Water is a recurring motif in Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi-language Nude. The heroine is named Yamuna. A dip in the village pond exposes Yamuna (Kalyanee Mulay) to her husband’s infidelity. Before she makes the crucial decision to leave him, she stands by the water’s edge, unsure of whether to cleanse herself or end it all.
Yamuna survives that moment and with her son Lakshman (Madan Deodhar) lands up in a place where water isn’t too far away, even if the surroundings aren’t as pretty as her village. In a slum by Mumbai’s docks lives Yamuna’s aunt, Chandra (Chhaya Kadam), who sweeps the corridors of the Sir JJ School of Art and poses nude for its painting students. Yamuna is initially repulsed by her aunt’s profession, but the money is good and Chandra’s logic is irrefutable: we take off our clothes voluntarily and we are not looked at in a sexualised way.
Exploitation comes not from the art world but from Yamuna’s family. Domestic melodrama intertwines with lofty questions on the freedom of expression and the place of art in the world. Yamuna’s son turns out be a leech and an ingrate. Pushed by his constant demands, Yamuna begins posing for private assignments. Students come from Vadodara, where nude modelling has been banned on campuses, and an artist clearly meant to be MF Husain (played by Naseeruddin Shah) commits Yamuna’s form to canvas. Woven into a tribute to the working-class women who drop their clothes for a few hundred rupees is a critique of the curbs on free expression, which result in attacks on the artist and on Yamuna’s profession.
Sachin Kundalkar’s screenplay simplifies the question for viewers who don’t understand the need for nudity in paintings. Although Shah’s artist provides a deeply philosophical answer, Chandra cuts to the chase: we are aiding art education and helping students develop into artists.
Nude opts for a self-consciously artistic and tasteful approach in the scenes featuring Chandra and Yamuna at the art school. Strategically placed objects and careful framing preserve the modesty of the actors. Their unclad bodies are seen only in the paintings for which they pose. Classical music wafts over the sequences in the art school, as if to banish any hint of tawdriness. The movie is handsomely produced, as are all of Jadhav’s films, and beautifully shot in lush and rich colours by Amalendu Chaudhary.
The brave and exceptional performances by the lead actors steers the movie past a slim premise that loses its way in the later sections. Although Nude follows the lives of both the women, it’s a pity that the story sticks with the weaker character. The movie devises many lovely moments between Chandra and Yamuna. The bold and worldly-wise older woman teaches her younger, insecure niece to handle herself in Mumbai, and the solidarity between them proves to be far more inspirational than Yamuna’s pathos-ridden fate, which undermines the story’s focus on empowerment and self-realisation. There is tremendous spine on display throughout the movie, so it’s a shame that Jadhav capitulates in the climax.