October 20, 2015 – 5:03 am

Censorship of the arts gets into the spotlight in Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya (Colours Of Passion, 2008) when artist Raja Ravi Verma is put on trial. For his defence, a prostitute who models for his nude paintings. Stephen Tan reviews. 

The most striking and probably most controversial scene in Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya (Colours Of Passion, 2008) is a nude sex scene between artist Raja Ravi Verma and his muse, Sugandha. By Western or Japanese or Korean or Hong Kong standards, actress Nandana Sen’s topless scene is rather judiciously shot - yes, you do get to see a bare breast and nipple - and the sex, though passionate, is hardly torrid.

And for once, viewers get to see what is being hinted at in countless Indian movies. For anyone who is familiar with Indian movies, in every film, a key song-and-dance sequence is actually a euphemism for sex. Only this time, the sex is upfront and the music and song is now relegated to its “rightful” place, in the background.

But Ketan Mehta’s film did not come without a price. The wiki reported that Rang Rasiya had been languishing in post-production from 2008 due to the Indian censors’ objection with certain scenes that involved paint and nudity. It was finally given a release date of November 7, 2014; and a special screening was held in Mumbai on November 6, 2014. (The film had its premiere at the London Film Festival in 2008; it received the Audience Award and got a standing ovation. It was also shown at the Kolkata International Film Festival in 2011.)

Rang Rasiya is based on the life of 19th-century Indian painter Raja Ravi Varma (Randeep Hooda). From young, Raja Ravi had always been interested in art and, even though he married a princess, he had no qualms working with anyone from the lower castes, especially good-looking prostitutes. (Raja Ravi was a Brahmin by birth.) In his village, he has the servant Kamini as his muse. In Bombay, he had the prostitute Sugandha (Nandana Sen) for inspiration. And this is also where the movie took over from real life.

Inspired by the Mahabharata and Ramayana stories, Raja Ravi preferred to paint scenes depicting the gods and their lives, especially their love lives. And if the picture demands nudity, so be it. When he meets expatriat Fritz Schleicher, who can run a printing press, Raja Ravi wholeheartedly embarks on a venture to print and circulate his paintings to the masses. While the venture was profitable, Raja Ravi was more inspired by the fact that mass production/printing of his art meant that every home can now have a picture of the various gods.

Art, sex, religion and nudity - alone, these are already volatile elements in most places, Indian society and cinema included, when mixed together, explosive! And just happend that the picture of your favourite goddess is based on your town prostitute! When Raja Ravi is on trial for his art, Sugandha defends him by saying: “This man… made a woman like me a goddess. You (referring to the prosecuting lawyer) made her a prostitute.”

Loosely narrated by Raja Ravi’s brother, Raj Varma, Ketan Mehta’s Rang Rasiya centres around a trial where Raja Ravi is prosecuted for his art. It is not clear what Raja Ravi is charged with and the film sort of loosely (and conveniently) lumps everything under “censorship issues”.

Any or all of the following could have offended anyone:

- Raja Ravi painted gods and goddesses (when there is the belief that gods should only belong to the temple)
- Raja Ravi painted gods and goddesses in erotic poses
- Raja Ravi’s paintings even featured nudity
- Raja Ravi used a prostitute as a model for the goddess in his paintings

Raja Ravi’s defence: “Can I ask who are the people who tell me what is right and what is wrong? Who are these people who are ready to judge my art or my life? I am proud of my culture and tradition - and it is not so weak that it will break on seeing a naked body. I have roamed this wide country. And I have seen amazing temples - Ajanta, Ellora, Konark, Kajrao. Seeing the statues in them I didn’t feel anything dirty. I was not ashamed. In fact it was so beautiful that I was amazed. This country belongs to Kamasutra. It talks about our body… our soul.”

For movie audiences, reference to these historic sites also recall the “controversy” that is central to EM Forster’s A Passage To India, where the cloistered Adela Quested gets a sexual awakening when she visits India. In the film version, when she first visits a temple in ruins that had erotic statues; and later, when she enters the Marabar Caves [even if no one knows what actually happened]. Again, the notion of an erotic India - though not spelt out but totally felt.

But Mehta’s movie is still within the realm of Bollywood - you have the song-and-dance (though none of those mass choreographed numbers); there is comedy (usually involving the servant Paachan); the lovelines - Raja Ravi and the various women; and the inherent drama. Even if set around the same time period, Rang Rasiya is no Lagaan (2001), where the drama is even more acute.

While Sugandha generally comes across being petulant, she really saved her role - not with the sex bits - but by taking the stance that what she did was worthwide even if there’s no way the town was going to let her get away with that. At the end Nandana Sen helped make Sugandha a heroic yet tragic figure.

Though Randeep Hooda appears practically in every shot in the movie, rather than eccentric, Raja Ravi appears whimsical and even flighty. While he is guided by his muse or art, he is actually quite thoughtless in how his actions can affect others, especially in a field where patronage is crucial. Certainly it doesn’t show that he gave Sugandha - as a person - very much thought.

While Raja Ravi was acquited and set free at the end of the movie, the debate over religion, art and censorship continues, till today. Speaking to the press in 2014, actress Nandana Sen said of her role that featured nudity: “Rang Rasiya is an important and exceptional film… it would be deeply ironic to censor myself in a film that criticizes censorship, wouldn’t it?”

The feisty actress, daughter of Nobel Laureate and celebrated economist Amartya Sen, is also a well-known human-rights activist. Accepting the Kalakar Award for Best Actress in January 2015, she said: “By honouring Rang Rasiya, this award honours not just a performance but the greater cause of free speech and expression, now under enormous threat everywhere, as shown by the horrifying Charlie Hebdo killings in Paris. The need to protect our creative freedom - whether we are painters or political cartoonists, actors or journalists, film-makers or novelists - is more urgent now than ever.”

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