January 2001 

Since the last five years, ART VISION has been conducting yearly, a Festival of Films on Performing and Visual Arts at Bhubaneswar. This year the Festival was held on the 12th, 13th, 14th of January at R.R.L.Auditorium. The event, unique in its kind, aims at presenting rarely seen films focussing on various forms of Indian dance and music and on the life and art of famous dancers, musicians, painters, actors and films directors.  

The films presented during the Festival can be broadly divided in three categories:  
 - long length feature films revolving around dramatised stories of real or fictitious characters of dancers or musicians  
 - highly aesthetic and poetical elaborations which more than documenting an art form , draw inspiration from it to create an other work of art through the media of cinema  
 - instructive documentaries which aim at increasing the knowledge of a particular art form by a detailed elaboration of its main features.  

To the first category belonged the film presented on the opening day of the Festival, ‘Vanaprastham’, directed by Malayalam director Arun Kumar Shaji.with music by Zakir Hussain. Vanaprastham in Malayalam means: the renunciation for peace. The film, inspired by a real life story, depicts the identity crisis of Kunjukuttam, a celebrated Kathakali dancer. His mother hails from a very low caste society and does not reveal the father’s identity to him. Initiated into Kathakali at the tender age of 10, he proves himself as the most gifted pupil of his guru. While Kunjukuttan’s recognisation and popularity as a dancer grows, his personal life becomes a saga of tragic existence. He is tormented for not knowing his father and for being forced into an arranged marriage. His passionate involvement with a beautiful and mysterious woman who loves him as the epic hero Arjuna and not as Kunjukuttam, brings him to an identity crisis and is the cause of his final annihilation. The film has an excellent interpretation by Mohanlal, whose portrayals of the characters of Puttana, Arjuna, Kicchaka and Hanuman in the Kathakali style betray a true knowledge of the dance form. The scene depicting Puttana’s death was perhaps the most unforgettable one. The closeness of the camera on Mohanlal ‘s intense facial mask offered the viewers a proximity to the character which would be impossible to reach at during a live performance. All the Kathakali sequences were authentic and well balanced within the plot of the story; a succesfull attempt of contemporarising a dance form without distorting its essence Although most of the musical score was provided by the traditional Kathakali music, the few interventions by Zakir Hussain were well conceived.  

Kumar Shahani’s ‘Bamboo flute’ and Arun Khopkar’s ‘Confluence of North Indian Music’ were presented on the second day of the Festival. Both the films can be described as creative elaborations of an art form; while the one by Arun Khopkar still presents an attempt at documenting while elaborating, the one by Kumar Shahani develops entirely as a work of imagination. Shahani’s approach to its subjects has always been highly allusive and suggestive. This film, recently produced, presents the same pattern which was already present in his two previous films, ‘Bhavantarana’, on Kelucharan Mohapatra’s life, and ‘Khayal gatha’ on the form of Khayal singing. The subject chosen, in this case the musicality of the flute, suggests parallel configurations and visual correspondence in architecture, dance, poetry and painting. The musical quality of the film is excellent; along with the haunting sound of the flute, played by Pandit Chaurasia, which runs almost through out the film, sounds of nature close to the musicality of the flute and ritual sounds of blowing instruments are heard. The few dance sequences presented, both in Odissi and Bharat Natyam style have a certain lightness and are improvised by the dancers on the suggestions offered by the mode played by the flute. Among the myriad of images which run through the film, the image of water is the most recurrent. At times, one gets the feeling that the visual is redundant; the overlapping of poetry, images and sound reaches at times, a point of saturation and one gets tempted to close the eyes and just relish the powerful sound of the flute. The treatment of the subject came under serious scrutiny during the seminar which was held on the last day of the Festival on ‘Social relevance of films on performing arts’; how much liberty can a director take when presenting a film on a form of art and how much is he bound to the responsibility of making the subject understandable to the viewer, were some of the questions risen during the discussion on the film.  

The film by Arun Khopkar is divided in two parts: ‘Rasikapriya’ on Hindustani vocal music and ‘Lokapriya’ on Hindi film music. The first part is quite linear and has tableau to explain what we are going to hear next. The path of the film evolves from Vedic chanting to dhrupad, khayal, and the many minor forms like tappa and tarana. Eminent vocalists such as Shri Udhay Bhawalkar, Smt. Padma Tawalkar, Pandit Jal Balaporia and Ustad Aslam Khan are rendering the various forms of singing. In spite of the  breathtaking visuals which accompany the music, the film does not give justice to the subject; the confluence hinted at in the title is not enough explored and the final product looks more as a package for tourists than an in-depth exposition of the theme. The second part of the film, ‘Lokapriya’ is a collage which comprises fragments of Hindi music, interviews with music composers and frenzied images of the dynamic cityscape of Bombay and of the life style of the people who embody the spirit of this music. Both the films are a far cry from the ones made by Khopkar on the work of three painters (‘ Figures of thoughts’) and on Bharat Natyam dancer Leela Samson (‘Sanchari’); both these films had succeeded in creating a parallel work of art with genial cinematic interventions. Especially the second one was an interesting attempt to recreate in a different medium the flavour of the movements of dance by translating them into the cinematic language.  

On the third day of the Festival, the opening film was ‘Kalamandalam Gopi’ by Adoor Gopalakrishna, followed by ‘Nargis’, a biographical tribute to the great actress by her daughter Priya Dutt and ‘The Shamin of Perpang’, a short and evocative film by Mainak Trivedi on the esoteric meaning attributed to the Saora pantings. Adoor’s film has the quality of a well polished gem: vivid colours, neat contours, clear and uncompromising frames The Kathakali form of dance stands out in all its glory and larger than life dimension. Perhaps it is more a film on the dance form than on Gopi, the brilliant dancer-actor who has almost re-written its grammar. Although the film is presented in first person and Gopi narrates about his childhood, his early association with the art form and his training under different guru, what finally remains etched in the viewer’s mind are the powerful sequences of abhinaya from the Nala Damayanti story portrayed by the Kathakali actor. The subtitles explaining the meaning of the poetical lines help the viewer to enjoy the dance sequences to a great extent.  Adoor did not take any risk by using too much camera gimmickry while shooting the sequences of dance; he has approached the medium with reverence bringing out the essence of it with best cinematic techniques. It is evident that he knows the art form he is portraying and knows exactly what he wants to highlight and how. A good lesson for anybody who wants to approach the art of dance through cinematic medium.. Although dance (good or bad) is used at plenty in Indian commercial films, there are relatively very few films made on dance and very few directors who have attempted to portray dance in itself. While in the West, especially in Germany and France, there are regular Festivals for choreographers and film people where films on dance are screened and reviewed, in India there is hardly any attention paid to the subject. The effort should be made from both sides; the choreographer should visualise the dance in terms of the cinematic space and the director understand it in all its nuances. Dance being the most fleeting among all the arts would gain a lot through a constructive and creative collaboration with the medium of cinema.  

Ileana Citaristi