the more memorable conflations is in Shreyas Karle’s ‘Museum Shop of Fetish Objects’. With the help of fabricator Ashok Kansara, Karle has created a mini-exhibition within the larger one. His is made up of fantastical objects, directly and indirectly related to Bollywood. Many of them are very witty, like the milk bottle with a label that reads “Ma ka Doodh”, the staple of a Bollywood hero’s diet. There’s also the “Multi-religion Protagonist Locket”, an accordion-like pendant that shows a mosque, a temple, a church and a gurudwara. There are glasses made of kulfi moulds for cinemagoers who are above 18. These aids help “to focus on special parts of the opposite sex” and the ‘He-She Object’ aims to provide sexual pleasure to a man and a woman, simultaneously but separately. For Karle, cinema is a sensuous medium whose allure is used to censor and manipulate the way people think. The objects in his museum are part of a mission to expose this agenda.
A sense of history pervades the exhibit, which benefits greatly from experiments by KRVIA’s students. ‘Table of Miscellany’ is a collaborative installation that includes everything from laminated maps to glowing, spinning cubes and fake books that look like they’re made of glass.
Behind Project Cinema City are two architects—Rohan Shivkumar and Apurva Parikh—and two designers—Kausik Mukhopadhyay and Shikha Pandey. The quartet plays a very critical role in making the exhibition as intriguing and enjoyable as it is. While the arrangement of the show is haphazard and there is little connectivity or dialogue between works, Project Cinema City looks inviting.
Some of the most impressive exhibits show an inventive use of technology, which is apt for a tribute to a medium characterised by technical innovation. Filmmaker Paromita Vohra’s ‘So Near Yet So Far’ is a charming series that uses telephones from different eras. There’s the vintage switchboard-era telephone, the yellow coin-operated box and the modern PCO cubicle. The viewer is asked to select from the options and when he or she does, a soundtrack featuring old Bollywood songs and dialogues can be heard through the receiver. Each phone has a different soundtrack. These are richly nostalgic works that also imply a thesis on how people communicate. The telephone has aided revelations, facilitated eavesdropping, played messenger for lovers, collapsed distances and caused rifts in the movies. It is an agent of change and a technological marvel that transformed how information was passed on the big screen. Its various avatars signified different time periods and social strata. For example, the working class heroine of the older movies couldn’t afford a private telephone but had access to the public one in the neighbourhood cornershop. In the age of cellphones, the public telephone is almost a relic and Vohra highlights this with a crackly soundtrack.
Also dabbling in nostalgia is Kausik Mukhopadhyay’s ‘Bioscope’, which is reminiscent of the mobile cinemas that were once seen in rural India in particular. Look through the viewfinder and you see moving images. Inside Mukhopadhyay’s creation is a complicated set of carousels. In the foreground, you see cards printed with tweet-sized information about Mumbai and film trivia. Press the switch that’s dangling nearby and the wheels turn to bring you a different card with a different nugget of data. After a few minutes with ‘Bioscope’, one is in possession of facts like actress Sakinabai appearing nude in a 1919 film, in a scene that wasn’t censored.
One of the most elaborate works in Project Cinema City is ‘Cinema City Lived’ by the exhibition’s architects Shivkumar and Parikh. The installation, a grid made up of PVC pipes, is an imaginative road map that shows how films and their paraphernalia mark the geography of the city. Parikh also has a work titled ‘Mapping the History of Theatres and Studios in Mumbai’, which is one of the elements in ‘Table of Miscellany’. This piece is essentially a set of maps of the city drawn on tracing paper and marked up with cinema halls and studios. Thanks to the translucence of the paper, one can see the crawling spread of the film industry at one go, or consider each page individually. Although it doesn’t seem geographically accurate, ‘Cinema City Lived’ is almost like a three-dimensional rendering of Parikh’s maps, using PVC pipes. Scattered randomly are names of theatres, which appear like glowing tattoos on the body of the pipes. ‘Cinema City Lived’ also uses images seen in another work that is part of ‘Table of Miscellany’. The mouth of each pipe acts as a viewfinder. Put your eye to it, and there’s an image, like a model of an operation theatre or a court room, that shows a snippet of the film industry. It’s a beautifully fabricated piece. The PVC pipes allude to the construction that marks modern Mumbai as well as to the idea of Bollywood as a hub connecting disparate aspects of the city the way underground pipes do.
