The frontline of films…
On the works of Prasad Raghavan
Essay by Shaheen Merali
So what qualifies a film to become an art film, what are the qualities, if they can be extracted, that inject the art into film? Is it the structure? The way it is shot? Who stars in it? More likely who directs it? When it was made? - knowing that many art films were made in the seventies and eighties, or is it just the way it is received, now that we have arthouses dedicated to screening these films? What is certain is that art films as a specific genre tend to be a mixture of off-centre stories i.e. not Hollywood neither Bollywood, made with the documentary in mind and a tendency to look at subjectivities which are often off-beat. It is widely believed that art films tend to encourage a critical analysis of media productions and therefore the depiction of our world is reviewed and evaluated within the moving-image production.
If one walks into a video store or looks up any service selling DVDs- the variety of genres that can be procured is simply amazing; from action & adventure, classics, comedy, drama, humour, Hollywood, horror, kids & family, love & romance, music & musicals, Sci- Fi & fantasy, amongst others. All of these have become extremely viable products in a world hungry for entertainment. Here the resounding common denominator is a logical transferable statement which is well tempered and achieves a sense of equilibrium, geared for mass consumption and across borders. These genres are seemingly separate but remain united in their subtleties that create a utopic vision of the planet. Here exchange is possible and normality tends to be the victor whilst the interaction of difference paves the way for indifference. This is, of course, a vast, swooping statement about a million films that are available globally, which now enjoy the greatest circulation in the history of culture.
What remains interesting within this great industry is the continuing desire to make a type of anti-cinema, which has become known for its boisterous resentment of the above values as it continually forages through a radical otherness; here the virtue of existence is neither guided by success nor merit but rather through a diachronic examination of change or developments in the individuated spaces of reflection- similar I would argue to an artist’s practice.
Art films tend to emerge from small-scale production units whose nimble infrastructure allows them to be more astute in recording the existential traits and behaviours on a scale which is more interactive than mechanically scripted. The swift methods allows for the recognition and an ability to manoeuvre, making meaningful address of subjects and subjectivities. As such the methodology follows the form of fluidity, a combination of intelligent observations of the moment and embedded in its time.
Even if we contemplate only four genres present in art films, the independent, the cult, the documentary and the gay & lesbian, one can easily realise the values espoused are of a spirited fight against an unquestioning homogeneity, an examination of otherness and the willingness to consider the dialects of possible other spaces. As such, art films can be considered as a place of reasoning that arrives at some notion of truth by the exchange of logical arguments from those whose destinies and engagement remain unrecorded by the centre.
It is with this understanding in mind that one starts to examine the work of Prasad Raghavan. His recent work is a constant re-evaluation of the legacy of the art film, specifically its historical place in the image of the world that it has explored. Raghavan uses the unique space of the poster in trying to re-instate the impact of the art film genre in the world of images. The cinematic has become flesh and we recognise it from such branded entities as 007 and Indiana Jones, where the poster and the theme song may outlive the film.
Raghavan, takes key posters from the hall of fame of art films and, with a remarkable ingenuity and a skillful detailed graphic reorganisation, he re-inscribes his own commentary onto the existing image taken from art film history. The original work, carefully and intelligently re-worked by the overlaying of watercolours, acrylic and charcoal, finely dissolves into a new image. The new images are drawn from his understating of the maligned, the disenfranchised and the dislocated- a combination which also features, and is constantly evaluated in, art films. One such key figure, that Raghavan re-visits is the Indian artist M.F.Hussein, who is made to live in exile, whilst his citizenship and place of residence have been disparagingly and forcefully taken away from him by undemocratic forces in India. Raghavan astutely examines the truth about fame, censorship and admittedly notions of inebriated rationale as it swims in religious fervour. In his work, Andrei Rublev all these factors become seemingly strident bedfellows.
In many of these poster works, the subject becomes a candidate -
“Raghavan started this project in the basement of his apartment, converting it into a cinematheque, for a selected programme and a limited invited audience. These poster works were used to advertise his programming and selection. Often, the films were ones that the artists responded to in context, by subject and in a society with an excess of taste. This project served as an oasis for a small group of Delhi-tes, who emerged on scheduled days, drawn by his eclectic taste and in the performativity of the screening. The selection, ranged from arthouse classics, which included Roman Polanski’s Knife in the Water, to more astute political documentaries, which included Fahrenheit 9/11 by Michael Moore. The poster works and the cinematheque’s were both an investment and investigation of film culture….”1.
It is with this experience that Raghavan created his own adda, a homemade cinematheque, which motivated others to take further explicit steps in fulfilling their desires to provide a space for this burgeoning public interest. It is with these small public forays, that the individual programme, or passion, has helped to initiate a set of residencies and festivals which have been set amiss and disregarded by the portfolios of ministerial offices and municipalities. However sporadic the notion of ‘arthouse films’ had been in India, Raghavan’s recent foray into the artworld has gathered a garnered respect and critical reception. It seems that, at this moment, ever more partners and a heightened zeal to his attempts have seen a parallel development of independent and short film festivals in major cities as well as the presence of these films in the underground world of pirated copies.
I am reminded of my writing about a year ago “In amassing a video bank, resorting to programming and scheduling a film series, and the finalisation of poster works as a means of communicating intent, the project has created a sense of the relevance of the arts for a wider but selected audience. Unfortunately, due to Draconian state laws, the cinematheque was closed and the poster works remind us of the utopian drive of the work- to make available in its natural setting what we take for granted in the west.”2.
The economic life and the sociology of culture is further addressed in the recent work, Decalogue, a series of ten life size portraits of what the artist terms as ‘characters from our society’. The ten men, all dressed in service or work-based uniforms, from the doctor to the soldier, stand, feet apart, their hands neatly clasped in front of them, their faces covered in a dark cloth. They remain anonymous, workers facing us in a long line like a parade of suspects. Is this a police line-up or a realty show with its contestants frozen for some next action or act?
Raghavan, like his generation of artists from India, including Shilpa Gupta and Riyas Komu, use these strategic digitally poisoned moments mostly against a clear, clinical white backdrop to question the notion of identity- a meting out- here of labour and its role in the state of disbelief from the recent framing of all aspects of its society as being potentially terror-clad.
Decalogue suggests that ‘things don't really begin until after they have really ended’. And the ending is neither here nor there but a state of play in an India that has been caught off-guard and unprepared for the internal pains of another bout of crises that seem to have overwhelmed it and could do so again at any moment and from anywhere. These men, who police, who pray, who cure, who sell, are blinded by the rag across their face, standing to attention but made redundant.
In search for a language, Raghavan has worked from the graphic world of signs and signifiers to allow us to understand notions of exile and the historionics of the contemporary. His tone of quiet desperation and an undercurrent of anger, supported by an introspective, if not totalizing, revision of Indo-European arthouse cinema has helped us to transcend the potential loss of definition in the loudness of the Hollywood and Bollywood infinitum.
1 Shaheen Merali, The untold (the rise of) Schisms,pg21, (Madrid: Alcalá 31), 2009.