Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya depicts Raja Ravi Varma as a painter with an eye for beauty and beauties. A pattern is established early on in the movie when Varma, played by Randeep Hooda, spots a well-endowed maid servant. Varma’s jaw drops, his eyes widen, he commands the maid to freeze her position, grabs a blank canvas and sketches an outline that will later become one of his many masterpieces.
The twinned motion of the jaw dropping and something else rising recurs throughout the movie. Rang Rasiya confirms the stereotype of artists as desirable and desirous men who have a jolly good time in their studios with their female models. A disclaimer clarifies that this dandy march is not a conventional biographical account of Varma’s life, but an adaptation of Ranjit Desai’s novel Raja Ravi Varma. It apparently wasn’t enough that Varma was an art pioneer and a far-sighted businessman with an eye on the mass market. Perhaps in order to justify the actions that follow when he picks up his paintbrush, the movie gives Varma the new and dubious honour of being an early poster boy for the freedom of expression.
Rang Rasiya combines a courtroom trial with an examination of Varma’s relationship with his muse, model and lover Sugandha (Nandana Dev Sen). Varma has been accused by a bunch of surly Maharashtrian Brahmins of insulting Hindusim and propagating pornography through his mythology-inspired oil paintings. In reality, Varma faced no such harassment, though he did attend hearings of an obscenity case that was filed in 1896 against a printer of erotic prints in order to understand whether his own interpretation of the epics and divinity might be affected. (The printer won the case.)
This episode of Rang Rasiya is not about Varma at all, but about another great Indian master who faced similar charges and greater indignities several decades later. Maqbool Fida Husain was hounded by Hindu orthodox groups viciously for years, forcing him to leave India. Varma’s defence in court, his references to the complex nature of Indian artistic traditions, his championing of the right of artists to work as they please, and his appeal to the law to stand firm on the statute of creative expression collectively make Rang Rasiya startlingly contemporary.
The movie was completed in 2008 and shown at a few film festivals before wallowing in distribution hell. Its concerns remain topical even though the storytelling has dated badly. The performances are mostly sub-par, the production values look more impoverished than the average Hindi television soap, and the staging of the scenes is inelegant and contrived. Rang Rasiya is an important movie for the statements it makes, rather than how it makes them. There is unintentional comedy from Mehta’s depiction of Varma’s erotic escapades, and intentional tragedy from the attacks on his person in particular and art in general.