There’s nothing novel about the idea of Mumbai as a cinema city. Exhibits like ‘The Calendar Project’ are an indication of how worn out this idea is, but thanks to the irreverence of some artists and their willingness to experiment, Project Cinema City is ultimately an engaging, collaborative work that is as much a research endeavour as it is creative. Cinema has meant an unromantic livelihood for some, a fantasy for others and for everyone from the viewer to the gaffer, it has been a site of hope. Mumbai’s film industry stands apart from others in the country for being open to outsiders and producing work that is both easily accessible and uncaring of limitations like language barriers. This has resulted in a cultural product that is multifaceted, one that conflates contradictions. It is both the conservative, manipulative agent referenced in Karle’s ‘Museum of Fetish Objects’ as well as the irreverent and potentially subversive creation that generates enough anxiety in the political establishment to necessitate censorship laws. It reiterates stereotypes but also facilitates invention and novelty. The medium represents reality but often in a way that is wildly unreal. Project Cinema City posits the idea that Hindi films and Mumbai have enjoyed a certain synergy. At least in this exhibition, this is true. The worst of Project Cinema City bores you and the best of it fills you with a sense of wonder and fun memories—much like Bollywood and Mumbai.
This article first appeared in Caravan. It’s long so I’m posting only an excerpt. The whole thing is here.
““You have two separate lives in Iran, outside the house and inside the house,” said Ghadirian. “We go out to the street, it’s crossing a border. When we come back into the house, it’s another border. But sometimes, things from the outside come in with us. It’s all still clean and ok but the war is reflected in the house.” In the photographs, the “things from the outside” are military equipment: a grenade in the fruit bowl, a bullet in a cigarette case, the drop of blood on the military boots standing next to the red stilettos. In 2009, violence entered Iranian homes when some protestors like Ghadirian’s husband came back injured, and many others didn’t come back at all. Meanwhile, the government media calmly declared that everything was in order—lies as meticulously false as the rooms in Ghadirian’s photographs.”
This review was first published in Caravan.
In an age when Photoshop has become a commonly used verb, the idea of a photograph documenting reality is almost quaint. It seems photography is all about manipulation, whether it’s at the early stages of framing a photograph or later when it’s adjusted, or photoshopped, on a computer. In case if Docu Tour, curated by Bose Krishnamachari, presently on display at Gallery BMB in Mumbai, there’s an additional layer of adjustment. According to the gallery handout, the exhibition “seeks to explore various formal strategies that are employed to transform the photo document into an artwork.” This time, instead of the subject, it is the photograph itself that is being manipulated so that it belongs in a gallery. As documentation, these photographs belong in newspapers, catalogues and photo albums. Instead, they are in the white cube of the gallery, fashioned into art.
The four photographers who have contributed to Docu Tour have little in common. Although Vivek Vilasini and Gauri Gill’s photographs are shot in black and white, Vilasini’s are large-format photographs and the contrast is cranked up to make the darker tones more emphatic. Gill’s, on the other hand, are smaller and look as though they’ve been bleached. Anup Mathew Thomas’ two sets of photographs appear in Docu Tour, one a colour series based in Kerala and the other a collection of almost candid photographs of his family. Shankar Natarajan’s work in the show is a large installation, made up of photographs he’s taken since 2006.
Vilasini’s three photographs are the first works the viewer sees upon entering the gallery. Their size makes them seem like windows looking out at the city. For those familiar with Vilasini’s style, the gentle humour and ironic tone will be familiar. A headless figure clutches the Constitution in ‘Unconstitutional.’ ‘Do Not Urinate Here’ shows the familiar site of a wall with religious symbols painted upon it as deterrents to desperate bladders. But Islam’s star and crescent moon, the Christian crucifix and the Hindu Om are in a crowd of stains and garbage, relegated to being part of the ugly clutter of modern India. In ‘Gandhi Street,’ a kitschy statue of the father of the nation stands in front of a building’s gates. He looks like he is about to leave the building (like Elvis, perhaps) but is rooted to his spot because the statue has no feet. It’s as though the cement has sucked him in so that all he can do is stand in an abandoned street, unable to escape this world that has turned him into a caricature of himself.
Whereas Gill, Thomas and Natarajan benefit from their works being displayed in close proximity to each other, Vilasini’s photographs seem out of synch with the rest of them, which is perhaps fitting because the tone of his photographs is very different. The humour in Vilasini’s photographs contrasts sharply with the melancholy in Gill and Thomas’ works in particular.
