At the Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai, one is greeted with a mixed sense of the familiar and the novel. The 24 oil paintings on display, as part of the exhibition Dr. Banerjee In Dr. Kulkarni’s Nursing Home And Other Paintings (2020-2022), evoke a feeling of nostalgia, featuring frozen moments from Indian films from the 1960s-70s. You can recognise the silhouette of Amitabh Bachchan from Anand, Soumitra Chatterjee walking away in Kapurush, and, in the only film from an earlier period, Nargis as Rita playing the piano in Awara. Yet there is a sense of mystery to the scenes—the protagonists are shown with their backs turned, faces covered, often suspended in motion. The play of light, shadow and colour adds immense depth to the scenes painted by Atul Dodiya.
When you move beyond body language, you start noticing other details in the setting you may not have noticed in the film. In Aarti at the Office, which features Madhabi Mukherjee in Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar, you begin to observe the poster on the wall about a knitting machine, the weighing scales, the texture of the curtains and the stance of a man looking back at Aarti. Each work comes with detailed captions, mentioning the actor, the name of the character they are essaying and the film title. When taken out of context— if one were not to look at the captions and were to dissociate the scenes from the films—the paintings become a storyboard of their own. It feels like one is going through a blown-up contact sheet of Dodiya’s own film. Viewers can create their own narrative based on how they navigate the show.
For Dodiya, 64, it was a conscious decision to allow for this kind of reading. “The paintings are not just about specific films and sequences. That would have become very limiting. One of the devices I have used is to conceal the faces of the actors. The actors are so well-known, and if the viewers simply focus on the faces of Rajesh Khanna, Sharmila Tagore and Saira Banu, the experience will be limiting,” he explains. However, now you simply notice a generic figure of a housewife, a lady in an office, or a man emerging from the kitchen. And then you start taking in the décor and the surroundings—there is so much more to engage with.
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“Also, when you see a person from the back in a painting, there is a sense of mystery. That is more lasting as an experience,” adds Dodiya, who created these works between 2020-22.
The artist’s engagement with cinema is not new. Having grown up with international and regional films, the impact of Satyajit Ray, Jean-Luc Godard and Guru Dutt is evident in his work. In 2019, he created a set of 36 paintings that brought to life Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail. In 1994, he worked on a self-portrait, The Bombay Buccaneer, inspired by the 1993 film Baazigar. “My intention was to think how can I interpret the narrative, without making it a direct depiction of the film. The work ought to stand on its own as a painting,” he had mentioned in a 2019-interview to the Architectural Digest.
He carries forward a similar ethos in this set of works as well. Walking around, you can’t help but wonder why Dodiya chose these particular moments to paint. “When you watch a film in a cinema hall, you sit through the entire duration. However, at home, whether you are watching a film on a DVD or the OTT, there is a remote control in your hand. If someone rings the bell or calls you, there is the option to pause the film,” says Dodiya. This pause is often so random and unintentional. “Mine is a painter’s eye. I am always looking out for a unique visual experience. Often one stops between a movement—leading to a partly blurred, partly hidden visual. There is a tremendous amount of abstraction within that,” he adds. And it is such visuals, which take place in a fraction of a second, that fascinate him.
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For instance, one work, Isabhai Suratwala In Grief, shows Johnnie Walker, in Anand, bent over weeping. This moment ends quickly in the film as Amitabh Bachchan makes an appearance. “In my painting, however, that moment is so precise. One can see a huge shadow of the actor falling on a blank wall, which might not have been noticed while watching the film. Such frozen moments are special,” explains Dodiya.
Over the past five-six years, the artist took photographs of such moments on his phone. He would download and print them. Dodiya would keep these on his table and mull over how he wanted the figure to be, the movement of hands, etc.
It’s also interesting that all the scenes that he chose are set indoors. Dodiya was interested in the décor shown in the films from the 1960s-70s. The sets featured a lot of knick-knacks, often randomly put together. “In the films from that era, the actors were so good that the audience focused solely on them. Rest of the things were relegated to the background,” says Dodiya. “However, when I was painting, everything was carefully attended to. I was interested in the furniture, the way things were kept, and the design on the walls and doors.”
If you view the painting Bindu And The Mirror, which shows a scene from Padosan featuring Saira Banu, you will suddenly notice a vase plonked on top of an almirah. Its placement has no significant relevance to the scene, but in the painting, still life like this attracts the eye.
There is a certain vibrance to the paintings, with the artist consciously adding a touch of kitsch. He was interested in the quality old black and white photographs acquire when hand-painted. “That is a method I adopted. I would paint all images in thick black and white and then add thin layers of transparent colours,” he explains.
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The images you see in these paintings can’t be found on the internet, for they are his chosen moments. This also reflects his deep familiarity with the films of the time. Dodiya calls this a love-hate relationship with popular Hindi cinema. “I hate the term Bollywood. But if you look back at the golden era, from the 1940s to the 1960s, the cinema was okay, but the music was so beautiful. Sometimes we didn’t even know which film the song hailed from, or which actors sang it on screen, but still remember the melodies and lyrics. That led me to explore the film further—who was the cinematographer, was this Rajesh Khanna’s second film?” he reminisces. “And that led to a total immersion in the subject of cinema.”
On view till 25 February, 10am-6pm (closed on Sundays and public holidays).