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Dodiya at the talkies

  • Can a Hitchcock murder mystery become the canvas for a plot on creativity and consent?
  • Atul Dodiya, who turned 60 last month, on mining cinema for iconic characters and scenes

Dodiya at his studio in Ghatkopar, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint
Dodiya at his studio in Ghatkopar, Mumbai. Photo: Aniruddha Chowdhury/Mint

It’s about Conflict,

Between a Yes and a No,

Demand and Denial,

Craving and Control,

Life and Death.

These words, which serve as the introduction to Atul Dodiya’s solo Seven Minutes Of Blackmail at Chemould Prescott Road in Mumbai, may as well have been written as a description of the recent revelations of sexual abuse and harassment in the Indian art world. The entire exhibition, which is perhaps Dodiya’s most straightforward series of paintings thus far, could be thought of as a pedagogical narrative about consent and the consequences of its violation. At the core of Seven Minutes Of Blackmail are 36 paintings based on stills of a 7-minute sequence from Alfred Hitchcock’s 1929 film Blackmail.

Through carefully chosen frames and subtitles, Dodiya narrates the story of Alice White, played by Anny Ondra, who accompanies an artist to his studio, agrees to model for him, but finds that the invitation was a ruse to seduce her. After a forced kiss, Alice turns down the artist, but he doesn’t want to take no for an answer, and attempts to rape her. In the ensuing struggle, Alice stabs the artist to death. Although she escapes the studio, she is weighed down by the guilt of the murder and is threatened subsequently by a blackmailer.

The selections from the series ‘Seven Minutes Of Blackmail’ 
The selections from the series ‘Seven Minutes Of Blackmail’ 

Dodiya’s sequential display appears like an illustrated guide of what-not-to-do, no matter how amorphous the nature of encounters in the art world. There is a 90-year gap between Hitchcock’s movie and its reappraisal by Dodiya, yet the story still seems relevant. It addresses the tendency to blame women for their abuse or harassment, especially if they willingly participated in the situation at the beginning. Above one of the scenes, in which Alice is shown resisting her attacker, screaming “No. No, let me go! Let me go!", Dodiya installs a mirror so that when viewers walk up to the painting, they see their own reflection taking shape, implicating them as witnesses to the attempted rape. This element of the installation is intended as an indictment of bystanders and systems that sustain silence despite widespread knowledge of the abuse of power. In an adjoining room, Alice’s loneliness and fear are highlighted in a large black and white abstract, signed under her name, and displayed alongside other works mimicking the shape of a palette. The paintings in this suite are dark and turbulent.

Talking about the choice to depict Alice’s interior life, Dodiya says: “I have always been making figurative work, which has a narrative aspect and includes quotation or homage, whatever you call it. I have been a big admirer of abstract painting but I haven’t been able to do it myself. The murder mystery opened the door for me to do abstract work. One of my biggest concerns was the emotional state of the girl. I didn’t just want to illustrate that particular sequence of Hitchcock’s but also wanted to go closer to the girl’s state of mind." Dodiya sees the 36 paintings as portraits that do not merely render what Hitchcock shot but harness light, shadow and brushwork to provide greater insight into each moment of this tense exchange.

When Seven Minutes Of Blackmail began taking shape in early 2017, the allegations against American film producer Harvey Weinstein had not yet been reported and the #MeToo movement was yet to come into existence. This makes Dodiya’s choice of subject not only pertinent but also prescient. Yet, no matter how neatly the paintings fit into this context, they were not created solely with the intention of critiquing sexual abuse in the art world. It was the figure of the artist that caught Dodiya’s attention upon watching Hitchcock’s film, and, in painting the story so painstakingly, he thought the struggle between the man and the woman could be presented as a metaphor for creating art. “Creativity is also something which is about yes and no. As an artist, I impose my ideas on the blank space of a canvas, which I consider as a sacred space," Dodiya explains. “Some things work and some things don’t even for the greatest masters like (Pablo) Picasso. It is a very complex process. So demand and denial are part of it. As soon as you do something on the canvas, you impose your ideas. When a man is forcing something and the girl is not willing, that tension and that intense struggle…I felt that aspect happens also in the making of art."

The selections from the series ‘Seven Minutes Of Blackmail’ (2017-18)
The selections from the series ‘Seven Minutes Of Blackmail’ (2017-18)

This comparison, however, casts the victim as an object and treats an abusive encounter as a benign or even glorified struggle. Audiences, used to Dodiya’s deployment of references from art, cinema and popular culture to create complex riddles and puzzles in his paintings, may find that the moment to make a parallel that glorifies the (male) artist’s creative life is long past. Despite this aspect of Dodiya’s artistic intention, which is not evident in the display or in the accompanying text, Seven Minutes Of Blackmail captures the zeitgeist, becoming a symbol of widespread discontent with power and gender relations in the art world.

When it comes to Dodiya’s use of cinematic references in his paintings, critic and theorist Ranjit Hoskote wrote in a monograph on the artist published in 2014, “Dodiya has been a votary of both popular movies as well as global arthouse cinema since his student days and has been fascinated by the manner in which a film can act, literally as well as figuratively, as a screen for the projection of collective anxieties and fantasies, historical dilemmas and crises." Certainly, cinema and its stars prove to be useful vehicles for Dodiya’s commentary. They bring their charged histories and characteristics, the stories of the iconic films of which they were part, along with the gossip and rumour linked with them, into the present context. In a cabinet included in Seven Minutes Of Blackmail, Dodiya places a postcard-sized painting showing a man aggressively squeezing Sridevi’s cheeks, in a scene picked from the 1993 comedy film Roop Ki Rani Choron Ka Raja. Dodiya used this image over a decade ago, but, in this context, surrounded by works addressing violence against women, the image draws associations with Sridevi’s tragic death and the mystery surrounding its circumstances. In an exhibition with scenes taken from the world of make-believe, the audience is made aware of the fact that the most unexpected events come to pass in real life as well.

