Friday, May 3, 2019

‘Padmini’- A Much Needed Biopic on Artist T.K.Padmini by Susmesh Chandroth

(Padmini- promo poster)

Biopics are a difficult genre. Still directors attempt to make them. It is a creative risk and historically speaking, a tightrope walk over the chasm of public perception about the subject of the film. Public perception, though contentious when it comes to the final visual text of a biopic, tends to dig much deeper into what has been known so far and evokes certain views regarding the subject hitherto unknown in the public domain. Selective enquires could mar the cinematic undertaking, which a biographer need not face in the aftermath of the publication of his work. Cinema is a popular medium compared to literature and it seduces the viewers to dwell more into the narrative uncritically if it is a ‘fictional’ film and like an inquisitor, if the narrative happens to be on a ‘real’ person. Nowadays biopics are produced for gaining victory in the electoral politics than fulfilling the creative aims of the director. Biopics in that sense have an intrinsic aim; they want to tell the ‘truth’ of the subject.


Truth, as we understand the term today, is not absolute. It is at once relational and suggestive. Often it could present only a counterpoint to the commonly held truth regarding the discursive topic in the given context. In that case the truth dies an immediate death once the point is proven for the truth that has been disproved also destabilizes the newly ‘proven’ truth during its demise by creating a vacuum for further displacements or replacements. Today what is presented as truth could carry far more elements of imagination and projection than the truth itself. Fundamentally, the projection is not a hypothesis that needs a work(ing) towards proof but a hope and a sort of wishful thinking. Biopics embody this truth that could vary and liable to be remolded and presented differently. Therefore each biopic in it carries a possibility of another one; sometimes as a counterpoint and other times as much improved version of the previous. The best example could be seen in the biopic made on Dr.Ambedkar in various languages including Marathi, Telugu, Hindi and English. The English version, which is cited as the most authentic one directed by Jabbar Patel in a way has proved a counterpoint to the folktale types of regional versions of the same subject. Patel’s was/is a pioneering effort for the research that has undergone in the making of the film, however, the Ambedkar legacy is not linear any more as we see in this film (the regional versions too) with so much of advanced research and literature happened ever since the making of Patel’s film (2000).

(Susmesh Chandroth, director of Padmini)

Noted young writer Susmesh Chandroth’s directorial debut, ‘Padmini’ (2018) on the life of late painter T.K.Padmini (1940-1969) is a pioneering biopic. And as I said above the film evokes a lot of ‘selective enquiries’ that could mar the narrative of the film and could hold the filmmaker accountable. Taking a very lenient approach, my enquiries vis-à-vis this biopic would take two different routes to reach and find the ‘truth’ of this film, which primarily is a wishful projection of the life of a very sensitive artist by another sensitive writer. Hence there are a lot of greeneries, as expected of rural Kerala in 1940s, a lot of rain, expected of a monsoon prone land, a lot of poverty as the collapse of old Nair hold over land and wealth seen waning, a lot of filters and light playing with darkness because the time was pre-proliferation of electricity. There are two gazes embedded in the film itself; one, the gaze of Padmini at the people and her surroundings and two, the gaze of the director/cameraman/spectator at Padmini, the artist/Anupriya, the actress. More about it later.

(The image of Padmini in people's mind)

T.K.Padmini was a wonderful painter. Linda Nochlin had asked why there have been no great women painters in history. The answer she found out was simple yet shocking; women were devoid of their voices/agencies. They were either seen/treated as concubines, models, mistresses or third grade artists. The history was always written by males through male preferences, prerogatives and biases where women hardly found any mention and if at all mentioned, it was always for the wrong reasons. T.K.Padmini had a different fate though. Her name always came up with the doyens of the Madras School of Art that flourished under the legendary K.C.S.Panicker. In a way she shared the same fate with her male colleagues who survived her and some of them still living. In the North-South divide in the history making, the Southern Progressives were sidestepped or carelessly treated as if they were the country cousins who made some strange occasional excursions to the urban centers only to be laughed at or kicked at. Within that dominant history, where even the male artists from South faced difficulty to find a place, it was big NO for T.K.Padmini even to gain a mention.

