May 28, 2012

Project Cinema City At NGMA, Mumbai

Bombay has grime, grit, spit, shit, and runs to the writ of the Marathi Manoos brigade. And at one time the city had the Brit lording over. The Brit is gone, but chose not to take the grime, grit, spit, and shit along to some museum in the isle to display alongside what many say are loot gathered in the time it took to ensure the Sun never sets on the British Empire.

But it’s another matter, a story for another time that someone, and it’s said it was a Sri Lankan, responded with, “That's because God does not trust the British in the dark.”

But on the Saturday before last there was light, there was dark even if in unequal measure, and a museum to display them both, a museum I rarely tire of visiting irrespective of whether the art on display enthuses me or not. 

In these two shades that’re central to the cinema Bombay produced, until now that is, artists, people I no longer know how to distinguish outside of their ‘work’ expect from their stereotypes, came together to create Project Cinema City in the National Gallery Of Modern Art, or NGMA, the acronym it’s better known by.

Bombay as Cinema City is a cliché even though it being a cliché does not constrain or limit the artist determined to find a ‘new’ way to express the city’s association with cinema, Indian cinema.

Bombay is about Hindi Cinema. Hindi is Indian Cinema if visibility is the factor to consider. So Bombay is Indian Cinema. I can sense a few faces cringe at my attempt to equate A with C just because A = B, and B = C. It’s too simplistic.

But then, at its best Hindi Cinema has been about A = C in its plots where the protagonist is rarely the cause and reason for the ending, instead the city, i.e. Bombay, its character, its characterisation as a metaphor for life’s struggles, it’s own genesis drawn as a parallel for rags to riches stories, holding up its capacity to level playing fields as backdrop to create drama and play it out in a mix of sentimentality, morality, viciousness, sacrifice is often the catalyst for moral and ethical dilemmas the script confronts the characters with before turning into a plot deconstructed in steps by twists and turns.

If you were looking to see the twists and turns articulated in the air conditioned environs of the NGMA, expecting each floor you ascended to reveal the next level of drama as opposed to a mere turn, before turning into a full fledged climax, you would be in for a disappointment.

Instead what the artists put together at the NGMA on the saturday before last, and it should not come as a surprise because among NGMA’s stated aims is to function as “a repository of the cultural ethos of the country and showcase the changing art forms through the passage of the last hundred and fifty years starting from about 1857 in the field of Visual and Plastic arts.”

And Project Cinema City: Research Art & Documentary Practices, a Majilis initiative with KRVIA in collaboration with NGMA and the Ministry Of Culture, Govt. Of India, is described as a set of enquiries into the labour, imagination, desire, access, spaces, locations, iconisation, materiality, languages, migrant peoples, viewing conventions, and hidden processes that create the cinemas the city makes, and also the cities its cinema produces. The enquiries are then processed into productions of text, film, art, cartography. The multi-disciplinary research work, produced output and all the residuals together form a cinema city archive that is transient and open-ended – to facilitate further readings, more works.

Elaborating further in the context of the city, Bombay/Mumbai, it reads

This show, a part of Project Cinema City, focuses on the cinema of the city of Bombay/Mumbai: its production processes and ancillary cultures; its stations of reception and recognition that run through a complex set of networks; the bazaars and streets of the city that hawk the footprints of cinema; and the city-zens’ memory of the contemporary that revolves around cinema.

The problem I find with creative descriptions is it engenders a certain sensory expectation from the viewer compatible with their own take on cinema that derives its metaphors and more from the city (Bombay) they negotiate on a daily basis; in order to survive, continually adapting to its very vicissitudes the city’s cinema includes as elements in its telling of stories.

A city resident, in part, lives the portrayal of the city in its cinema.

Juxtaposed with their own impressions of cinema through the years, the reading of the description Project Cinema City put out will have constructed a very different expectation of presentation to the one they eventually got to see at the NGMA yesterday. Not that any of it was entirely off the mark, far from it it forced the viewer to make associations with their own residual remembrances of city’s character that’s changed from the one the city’s cinema painted over the years.

And 100 years of Indian Cinema as this project seeks to commemorate is too wide a timeline to capture metaphorically. To compound it, the use of visual imagery as a driver to cement portrayals of the city of Mumbai and the cinema it engendered meant there’s gaps to fill where the city’s landscape has changed, where its excesses have changed direction, where its ethos has shown a marked change with the going of its original keepers.

It’s in these gaps in remembrances the viewer, at least those like yours truly, expected Project Cinema City to step in and fill it for them.