The image featuring Sridevi was part of a large painting called Devi And The Sink, shown in Saptapadi: Scenes From Marriage (Regardless) at Delhi’s Vadehra Art Gallery in 2007. That exhibition was an earlier instance of Dodiya mining cinema for images and characters to explore the relationship between men and women. Saptapadi’s 24 paintings on laminate examined the many trials and triumphs of heterosexual couples, depicting the bliss of conjugal union, and the struggles to break its shackles. Three of these paintings featured Madhabi Mukherjee as the characters she portrayed in Satyajit Ray’s films from the mid-1960s: Karuna in Kapurush, Arati in Mahanagar, and Charu in Charulata. Referring to the latter painting, Nancy Adajania writes in the catalogue for Saptapadi: “The key theme here seems to be the emotional inscrutability of women, from a male point of view, of course! So, in Charu (2004-2006), Dodiya dwells on ‘difficult’ women protagonists from world cinema, Madhabi Mukherjee and Liv Ullman among them. These are women in the process of individuating themselves from their social contexts." In Ray’s film, Charu finds an intellectual and romantic companion outside her marriage, although she eventually does not act on her desire. Ullman, who plays Marianne in Ingmar Bergman’s Scenes From A Marriage, gets out of a sexless marriage to pursue another relationship.

As with all of Dodiya’s paintings, the legibility of what the portraits suggest about marriage hinges on familiarity with the sources of reference. If the women appear inscrutable, as Adajania suggests, it may be because we do not immediately have access to their interior life through the painting. Dodiya treats them as icons, and does not speak on their behalf. However, in Seven Minutes Of Blackmail, Dodiya attempts depicting Alice White’s mental state and does so through abstraction. In Saptapadi, on the other hand, the tension is diffused rather than heightened through a comic Hitchcockian character, “Dr Albert Kumar D., Bonesetter", the artist’s alter ego, whose name and/or portrait appear in some of the paintings, including Charu’s.

Hoskote has written, “References to cinema play a vital role in Dodiya’s project of expanding the field of social and cultural experience on which the visual arts in India can draw." In fact, a discussion of cinema in Dodiya’s oeuvre provides a chance to underscore the centrality of quotation to Dodiya’s practice, and demonstrates how the artist has disregarded boundaries between the arts as well as hierarchies between high and low art in choosing his material. Dodiya remembers that as an art student in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the hand-painted cinema billboards and advertisements he saw during the train journey from his home in Ghatkopar to the Sir JJ School of Art in south Mumbai were an important part of his visual palette. “Sometimes the painters were not good with their figuration. It was awkward but I used to see this and enjoy it," he recalls.

In 2012, Dodiya showed Fourteen Stations, a series of 13 paintings with Bollywood villains added to the signboards of stations between Ghatkopar and VT, and a 14th imagined station called “Atul" featuring actor Bindu. They were an ode both to crooked characters and their presence in the city.

However, there is a long route from Dodiya’s student life around those 13 stations and its appropriation into art decades later. When Dodiya graduated from art school, his works did not make use of humour and collage for which he is now known. He used to paint photorealistic scenes of everyday life. In those early years as an artist, Dodiya was harnessing his facility with reproduction, which had served him well as an adolescent. “My elder sisters and their friends when they were growing up in the late 1960s and early 1970s were all fans of Rajesh Khanna," Dodiya remembers. “He was a superstar, nothing like that phenomenon has happened even today. I could achieve likeness so I would draw portraits of Rajesh Khanna and gave copies to impress them."

The 1970s were an important decade for Dodiya’s engagement with cinema. In 1972, he saw his first Satyajit Ray film, Nayak, on Doordarshan. Ray would become Dodiya’s favourite film-maker. Six years later, while Dodiya was still a young art student, he was exposed to world cinema through film clubs in the city. Both cinema and cinema-going culture had a profound impact. The landscape of the city, its cosmopolitan character, and the opportunities found through fortuitous encounter were part of this development. Dodiya’s engagement with cinema deepened over the years, and with it an understanding of what moving images and their paraphernalia could do in art. “Cinema has two aspects—one is watching the actual movie, there is a time span involved in that, and then there are the pictures we see in newspapers and magazines and on billboards," Dodiya says. “There is a proximity between art and cinema. The artist brings a flat image on to a flat canvas, which is different than, say, painting music."

At the start of a promising career, Dodiya left India to continue his studies at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris in the early 1990s. When he returned, his entire perspective on art changed and it was then that he found his singular idiom of assembling ideas from diverse sources. This shift was announced with a 1994 self-portrait titled Bombay Buccaneer based on the poster of the 1993 Bollywood film Baazigar, a film which he had not even watched. In the painting, Dodiya takes the place of the gun-toting Shah Rukh Khan, an Everyman in his checked shirt and loosened tie. Instead of Bollywood actresses, in Dodiya’s sunglasses are reflected his two artistic heroes—Bhupen Khakhar and David Hockney. In the background, fragments from each of their paintings are woven into the landscape. There’s a clapboard, and the doorway of a local train. As the historian Gyan Prakash writes in his 2010 Mumbai Fables, on whose book cover the painting appears, “Dodiya intermeshes art and cinema, Indian and Western, pop culture and high art, to brilliantly capture Mumbai’s kaleidoscopic urban experience."

Seven Minutes Of Blackmail is on view till 16 February at Chemould Prescott Road, Mumbai.

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