Story: Raja Ravi Varma pioneered modern Indian art, giving faces – and sensuality – to the divine. Facing obscenity charges, what was his defence?
Review: So, Rang Rasiya is a colourful triumph, director Ketan Mehta meriting applause for his portrait of painter Raja Ravi Varma, skillfully blending a biopic, a period film, a love story and a social critique, within a tight frame. Arching across the 19th-20th centuries, Rang Rasiya traces Raja Ravi Varma’s growth from a callow youth to a citizen of profound impact. Young Raja (Randeep) has several sensual encounters, by waterfalls, atop giggling swings, wrenching jewels off lovers’ bare skin with satisfactory elan, painting portraits for pleased royals – until he meets the ethereal Sugandha (Nandana) in Bombay.
Sugandha first dismisses Varma’s art as ‘ladkiyon ko ghoorna’ but eventually agrees to be his muse – and lover. As Varma’s growing passion – for Sugandha and for a nation he re-discovers through ancient fables and new consumer energy – deepens his work, self-appointed custodians of culture drag him to court, blaming his art for plague devastating Bombay. What is Varma’s defence?
Rang Rasiya questions and answers with beauty. Its cinematography lovingly glides across Raja Ravi Varma’s now-iconic art – fabrics that shimmer with glossy light, jewels gleaming on paper, goddesses who pout in plaintive love upon carpets of green grass – while portraying his sensual life sensitively.
Randeep Hooda’s performance is superb, maturing from a swarthy, ‘swarthee kalakaar’ to the first determined defender of the freedom of expression in modern India. In a hilarious scene, as Lokmanya Tilak delivers a speech, Varma breezily flirts with pretty journalist Frenny (Ferena Wazeir), later an ageing, wheezing man dismissing critics arrogantly, guilt-struck when Sugandha’s socially mocked.
Alongside, Nandana’s portrayal poignantly brings alive the lustrous power of a woman – divinely – in love. Paresh Rawal etches a characteristically sharp cameo as canny merchant Govardhan Das while Vikram Gokhale and Darshan Jariwala drip spite at Varma’s art which, via mass-printing, brings the divine home to all – including those called Untouchable, barred from temples.
A fun sequence displays India’s first cinema show leaving Varma so impressed, he backs a movie by his protegee – Dadasaheb Phalke. Rang Rasiya portrays Varma as India’s first cultural rock-star, adored, attacked, commercial, inspired, excited and challenged by a new consciousness he sees – and shapes. Vitally, Rang Rasiya emphasizes Raja Ravi Varma’s commitment to the freedom of ideas which creates philosophy, science and liberated love, ephemeral, yet lasting – like the pages of his calendars.