Saturday, June 16, 2018

On an art school, my mother, and a film about a nude model

[In my “cinematic moments” column for The Hindu, I pay a very small tribute to my mother, who died earlier this year. Lots more to write about her, and about the other people I have looked after and somewhat carelessly lost in the past two years; but for now snippets like this will have to do]

This column is meant to be about moments that illuminate something specific about a film, or about cinema in general. But films don’t exist independently of the people who watch them – the viewers who bring to the table their personalities, life experiences, ideological prisms, or just the mood they happen to be in on the day. And sometimes, it’s impossible to predict what will most affect you. Watching Ravi Jadhav’s Marathi film Nude, for instance, it was a setting that struck a personal chord for me.

I knew the plot outline beforehand: a poor woman named Yamuna, despite initial reservations, starts working as a nude model in a Mumbai art school, and feels somewhat empowered in the process. But it wasn’t until around 20 minutes into the film that I realized where a great deal of it was going to be set: in Bombay’s Sir JJ School of Art. The first time we see the place is through the eyes of the protagonist, as she discreetly follows her aunt and is scandalized to discover that the latter sheds her clothes for a living. This sequence, and others to follow, take us into the leafy and spacious garden of the famous art institution; we see the outdoor sculptures, the exterior of the 160-year-old building designed in the neo-gothic style…and then the hall where students sit together at their easels.

I was unprepared for these scenes, and shaken by them for reasons that had nothing to do with the film’s narrative. My mother, who died a few months ago at only 65, after a brave fight with cancer, studied at the JJ School of Art. She continued drawing and painting – sporadically, diffidently, not with professional ambitions – until late in her life, and always spoke of the school with great affection: about hanging around in the gardens with friends and boyfriends, feeling like they had a place to themselves, a sanctuary within the broader idyll that was the south Bombay of the 1960s.

I often tell people that Churchgate is my motherland – it’s where my mother grew up, and where she spent her best years before circumstances led her to a bad marriage in Delhi, and a very different life from the one she might have envisioned as a teenager. When I made my first trip there as an adult in 2006, spent time walking around the Oval Maidan and Eros and Kala Ghoda, I felt that odd phenomenon – a strong nostalgia for a time and place that one has never actually experienced. But I didn’t get to visit JJ School, and this was the first time I was ever seeing it. On a screen, at a film festival, in Delhi!

And this informed my whole experience of Nude, though I had no problem registering other things about the film: I admired the lead performances by Kalyanee Mulay as Yamuna and Chhaya Kadam as her “Akka”; I even rolled my eyes at an over-expository Naseeruddin Shah cameo (he plays the oracle delivering the film’s Message). But JJ remained the most immediate and vivid takeaway.

Once that unexpected kinship with the film was established, of course, other threads came into focus. Perhaps the connection was deepened by the fact that as a child I had witnessed my mother’s many struggles as a divorced woman, and Nude happens to be about a single mother who has left an abusive husband, and is doing everything she can to raise her son well. Or perhaps it was something more fleeting, like the scene where a student cautions Yamuna that a bitch has just laid a litter of pups in the garden and not to go too near. This created a sense of the college premises as a friendly refuge for homeless animals. One of the defining features of my mother’s life was her love for dogs, and I couldn’t help picturing her as a student, cooing over a stray in the JJ lawns.

And there is also the fact that my mother’s death coincides with a time where the arts – especially provocative, discomfiting art – always seem to be under attack. Though she wasn’t an intellectual in the commonly used sense of that word, she had a no-nonsense wisdom, understood concepts like freedom of expression very well, and took them as essential conditions of civilized life. Despite a prim-seeming exterior, she could appreciate very dark, wicked or caustic humour. And even when she did wrinkle her nose in distaste at some things I liked – gory films, books with subversive content – never did she come close to suggesting that I shouldn’t experience them. When I was barely 13, she took on a relative who was aghast that I was reading a German retelling of the Mahabharata that contained explicit sex scenes between Draupadi and Yudhisthira.

As Nude becomes more overtly political in its latter half, there is a scene where hooligans storm into the JJ School premises and desecrate the “dirty” paintings and sculptures that their minds cannot process or accept. For reasons that should by now be obvious, this scene felt to me like a personal violation.

[An earlier essay about mum – written shortly after her cancer was diagnosed – is here. My earlier Hindu columns are here]

                                                        (Three of mum's paintings)


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