Conversation with Sumedh Rajendran
Edited by Praveen thampi, Economic Times, New Delhi.
It was not a coincidence that the very first movie poster that Prasad Raghavan made — to launch his film club, A:door Art Centre, in New Delhi — bagged a Silver Lion at the prestigious Cannes Festival in 2005. His interpretation of Alfred Hitchcock's masterpiece 'The Birds' — the sky as the backdrop and the birds as alphabets perched on electric wires — hinted at the beginning of a new sensibility in Indian poster designing. But Prasad has his own take on this: "See, poster designing as a commercial enterprise is a business in a hurry. But for me, I have all the time in the world to delve into one film, one title, and come up with my own interpretation... Here, in a freewheeling conversation with sculptor Sumedh Rajendran, Prasad talks about the logic of poster making, inspirations behind his recent works and his broad views on film-making in India.
1. Posters — not just the cinema posters — have a very interesting history. The Second World War made the poster a new art form. Cinema posters have their own distinct genesis... they carry a certain contemporariness. How do you see it? Besides, in your film club — A:door — you regularly show classics of world cinema, some of which you have converted into new posters. But when you come out onto the street you are surrounded by the kitsch of the film bazaar... Is your real intent to make a film, the desire perhaps getting a temporary relief as posters revisited?
Actually, India is the place to make feature films and documentaries. Especially, documentaries... if you are politically aware, and you look at our streets, everything you see is a film subject. And many of them could even fetch you a Palme d'Or! Look, I am a graphic designer by profession. So making posters is not just a substitute to me. I did posters for years as part of my profession, for the advertising industry. But when I made these lot of film posters, I had immense freedom to do it the way you want. It was my personal project, free from all the restrictions that a commercial assignment would have slapped on you. Talking about posters and WWII, when I was in school, I used to be really scared of war. There's a bit of personal history here... my brother-in-law (my eldest sister's husband) was in the Army. I was a child then, and was perpetually afraid whether a war would break out and he would be summoned to the borders. Unfortunately, he died in a military truck accident when he was only 29. So here, when I did the poster on Andrei Tarkovsky's last movie The Sacrifice, I could do something that is politically relevant. So I think I did my bit to help the cause of a peaceful, conflict-less world in that poster.
2. When Tarkovsky makes a poster, it's to present his film. But when you make one, you treat it as a work of art in itself, trying to bring the energy of a film into the making of a poster. Coming back home, there is a big dilemma in the Indian film industry. There is an issue of accessibility, whereas people in countries with lesser resources like Iran make raw, hard-hitting movies. Are you trying to maintain the same sensibility through making posters?
Well, we can even consider China as an example, they have great directors like Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-wai. I don't know the methodology of how they make great films, apart from their talent. But, yes, I think wherever you are, individual efforts mean a lot. Now I don't know if the entire Chinese film industry is making great films. Take another case. In my field, advertising, to make an ad film, the brief is mostly given to the copywriter. We have good art directors in this country in advertising, but many of them cannot speak businesslike English. So it's always the copywriter who goes to the clients to brief them about the ad film. It is never considered necessary whether this fellow has a good sense of the visual. It has happened to me. And then it has also happened that I conceive the idea for a film, I write the script, shoot it and send it to a venue like Cannes and bag an award. It's a personal struggle to chart a new path. Yes, you may not be able to do things like that every day because film-making is an expensive proposition. So I am lucky that I am a graphic artist too.
3. What makes you reinterpret other's movies as posters? Movies that you watched decades ago, you make a new poster for them today...
Well, it's not just about the films I like the best. Sometimes, the titles too make you obsessed. Take a film like 'Knife In The Water' or 'Thief Of Baghdad, I felt those titles begged a contemporary reinterpretation especially the latter one. It's like I am making my own film with the same title. It's like beginning with the title and making the movie behind it.
4) Do you feel that you can't make a film given the present context, because of the money factor, star cults et al?
To express a thought, I am okay with making posters. It's not necessary that you have to make a movie. As far as hero worship is concerned, I think, it is rooted in the marketing factor, look at the recent Rajnikant starrer Sivaji. In fact, even our epics are not immune to that. Then there are different contexts and subjects. Take for example, Andrei Rublev. The then Soviet government produced the movie through 'Mosfilms', but the government machinery delayed the editing process, the movie was not even allowed to be released for a decade or so. However, while all this was happening, Tarkovsky had already moved on to his next project, Solaris. An artist's commitment is different. For him, he had finished his job and had moved on to the next. If he hadn't been a director, he would certainly have been a great philosopher-writer. In India, hero worship is a commercial activity. For a responsible creative person, it's important to have an interaction with the viewers. In the Western markets and in Bollywood, the filmmaker is irresponsible in that context. He is involved in a business network and not with the viewer.
5) What's your feeling about Indian film posters?
Bollywood posters are not artistically or intellectually inspiring. They don't challenge your own skills. Indian posters have never influenced me. They are mostly about displaying a big head of the hero and small cut-outs of some flunkies stuck around the poster, a female in underclothes... all this will look cool when you put it on an Armani carry-bag in the Paris shopping malls. This process is about selling India's ethnicity, the so-called Indianness. For me, Indianness means things like the Upanishads, where even a small paragraph would be full|of ideas and imagination that one could explain for days. I am not saying that you have to go back to ancient things. What I am trying to say is that my pleasure lies in tampering with the idea of a film. I am interested in ideas like in Andrei Rublev. On a peripheral level this is the story of the iconic painter Andrei Rublev. However, here he's is also portrayed as Jesus Christ, without even mentioning that name anywhere in the movie. And I like an image with an idea in it. In his own book 'Sculpting in Time', Tarkovsky details how good an image should be, taking an example from Akira Kurasawa's The Seven Samurai: "A medieval Japanese village. A fight has broke out between some horsemen and the samurai who are on foot. It's pouring down heavily, there is mud everywhere. The samurai are wearing ancient Japanese garments, which leave most of their legs bare, and their legs are plastered with mud. And one samurai falls down dead, we see the rain washing away the mud and his leg becoming white, as white as marble." According to Tarkovsky, it's a powerful image depicting death. Sumedh, even your own work, that you did recently... A huge fly-over made out of trunk boxes. I think it's a powerful image.
6) Thanks... Film posters also have a different function. They appear on street walls and not in the confines of a gallery. Now how do you present a poster in the outside context? Say, political posters for example...
Well, these film posters of mine portray only the film, nothing but the film. Sometimes I have taken the title or a very basic thought of the film and played it around in a contemporary political or aesthetic level. But certainly, a poster is done with a purpose or an urgency to say something in a very crisp and clear manner. But you must understand that these posters have been done for the film club A:door where I show world movies. The people who come there have a refined sensibility towards movies and I am sure we have the same kind of people here in the gallery too. I believe that a society can change and progress only through the efforts of intellectuals from different walks of life.
7) So how do you plan to take it forward from here...
Frankly, I don't know. I would like to continue with the creative process whatever it might be, a poster or a doco-feature. You know... Let me narrate an experience. A few years back I had gone to the India International Centre (IIC) in Delhi where they were screening the movie 'Elipathayam' of Adoor Gopalakrishnan. The film was about to start and the hall was near empty, but still they didn't allow me to enter inside because I didn't have a entry pass. They were right in a strict technical sort of way but it was downright stupid of them. Today, if you go to the marketplace, you can buy world class movies for 25 bucks. Today, even ordinary people — I mean those with not much exposure to world cinema — talk about Pedro Almodovar's next film, its cast and so on. So the future seems to be bright.