(Anumol  who portrays Padmini in the biopic)

Clouded by the overarching presence of Amrita Shergil (1913-1941) and the narratives generated around her life and works by ‘national’ interests and her heir-apparent in the art field, Padmini’s life and works have been almost neglected by the mainstream art historians. The agencies like Kerala Lalitha Kala Academy or the Central Lalit Kala Akademi have also failed in bringing up Padmini as an important artist of the 20th century. In a superstitious country like India, Padmini would have been treated as Shergil’s reincarnation if Padmini’s parents had delayed her birth by a year or so. But nothing of that sort happened. However, there is a strange resemblance in their deaths; both of them died at a very young age and shockingly, during childbirth. In the film, that culminates like an unfinished project, an incomplete poem and an abandoned architecture Padmini dies during childbirth. That’s what exactly happened in her life too. She and her husband, Damodaran were living in Madras, a city where advanced health care was available but leaving all that behind they had gone to their remote village in Kerala, where a doctor had to be brought on foot at midnight hours.

(Amrita Shergil)
Who had taken the decision to go back to the village? The film does not give an answer. Padmini was taken care of her uncle Divakara Menon since childhood and he supported Padmini in her pursuit of happiness, her desire to study art and paint. Was it Padmini’s wish to be with her beloved uncle and to feel protected during the last stage of her pregnancy? Or was it the custom that the woman should come back to her parents’ house for delivery? Was there any premonition felt by Padmini that she wouldn’t survive her pregnancy? I would like to believe that despite all her progressive and modern inclinations (when she writes from Madras, she addresses Divakara Menon ‘Dear Uncle’ instead of the customary salutation ‘ammama’) she had some ominous forewarning, a sort of intuition that she wouldn’t make it. She comes back to the village and pays her silent tribute to her uncle with a bunch of jasmine flowers. Susmesh Chandroth, the director had extensively interviewed Divakara Menon (which actually constitutes the preamble of the movie), hence I have all the reason to believe that the jasmine episode was ‘real’ or magically real collectively projected by the director and the late artist’s uncle. Somehow, in the last scene of the movie, the uncle asks why she was brought to the village leaving all the facilities of the city. The question is asked rhetorically and in all frustration, but we could see that the silent interlocutor is none other than her husband, Damodaran.

(Anumol and Sanju Sivaram as Padmini and Damodaran in the film) 
I will not dare to say that Damodarn should be held responsible Padmini’s untimely death. Ironically Shergil’s cousin and husband, Dr.Victor Egan was under the cloud of suspicion for her death, saying that he did not give her enough childbirth care. Though Susmesh narrates how Padmini died his focus does not linger more on the doubt whether she could have been saved or not. That is not only a frustrating moment for the uncle but also a frustrating one for the director himself. It is at that point he has to abort the movie and pull in the requiem by showing the paintings of Padmini in a virtual exhibition. Padmini was definitely a rebel, the works tell us. She was a rebel not because she dared to live the life of a painter but she moved away from the school of thoughts that K.C.S.Panicker and his male disciples established and propagated. While the Madras School was all about abstraction and indigenous explorations, Padmini dared to paint figurative works including her surrogate nudes, something unthinkable for a Malayali woman artist at that point of time. Her husband, Damodaran always remained an abstract artist but even for love’s sake Padmini did not deviate from her figurative style. Susmesh, in a very sensitive frame brings this moment of figurative art making a subtle confrontation with abstract art. At the steps going down to the pond that reflects the nature in a semi-abstract and semi-figurative way Padmini tells a Damodaran that her ‘desire’ to draw is not satisfied. 
(Irshad as Divakara Menon in Padmini)
It is a declaration of freedom for any artist. You could be doing abstract art. You must be bored of lines and forms. But a woman says that she wants to paint from life and from her imaginations about life. She was in love with Gauguin and she was in awe of Picasso; a factor that nobody wants to speak out for the fear of tainting her apprenticeship with KCS Panicker. But if we know that Panicker also had gone through Impressionism, Post-impressionism to reach his own expressionism and abstraction, then we wouldn’t find it difficult to accept Padmini’s love for western modernism. Padmini did not copied or staunchly followed the rules; in this case she was more like Ram Kinkar Baij. Both of them intuitively understood western modernism but never bothered to ‘copy’ them. Padmini did not declare that Kerala belonged to her the way Shergil had proudly said that India belonged to her and Paris to Picasso. Instead, Padmini held that she wanted to paint.