Shankar Natarajan’s ‘Photographs’ is a misfit, too, but for a different reason. There’s no ground to doubt the artistic merit of ‘Photographs’ as an installation, and it is an interesting and sophisticated piece, but the curator’s decision to include this work in a photography show is debatable. The pictures are the product of commercial assignments. They are not examples of fine art photography but simply of photographing fine art. Natarajan, who dabbled in painting and art criticism, has been photographing artworks for Mumbai galleries since 2006. One of Natarajan’s central concerns is with the issue that spurred Marcel Duchamp to turn a urinal upside down in 1917: non-art. His photographs, which were originally intended to be publicity images and were, therefore, non-art, become art just because they are brought to a gallery. Across six feet, Natarajan’s photographs are arranged in a geometric grid so that a band of images runs across the wall, like a giant contact sheet. ‘Photographs’ requires you to step up to the wall and see the images up close. Natarajan has shot works by almost every important Indian contemporary artist, including Anita Dube, Bharti Kher and TV Santhosh, and no image is repeated in the installation. Considering that it is made up of images taken to make a work look most saleable, the commercialism of the art world is an obvious aspect to ‘Photographs.’ However, it is also a timely reminder of the variety of work that has been produced in so short a time.
So far as Docu Tour’s announced intention of showcasing work that shows “the use of photographic documentation in the critique of socio-political structures” is concerned, the series by Gill and Thomas fit the bill perfectly. In a clever arrangement, the two artists are shown on either side of the corridor. Gill’s black and whites face Thomas’ vibrantly colourful photographs. In Gill’s work, the dry, dusty bleakness of rural Rajasthan comes across as all the more stark thanks to monochrome. Thomas, on the other hand, uses the distraction of colour cleverly. His photographs show the cheerful palette of a children’s book, only to draw the viewer closer and show them the melancholia of the people who live amidst that beautiful scenery. The effect of these two very different styles facing each other is dramatic, like walking into a bipolar mind. The juxtapositions are sometimes disturbing, like when Gill’s photograph of a boy with a plastic bag over his head—eerily reminiscent of Abu Ghraib detainees—faces Thomas’ shot of a beaming politician and his wax replica standing against lush greenery.
Thomas has been photographing Kerala for years now and Docu Tour includes images from his most recent series, View from Conolly’s Plot, as well as an older set from 2003, titled Well, Basically This is About Thomas Jacob, which chronicled nine months in Thomas’ father’s life. Thomas describes his father as a man who lives in Kottayam and works for a newspaper, gliding past the fact that his father is the editorial director of Malayala Manorama, one of the most widely circulated publications in the country. Although having 500 images in Well, Basically This is About Thomas Jacob is selfindulgent, the two-channel slideshow is an interesting look at two sides of Jacob, one when he is in Kottayam and the other when he and his wife visit their son (Thomas’ brother) in England. In Kottayam, Jacob is a figure of authority while in England, the same person seems almost helpless and reduced to being simply an old man in England.
The photographs from View From Conolly’s Plot are far stronger. Contained in his photographs are references to Kerala’s attempts to create a bridge between its past and its present, starting from the legacy of Henry Valentine Conolly, the Briton who set up the world’s first teak plantation in Kerala. Saint George’s Forane church turned from church to graveyard when its congregation outgrew it and moved to new premises. The collapse of the joint family system can be seen in the striking ‘House on the Roadside’ in which a home is physically cut in two.
Gill’s photographs, a selection from her Notes from the Desert, are the strongest in terms of narrative in Docu Tour. She began shooting in rural Rajasthan in 1999, originally with the intention of putting together a photo essay about rural education. As the subjects of her photographs invited her into their lives, the project spiralled out of control and over the next 11 years, Gill has collected thousands of images that chronicle the lives of the marginalised and the impoverished of Barmer. As a social documentary project, Notes from the Desert is remarkable and poignant. Without becoming oppressively grim, Gill presents a work that looks at the present mismanagement in the Rajasthani village. Her photographs also reference past traditions of imagemaking, subtly critiquing the practice of objectifying the poor as well as celebrating simple but relevant stereotypes like a mother’s love for her child. As photographs, they are beautifully composed and silvered with melancholia. They are intimate but Gill doesn’t ever try to create an illusion of being within the world being photographed, which is a smart aesthetic decision since to most viewers this unromanticised Rajasthan is an unfamiliar world. The viewer is always an outsider, but a welcome one. Sometimes, the outsider glimpses private moments, like Ismat at her daughter Janat’s grave, but a certain distance between the camera and the subject is carefully maintained.
With all the hue and cry that is made about the ability of photographs to manipulate reality and the glut of mindless visuals in contemporary media, perhaps it is worth remembering that photography has been an important truth-teller in the 20th century because of the space that was given to social documentation. Galleries like Gallery BMB, Photoink and Nature Morte must be applauded for providing a showcase for this genre of photography, but that such photographs need to be ‘transformed’ into fine art is far from heartening.