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)



  1. What a radiant beauty! I'm sorry for your loss. Please do write more about her.

  2. Sad to know about your mom's demise, Jai. The post is really well written connecting a movie with personal life.

    I had a very difficult experience watching the first scene of Pratidwandi, that interview scene. I have had tough times at interviews and the scene was so overwhelming that I had to press the pause button and have a glass of water.


  3. Tender, moist, exquisite and heart-warming. I used to be a regular here, but it was a long time ago. Today, I ended up here by sheer coincidence. Merriam Webster emailed me the word of the day. And the word was ‘Jabberwocky’. I was thinking, yes, I used to read a blog by the name ‘jabberwock’, then I googled it, and there, there you popped up!

  4. A beautiful tribute to a Beautiful Lady. I imagine you made her very proud!

  5. Hello Jai. Long time reader, first time commenter. Please accept my condolences on the passing away of your mother. Through your writings, I felt like we knew her a little bit.

  6. Thank you, Jai - for this most moving yet restrained piece. Over the years, I have come to love your prose style - words slotting neatly behind one another to form taut sentences that flow, often conveying a sense of understated sentimentality.

    I am very sorry for the loss of your mother - hope you are doing OK. Keep writing!

  7. मैं 'राज़ी' देखते हुए एक अजीब से प्यार से भर गया। सिनेमायी प्रेम नहीं, मां-पिता वाला प्यार। प्यार, जो किसी बच्चे के सर पर हाथ रखकर या उसका माथा चूमकर पूरा होता है। फ़िल्म की नायिका में मुझे नायिका नहीं, बच्ची नज़र आने लगी। कुछ इसका दोष फ़िल्म की कहानी को और गुलज़ार साब की लिखी लाइनों (फसलें जो काटी जाएं... बेटियाँ जो ब्याही जाएं...) को भी जाएगा। पर मेरा मन जानता था, सिर्फ यही वजह नहीं थी।

    मैं अपने जीवन में parent होना क्या होता है, यह अभी तक नहीं जाना हूँ। पता नहीं, वो कभी होगा भी या नहीं। हमारे चयन वो नहीं हैं। मैं घर में भी सबसे छोटा रहा.. सबसे छोटा लड़का, सबसे छोटा भाई, प्रेम में भी नौसिखिया और शादी में भी।

    लेकिन एक जगह रही जहाँ मैंने अपने भीतर parent होने के अंश को धड़कता पाया। बस वही एक जगह। वो अपनी क्लास के बच्चों को लेकर। और पिछले साल मिरांडा हाउस में पढ़ाते हुए यह भाव मेरे भीतर बहुत ज़्यादा रहा। लड़कियों का पिता होना शायद इस दुनिया का सबसे पवित्र अहसास है। मुझे उसका अंश मिला ज़रा सा।

    जब 'राज़ी' में पहले ही सीन में आलिया भट्ट को मिरांडा के गलियारों में देखा, मन किसी और रास्ते पर ही ले गया मुझे। फ़िल्म के कुछ और मायने ही हो गए मेरे लिए। एक पिता का दिल वहाँ धड़क रहा था, और जैसे एक पिता का दिल यहां भी धड़कने लगा मेरे भीतर। शायद इसीलिए फ़िल्म ने इतना असर डाला।

    हम अपने जीवन में एक भी गिलहरी को उसकी लम्बी बेपरवाह 'कूद' में ज़रा भी मदद कर पाए, बस यही।

  8. Hi Jai,
    I've been a reader of your blog for about 9 years but have only rarely commented. Every now and then I pass along your posts to friends and discuss things you wrote. So in a sense, it feels like I'm acquainted with you. I gave this preamble because I wanted to say, though I'm a stranger on the internet, I am truly sorry for your loss.
    I loved both your posts about you mom and hope that, if and when you feel up to it, you will write about her again. She sounds extraordinary; I've always (somewhat bitterly) believed that those accepting parents with this kind of wisdom and integrity only existed in movies. Everyone around me has always had to hide things from their parents, like you said in your earlier post. I also continue to hide many fundamental things about me from my mother. From her stories of her childhood and youth, I know that she was a different person before she had to conform with my deeply conservative father and his family. She was passionate about movies, and watched her favorite movies multiple times in the theater. Whenever I am home and I pass those now derelict single-screens, I feel a twinge of nostalgia for a place and time where my mom was free to, and was not guilty about, loving and enjoying something for herself. It feels like such a loss that I can only ever catch glimpses of her easygoing, fun-loving former self. I've been reflecting on your post a lot since I read it a few days back. There is something very moving about thought of an idyllic respite in the lives of people who have had to deal with a lot.

  9. Hi everyone,
    thanks for the comments. Just putting up this boiler-plate comment here (and on other posts) to say: I have been missing lots of "to be moderated" comments because for some reason they are no longer coming to my email.
    Will have to figure out what the problem is -- I think it may be that Blogger's spam-detection is no longer too good, with the result that literally hundreds of spam comments every week are going into the "to be moderated" folder, and then they don't get sent to Gmail because there are too many of them. I just had to sift through hundreds of recent comments on the Blogger dashboard to find the genuine ones, which I have now published.

  10. Hi Jai,

    Had been a bit miffed with the comments not being approved, and hadn't been reading all your posts...had just scanned through a few of them. Am very sorry to hear of your mother's death. She was a very brave lady, as was your grandmother. I don't know what to say without sounding trite; it's a big loss. Hope it gets easier to deal with with time, and easier to revert to the good memories without any attendant pain.