They tried but more as a construction of elements abstracted at sensory levels the viewer steps around and off the street on their way about Mumbai. The installations were not the metaphors they could be but were instead representations in another form. It was here the viewer was challenged, irrespective of whether it was a good thing in this context, into relating to the exhibits. It was an interesting way to represent to say the least. Creative, certainly.

This was evident on the third floor, Phantasmagoria aka Chamatkar, where Anant Joshi’s settlement of moving wooden objects, painted with industrial paint and radium stickers sought to replicate the imagination of the city of dizzying speed and escalating desire in an installation of moving wooden objects that are shaped in the form of firecrackers and painted/printed in the idiom of matchbox labels.

The objects also resemble threaded spindles, the base for production in the textile industry – the erstwhile nerve centre of the city. The high speed of movement makes the objects ephemeral and yet desirable, much like matinee idols who are often referred to as patakas – firecrackers.    

The objects spun at high speeds drawing passing attention though not quite communicating their intent, at least not in the way Bombayites see their spinning city. They could identify with the speed even if not with the spindle.

Desire, when spun, turns into a blur. Its shades merge, shedding nuances, and acquiring invisibility. In this city of Mumbai, invisibility is a state of being.

If you’re about Mumbai and wish to see life twirling madly before being whisked away, you only need to step into the nearest suburban railway station at rush hour.

It’s on those platforms that the spinning objects of Anant Joshi’s creation would find their closest context, a realistic scenario, one that’s easily identifiable, and more importantly, relatable.

While the artists at the NGMA sought to gather Mumbai suburban railway stations into the ambit of their vision for Cinema City, they did it differently.

Instead of associating with the installation of painted spinning objects on third floor that simultaneously sought to project a city of dizzying speed and threaded spindles of erstwhile city mills, its workers travelling to and fro from shifts by suburban train lines, the paintings of Fourteen Stations by Atul Dodiya, rendered in oil, acrylic with marble dust and crackle medium on canvas and displayed on the second floor of the NGMA gallery, depicted suburban railway station signboards painted with portraits of popular Bollywood villains!

I struggled to make the connection in light of the connection that could’ve been made.

By itself, Atul Dodiya’s depiction juxtaposing a Bollywood villain with station signboards on the Central Line was an association too tenuous to make sense in the context of the expectation Project Cinema City generated with respect to the city’s lifeline (suburban rail network) integrated into many a memorable Bollywood plot.

Mumbai’s railway stations have figured in high drama ranging from chases, escapes, romances, and runaways to captures, and happy endings, all in the thronging milieu of the spinning objects.

It was time to move on to other exhibits. The Calendar Project on the ground floor and continued on the first floor.      

Even before K and I stepped into the NGMA on its opening night of Project Cinema City, it was the Calendar Project I was looking forward to. Space reserved in the spacious ground floor setting, intriguingly designated Gallery Temporal, hosted portions of the Calendar Project alongside Table Of Miscellany and Bioscope.  

It doesn’t take much persuasion to become a fan of bollywood posters of yore and no show on Indian Cinema is deemed complete without those posters that’ve gone on to acquire iconic status though it must be said while I expected Bollywood to figure in the calendars on display, reminiscent of old Bollywood posters, the displays turned out to be different.

I had expected a re-run of the below imagery from Bacchan's time, old hindi film posters that etched the grit, the grime, the intensity in strokes of colour driven by an unseen hand, the artist a mere intermediary unleashing the complex reality the script sought to project.

No one who saw those posters outside cinema halls in the years gone by could realistically resist queuing up at the ticket counters. In those posters is an era gone by that compulsively draws people into wanting to experience it yet again, one more time.

I was no different. Except the calendars on display, retro all the same, displayed iconography (as is the fancy categorisation given by those who only make sense of things if slotted in mechanical contexts) and had little or no relation to the posters I thought I’d be seeing displayed.

Calendars displayed on the walls drew attention of a disproportionate number of visitors. Everyone grew up with them back then. Now, almost no one does. The pamphlet note The Calendar Project thus:

A collaborative project to re-negotiate the process of iconization of contemporary images in the public domain through the 20th century. The works are mostly based on found images or on earlier works of the artists themselves, which are then hybridized with contemporary readings and speculations on the public and the popular.

The inconspicuous-looking individual works gain temporality and attain a special kind of exuberance when collated and placed together.

Then there was the Bioscope.

Created by Kausik Mukhopadhay with Amruta Sakalkar, the Bioscope was projected as A game of Cinema – City – Modernity Timeline, and described as below:

Snippets of information, gossip, lore and tales swivel around the cityscape and images of urban icons. The game is to create a tangible narrative by arranging appropriate series of data through an interactive device.

