In Kamal Swaroop’s documentary Atul, based on the works of Atul Dodiya, the renowned Mumbai artist says, “The biggest enemy of an artist is his own past, his own oeuvre.”
Keeping that enemy at bay, Dodiya, in a career spanning almost four decades, has switched formats, styles and themes over the years, moving from oil paintings and watercolours to installations and mixed media art and crowding his frames with his earliest memories and tributes to his favourite masters (Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, Jasper Johns, among others) along the way.
A bit like Kamal Swaroop himself.
Since his breakthrough experimental feature Om-Dar-B-Dar in 1988, Swaroop has been making documentaries on varied subjects: the National Film Award-winning Rangbhoomi (2013), based on DG Phalke’s life and times after his retirement from filmmaking, The Battle for Banaras (2014), based on the electoral contest between Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal in Varanasi in the 2014 Lok Sabha election, and Pushkar Puran (2016), revolving around pilgrimage to the Pushkar lake.
Swaroop attributes the lack of a feature follow-up to Om-Dar-B-Dar to his rising ambitions. “My mistake was working on expensive projects after Om-Dar-B-Dar,” he said. “I started thinking big. I should have gone step by step,” he said.
Atul was conceptualised by Swaroop in 2012. He had seen Dodiya’s work in the 1980s at Mumbai’s Jehangir Art Gallery. In 2016, Swaroop began pre-production, shot for 10 days, and finished the 105-minute long film by December. Atul will be screened at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s Open Frame film festival in Delhi between September 13 and 19.
The film is divided into two halves, the first of which is a careful study of selected works. The background score includes off-camera sounds of the sloshing of water, the chatter of women, handmills, and audio tracks from such films as Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali and Ingmar Bergman’s Silence. The sonic universe corresponds to an inspiration related to the source of the sound. For example, Dodiya’s Night Studio is partially inspired by his memories of hearing the sound of handmills at his old home.
“Mr Dodiya talks so well that all I did was make him stand next to his paintings and asked him to talk about their relationship with his life,” Swaroop said, “Then, a little animation here and there… the simplest way to do things.”
The second half shows Dodiya interacting with fellow painters, including his wife and established artist Anju Dodiya and Sudhir Patwardhan, while they, in turn, comment on his paintings. The film culminates with scenes from an exhibition of Dodiya’s creations in Mumbai.
If Swaroop delves into Dodiya’s memories in relation to his art in Atul, in Pushkar Puran, the filmmaker goes back to the pilgrimage town in Rajasthan. Memories and history play a prominent part in Swaroop’s films too. Om-Dar-B-Dar, for instance, was set in his hometown Ajmer, and the film included references to many of his earliest memories, dreams and interests.
Swaroop had grown up seeing the chaos surrounding the days leading up to and during the annual Pushkar fair. By using image and sound and minimal narration, Swaroop captures the cacophonous milieu: the hordes of livestock brought in for trade, the theatrical performances, the swim in the Pushkar lake, and the seemingly eccentric characters who appear to have belonged to that place for ages.
“I was born there,” Swaroop said, “I was born in Puran. I am an ancient being, even older than Ram Rahim.”
Two highlights of the 140-minute long documentary include a compelling montage sequence in which a person reads out the origins of the ashvamedha, or horse sacrifice. In another sequence, scenes from the fair are edited to a fusion remake of the theme of Pyotr IIyich Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake.
Following Atul, Swaroop intends to chronicle Indian painting since independence. Staring from the Progressive Artists’ Group to the JJ School of Arts and taking in the Cholamandal Artists Village and Santiniketan, Swaroop’s canvas will encompass 40-50 years of Indian artistic traditions.
But will he go back to fiction? “Funding is a problem,” he said. “For funding, you need to be in a certain community in Mumbai. I am not related to that community. Probably they have no use for me. You are useful when you make a film and it makes money in return. Om-Dar-B-Dar might have artistic value but it has no commercial value so the market does not need me.”
But he does have plans for making fiction again. Swaroop is heading to the annual industry event Film Bazaar in Goa in November to raise funds for his script Om Niyam, an adaptation of Irish writer Flann O’ Brien’s philosophical murder mystery novel The Third Policeman. Swaroop estimated that the movie will require Rs 6.5 crores to produce. His script for the musical Miss Palmolive All Night Cabaret has also been around for years.
Meanwhile, the filmmaker plans to raise a few lakhs over the next two years and make short fiction films. “I will try to release them online or sell them to European film networks,” he said.
Then, there is the screenplay of his Dhundiraj Govind Phalke biopic, which has been in the works for almost 20 years. Swaroop’s longstanding obsession with Phalke has yielded two documentaries and a book about his films, called Tracing Phalke.
“My ideal Phalke would be a Chitpavan Brahman from the Konkan region,” Swaroop said, “I would like to cast someone from Marathi theatre, but that won’t fetch me money. At one point I wanted Shreeram Lagoo. Phalke’s family wanted me to take Anupam Kher. But today, if I get to cast somebody, it would only be Aamir Khan.”