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The portrait of an artist

Saraswathy Nagarajan

Shaji N. Karun's next film concentrates on a turbulent phase of artist Raja Ravi Varma's life.

Photo: Mahesh Harilal

SHARP FOCUS The film plans to delve into Raja Ravi Varma's intense relationship with his model

Cinematographer and film director Shaji N. Karun's films have always had a sharp focus and a richly textured structure. Be it Piravi, Swahom, or Vanaprastham, his films took the viewer into the mindscape of the protagonist, exploring the bewildering complexities of situations and emotions that the characters had to undergo. And yet, there is universality in the themes that go beyond the boundaries of language, region and culture. Perhaps it was because of his long association with Aravindam, the award-wining cinematographer. Shaji's next film, which is on the royal artist Raja Ravi Varma, will not be a mere biography of the artist. Instead, it seeks to delve into Ravi Varma's intense relationship with the model who inspired some of his best works. Produced by Bobby Bedi, the film in Hindi will have Ajay Devgan in the lead as Ravi Varma. However, Shaji is still in search of an actor who will play the role of the model, Sugandhi. "Thousands of Indians know her through the pictures of Lakshmi and Saraswathy that Ravi Varma painted. So, it has to be someone who can do justice to her role in the film," says Shaji.

Why Ajay? "Well, Ajay is a star who is a good performer. He is versatile and has acted in offbeat films. We wanted someone like that," explains Shaji. Most of the film will be shot in Pune and on locations in Maharashtra as Ravi Varma did some of his most famous works in Mumbai where he met the model. The pictures of gods and goddesses that used to adorn Indian homes used to roll off his press in Malavi in Mumbai.

Says Shaji: "This year, we are observing the centennial of Ravi Varma who was the first artist from Kerala, to use his brush and canvas to visually translate the rich imagery and narration of our epics. For instance, the famous painting that shows Shakunthala looking at Dushayanth. He could have chosen any scene from the text but his deep reading of the drama and discussions with scholars helped him select a visually riveting scene. We also get to see a slice of society through his paintings. While his technique was European, his subjects and themes were very much rooted in our psyche."

"He was the first person to unite India through images and till now no one has been able to better him in terms of his interpretations of our mythology. His images reached out to Indians like never before."

About the contributions of this artist, Shaji says, "Ravi Varma had a terrific sense of colour and design. His idea of beauty and Indian womanhood influenced many artists. Even the sari as we know it today, was popularised by this artist."

Shaji plans to concentrate on the period Ravi Varma spent in Mumbai, when he bought a press in 1894-95 and became the first "artist-turned businessman". The press left him in debts and he was forced to sell it to his German partner who also won the rights to his pictures. Shaji plans to zoom in on the angst of the artist who was forced to compromise on his art to make a success of his business venture. In course of time, his partner made a killing by marketing Ravi Varma's iconic images to sell matchboxes and calendars.

"However, the compromises depressed the artist and eventually when he tried to paint a nude of the model, there was an uproar. Eventually, disturbed by the anguish of the artist, the model kills herself. My film will be on this turbulent phase of the artist's life. The film will present her view of her relationship with the artist," he explains.

The shooting will begin in April, says Shaji who is busy polishing the script of the film.

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