I stepped up to each of its six view ports and partook of the city in its imagery.

Adjacent to the Bioscope, on the Table Of Miscellany, a Collaborative compilation of photographs, texts, maps installed by Shikha Pandey and Paroma Sadhana, vied for attention of visitors drawn moth-like to the calendars displayed on the wall across the floor.

But those who did stop by the Table of Miscellany attempted to absorb the assertion of the artists thus: Books that are not written, magazines that are fossilized, maps that are constantly being altered, texts that are fluid, photos that capture the ephemeral – all collated within a structure that is a library-cum-laboratory look-alike. The monochromatic formality of the structure and the fleeting characteristics of the objects represent the inherent frictions in the proclamation of archiving the contemporary.

Men, and women in frocks and skirts sat at the Table of Miscellany, elbows resting on the table-top, sifting through the miscellany.

Of the First Floor exhibits, collectively titled with the intriguing WWW@FF, the series Return of the Phantom Lady or Sinful City, a Photo-Romance by the artist Pushpamala narrated the second adventure of the Phantom Lady or Kismet (1996-98), a black-and-white thriller shot in the film noir style.

This time the Phantom Lady gets caught in a dark web of murder, intrigue and foul play in contemporary Mumbai. While rescuing an orphaned schoolgirl, she encounters the land mafia and their land-grab operations that unfold through the sites.

While there were no known faces to fit into frames on display, each frame capturing a key moment in a Bollywood plot, it was the setting and the farce encountered in the exaggerated imagery that drove home the recurring theme in Bollywood dramas, among the ones set in the Cinema City – Mumbai.

The context of a land-grab in the Phantom Lady sequence was eminently relatable by many struggling to hold on to their piece of land (in the sky or otherwise) in Mumbai.     

Visitors flocked in the open spaces fronting exhibits, talking, catching up. Soon NGMA galleries from ground up, through its floors – first, second, third, and the Dome, turned into an occasion for a quick tête-à-tête.

Dressed for the evening, attire ranging from the casual ‘take-it-or-leave-it-this-is-me’ to formals, it was time to renew associations, catch up from where some had left off the evening before at another place at another occasion, the crowd, prominently South Mumbai or so it seemed had responded in sufficient numbers to the call of the Cinema City.

Staircases hummed to life, in contrast to the quiet from earlier shows at the NGMA I’ve made my way to over the years. It was a welcome change. And this is how Mumbai should respond to its artists I thought. But no two occasions engender their representation in art equally, and no two artists are equally endowed with creativity people can relate to.   

Among faces that floated around from exhibit to exhibit, many seemed familiar.  Had I seen them on Page 3 supplements? I wasn’t sure. Had I seen them on T.V.? Maybe. Had I seen them in T.V. Serials? Probably.

Of Sushmita Mukherjee, the loquacious Kitty of the 1980s T.V. show Karamchand, I was certain of. I passed her on my way down from the Dome.

Clad in a saree and clutching a purse she waited on the landing for visitors to file down before taking the stairs up to the Dome where Museum Shop of Fetish Objects (drawings and sculptures by Shreyas Karle), The Western Suburb (Video installation on Sweatshops of Cinema with 13 monitors and a projection on acrylic sheets), Of Panorama: A Riding Exercise (Video animation and interactive installation), and Cinema City Lived (Map  of the city made of a network of PVC pipes with graphics, models, objects and moving images.

The 360 degree view of the Dome is among my favourite galleries in the NGMA. It’s impossible for any art displayed in the Dome to slip up.

Under the aegis of How Films Are Prepared: Remembering Phalke, the Dome, among other exhibits, had on display The Museum Shop of Fetish Objects - A speculative museum of cinema at the time of post-cinema.       

On display were various fetishes foregrounded by Bollywood – the human anatomy, garments, props, home décor, spoken words – are made into sculptural objects cast in brass, copper and aluminium. These objects, along with sketches, scribbles, diaries and found images are displayed in a museum-like setting.

And who can forget the bandook of Bollywood, two-fingered or single-fingered, the iconic symbol that dispatches karma to do its dharma in Bollywood plots is best remembered by Hands’ Up.

You are Under Arrest is peripheral given that few arrests if any take place until the climax is well and truly done if not underway. That’s the reality a cine goer will tell you, adding for your benefit, “Even in real life, as opposed to reel life, cops arrive on the scene after all is over.”

The label read: This simple movement of both the palms establishes a deep relation between Mumbai’s goons and Cinema. The object underlines the power of mundane actions establishing their universality as a constant ‘k’. The k, or the constant here is the city’s viewer who has been witness to the on screen and off screen/drama. Made in brass the object carries an external natural shine, which glorifies the two occupations mentioned above.

