Atul Dodiya’s scintillating new show at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road art gallery comprises 24 paintings of frozen moments from iconic movies. In Dr. Banerjee in Dr. Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and Other Paintings 2020-2022, Dodiya reimagines scenes from such films as Anand, Padosan, Kapurush, Kaagaz ke Phool, Awara and Ittefaq. The show’s title is a reference to Anand, directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee in 1971, starring Rajesh Khanna as a terminally ill man and Amitabh Bachchan as the oncologist who befriends him.

Rather than serve as painted screen grabs of randomly chosen moments, Dodiya’s works guide the eye to the decor in the scenes – furniture, a piano, vases, the radiogram, photographs. There are very few representations of the famous actors who starred in these films. For instance, Rajesh Khanna, to whom the show is dedicated, is seen only in profile or from the back.

In a note that accompanies the show, which will run until February 24, Dodiya observes, “Life throbs in the frozen moment.” Art historian Jyotindra Jain writes in the show catalogue, “The majority of films from which the frozen frames are derived are from the 1960s and 70s, when the architecture and furnishings in upper-class, urban homes was rather eclectic but dominated by waning Art Deco aesthetics, and more so in the cinema of these decades… The decor invariably appears to stem from theatre scenography or studio sets, which were, indeed, widely used in the cinema of the period, with their air of unreal spaces – ‘elsewhere spaces’.”

In an interview with Scroll, 54-year-old Dodiya spoke of his deep connection with cinema and the roots of his latest show. Here is a transcript of the conversation.

The seventh art

“Cinema has very much been part of my oeuvre, since it is also a visual art. After all, we see films, we don’t read or hear them. Also, the filmic image is flat, and if you take a picture of a frame, that too is flat, unlike the three-dimensional space of theatre.

Shanti moving house. Courtesy Atul Dodiya/Chemould Prescott Road.

I have been clicking pictures of frames from films on my cellphone for a long time. These stills look beautiful when frozen.

What has also happened is that of late, I have been watching films at home. Unlike in cinemas, where you can watch films at one go with only an interval, at home, someone will ring the bell, or you will go to fetch something from the fridge, and you will pause the film. This random pausing of the image made me looked at it differently. To my painter’s eye, the image looked strange. If you separated it from the narrative, it looked quite unusual.

In my previous show Seven Minutes of Blackmail [Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, 2019], I looked at a specific sequence. Since Blackmail was from 1929, was in black and white, and was a murder mystery, I retained black and white for my paintings.

When I started thinking about Dr. Banerjee in Dr. Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and Other Paintings, I thought of the 35mm format in which these films had been made, and the fact that some of them were in colour. I had always enjoyed looking at film stills that were tinted with colour. I felt that it would be interesting and challenging to do the new show in colour. There was no specific reason why I choose the films you see in the show.

The whole thing started, in a way, because of Rajesh Khanna. I had been invited to make a site-specific work at the bungalow in Bandra where he lived, Aashirwaad, which was acquired by someone else. I have always enjoyed his films a lot, and I still like him.

Anand with his book of poems. Courtesy Atul Dodiya/Chemould Prescott Road.

With the new show, I am exploring reality in a different way. I have retained the flatness of the cinematic image.

The paintings were made in the impasto technique, meaning they were heavily loaded in thick colour. They were realistic, but they were not smooth or flat. With colour, there is the feeling of movement, and because of the paint itself, there are no sharp lines. Also, these paintings remind you of the scratches and stains on the celluloid prints we watched in the 1960s and 1970s.

I was deeply interested in the interiors of these films. The middle-class life depicted in popular cinema was not completely garish or even great, artistically, but it was still good. Everything was a set. There was a quality of artificiality. There were details like period furniture, the costumes, a flower vase that seemed to be present in different houses in the same film.

Because of the actors and strong melodramatic narratives, the backgrounds didn’t get noticed. In my paintings, you don’t see any faces, because when you do, and you recognise the actors, it becomes a different, limiting experience.

Nataraja and Bindu. Courtesy Atul Dodiya/Chemould Prescott Road.

However, when a head is bowed or you see a back, you start experiencing or seeing the texture of the wall. Even that wall speaks so much.

Take the painting Isabhai Suratwala in grief, which shows Johnny Walker’s character from Anand. Isabhai has learnt that Anand has cancer. He comes out of the room and collapses. Within a fraction of a second, Amitabh Bachchan’s character takes him away. I was taking pictures of that moment. When I printed the pictures, I noticed that Isabhai’s shadow was falling on the blue wall. It looked so abstract. That is where art lies.

A carpenter who works on my canvases came into my studio and said, they have a film-type quality. These are no painted photographs, but painted still images of moments that are both awkward and mysterious. They take viewers longer to engage, and don’t make the meaning explicit. The medium of cinema gets transformed by another older medium, which is painting.

I have been a film buff from very early on. I have been watching all kinds of films since my childhood. I was born and raised in Ghatkopar in Mumbai, where I still live. I used to go to Uday, Shreyas and Odeon in Ghatkopar as well as Natraj, Sahakar and Basant in Chembur. At the age of 16, I became a member of a film society.

I clearly remember watching a first-day-first-show screening of Sholay in 1975 at one of the cinemas in Chembur. My cousin remarked that the film is good, but the villain is horrible. I told my cousin, the real thing in this film is the villain, he is a fantastic actor. We all know what happened to Amjad Khan, who played Gabbar Singh in Sholay.

I would also watch Hindi and regional-language films on Doordarshan, as well as European films that were screened late at night. When I was around 13 or 14, I watched Satyajit Ray’s Nayak. I had never seen anything so life-like or real in Hindi cinema.

Karuna. Courtesy Atul Dodiya/Chemould Prescott Road.

When I passed out of school, the choice was between filmmaking and the fine arts. I chose painting because it was easier than filmmaking. But the cinema was always my first love.

I am not a nostalgist for Hindi cinema. I had a love-hate relationship with Hindi films, many of which have been quite bad and even nonsensical at times. You don’t have to use your brains while watching them, and they have nothing to do with the inner life. Popular Hindi cinema produced great actors, and it is sad that the movies they were in were so pedestrian.

But Hindi films have emotion, as well as their own logic. My main relationship with them has been through their music. The creativity when it comes to the way Hindi films songs were composed, written and sung equals a contemporary work of art for me. I must have heard some of these songs thousands of times, and each time, they give me a special experience.

What I don’t like about popular cinema is the word “entertainment”. Why entertain someone? Give them a choice instead.

When I watch Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, I feel joy despite the sadness of its story – joy from the way the film has been made, the performances, the locations, the music. I can understand that certain aspects of popular culture need to be engaging or catchy. It is said that audiences apparently want to forget reality while watching Hindi films. But who decided this? I don’t care what you earn from a film – what is the experience you give me in return?”

Atul Dodiya.