(Susmesh Chandroth from the locations of Padmini)
As the director of the biopic, the biggest challenge that Susmesh faces is to break free from the available truth. We do not have many portraits of Padmini. Nor do we have any reel that had captured her ‘life moments or lively moments’. Having no footage and left with a few passport size photographs of the protagonist, the director faces an interesting problem; a real artistic/creative problem. Making a lively/life figure out of one photograph and also from the narrations and anecdotes from the relatives and acquaintances of the protagonist is like a forensic act. It is like tracing a ‘reverse chronology’ and reaching the truth of the dead subject. Forensic surgeons say that it is not a field for imaginations; but of losing and erasing of all imaginations. That is the only way to stick closer to the truth. Susmesh has tried to do that with the Padmini film. In his reverse journey of making Padmini’s life out of a few photographs and anecdotes, Susmesh takes the help of Padmini herself and through her monologue, the director weave different time frames of her short life and create a fabric which is more like a small godni quilt than a fully blown Persian carpet.

(Anumol and Padmini)
Casting is a big problem when it comes to biopics. The main reason is that most of the characters in the biopics are historically known therefore some sort of idea about them is built in the public consciousness. In ‘Padmini’ Susmesh overcomes this difficulty partially because the narrative is mostly around Padmini and her uncle Divakara Menon, portrayed by Anumol and Irshad respectively. It takes some time to blend Anumol into the face of Padmini because the new truth of the movie has to replace the given truth about Padmini made available through the photographs in the public domain. Anumol has convincingly portrayed the artist; but at times one may think that the actress is too voluptuous for Padmini’s image. This is where the gaze of the viewer/director works in the film. Padmini has always been narrated as a person who lived a pious life and even the critics who have dealt with her works never bothered to deal extensively with her sexuality vis-à-vis her works and personality. Therefore we think of Padmini as a celibate character. Susmesh breaks down this public belief and builds a full and voluptuous Padmini in her narrative through the actress Anumol. Sometimes, Susmesh cannot help himself looking at longingly at the curves of her body. This is the male gaze that works without the movie. And within the movie we have the gaze of Padmini that obeying her early teacher Devassi Mash’s words keep observing things around her, enthusiastically but without losing her modesty.

(Painting by TK Padmini)
The film Padmini is done in a shoestring budget. But biopics are films that deal with personalities and history/time. While recreating personalities is an easy task with talented actors, recreating time and history needs immense financial support. Susmesh has done his best with the available money. He has dealt with the Madras portion of Padmini’s life sparsely. He has filled in the gaps with monologues, verbal references and stand in frames all of which somehow expose the glaring gaps in the movie. I wouldn’t criticize Susmesh for those gaps. He has been running from pillar to post to find funds to finish the movie. It is unfortunate that the Government of Kerala through its cultural ministry, tourism department or Lalitha Kala Academy couldn’t fund this project and make it an international project. A biopic on an artist may be successful when it is done in the scale of Frida, Jean Michael Basquiat, Life with Picasso and the latest Van Gogh movies. We can’t expect it in the case of ‘Padmini’ (Even Rang Rasia on Ravi Varma by Ketan Mehta couldn’t find box office success). Hence, Susmesh and team are carrying it around and exhibiting for a fee from the organizers. I make a public appeal through this article that the major cultural institutions in India should invite this film and the director for screening against a fee. This is subtitled in English so communication is not a problem. As I said in the beginning a biopic could bring forth a truth that could die its own death by engendering a variety of truths which means different feature takes on her life sooner or later. Though Walter D Cruz has directed a documentary on T.K.Padmini (Pattam Parathunna Penkutty) with English subtitles, Susmesh’s is the first re-creation of the artist’s life in a feature film format. Both Walter and Susmesh have done a great service to Indian culture by documenting T.K.Padmini’s life. I wish both these films travel all over India and abroad and underline the fact that ‘yes we had a great modern woman artist in Kerala’ if not many.

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