And the Hindu, Muslim, Sikh, Isahi needs no further enumeration, certainly not in the context of Bollwood themes.

I wonder if Amar, Akbar, Anthony will be remade into Amar, Akbar, Arvinder, Anthony. Anything is possible in these days of script drought in Bollywood. Moreover it might not be a bad idea after all.

Across from the ‘museum’ exhibits was Cinema City Lived (Map of the city made from a network of PVC pipes with graphics, models, objects and moving images).

Conceptualised by Rohan Shivkumar and Apurva Parikh, with structure and objects constructed by Apurva Talpade, Elizabeth Mathew and Shivani Shedde, with Waterfront Image provided by Apoorva Iyengar and Chetan Kulkarni, the description of the installation (in darkness) read:

A compilation of the marks of cinema on the body of the city. The pipeline network is conceived as the stitching pattern that holds the map of the cinema city together – tracing production units, shooting studios, exhibition theatres, locations of desires and utility and their interfaces.

At regular intervals, the viewing ports carved in the PVC pipes glowed, drawing curious visitors into stepping gingerly among pipes laid out for a dekho.

If the artists actually managed to locate the viewing ports (and the exhibits viewed through them) at their exact locations on the map of Mumbai city as represented by the network of PVC pipes then I’ve no qualms in clapping my approval for their creative representation.

My only concern was if visitors, after having negotiated successive floors of exhibits, would’ve tired of the theme to retain their enthusiasm until the moment they ascended the stairs to emerge as if from a trap door on the best stage of all, the Dome.

I hoped they could for, if as I said earlier, the network of PVC pipes with its view ports glowing with elements central, and integral, to producing a Bollywood film in Mumbai, were accurately represented by location of the PVC map, the installation deserved applause.

Curious visitors stepped gingerly among the glowing pipes the same colour as the setting, dark, before bending down or stretching up as the requirement be to peer into the viewing port for a glimpse of the marks of cinema on the body of the city, the same ‘body’ each visitor to the Project Cinema City at the NGMA negotiated to visit the exhibition, the same ‘body’ they continue to negotiate on a daily basis to survive the city, their circumstances, sometimes ending up in darkened theatres to escape all of it for the three hours or thereabouts.   

The refreshments hosted on the small terrace was crowded out by visitors stepping through the exit for a quick bite before sauntering back to continue with their exertions from floor to floor. Among other offerings I was surprised to find Appam figuring in the menu.

The night outside the NGMA Gallery hummed to life while the distinctive building itself glowed ethereally.

Note: Project Cinema City was in commemoration of 100 years of Indian Cinema.

Related Links

1. Project Cinema City (Mumbai)


May 26, 2012

Breaking Jungle Quiet in Sitavani

As we rode through the Sal forest in Sitavani, motoring slowly down the narrow path, Sal trees converged above me, each a mirror image of its equal on the other side.

The path ran straight and narrow, curving only just to breathe life into the silence that hung pensively about us. The forest held back from the jungle path even while playing the part of a kindly local happy to be of assistance if asked for help by strangers, us; our meandering trail had marked us out to be new to the area.

The Sal tapered, and towered over us, toothpicks stuck in the earth as it lay back open mouthed for respite from the skies over Uttarakhand. In the hills we had ridden through, the summer had grown fierce and streams and rivers ran dry for the most part.  

In the silence that Sitavani enveloped us with I could breathe deeply of the fragrance the forest sprinkled about us as we inched down the jungle path, delighting in the isolation the quiet heightened and deepened as minutes ticked by.

It was as if the forest was hushed so we could be heard, characters who had meandered into the jungle to keep the trees company on their relentless vigil through the seasons. The quiet seemingly waited in anticipation of the moment we would break the silence and speak its language.

We did, and how.    

When the jeep stalled and wouldn’t start, I got off to lend my shoulder with the others, crunching leaves as we heaved, and pushed. Leaves the Sal had shed through the summer, leaves that had lain untouched.

In the moment my feet sank in the crisp browns, the silence rang with melodies of crackling leaves and the strain of heaving shoulders vanished no sooner the forest echoed with the crunching, the sounds tapering away like the Sal as notes curved past trees, disappearing from ‘sight’, carrying our jungle-speak to trees hidden away.

The sounds that emerged marked our passing in ways only the tenuous nature of life can, seeking permanence in the transitory while ensuring the transitory is rarely, if ever, permanent.

In their moment of crumbling, the leaves bridged the silence that hung between us and the jungle. A moment etched in my mind and ensured a life as long, or as short, as mine.