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Colours of celluloid: Abstract perceptions of Gopi Gajwani

Eight short films by artist Gopi Gajwani were screened in the capital last week. He speaks to Vineet Gill about painting and filmmaking, and how each form helps him express different abstract emotions.

Vineet Gill  25th Jul 2015

Painter and filmmaker Gopi Gajwani.

he problem of depicting abstractions on film is not an easy one to handle. Especially so for a painter like Gopi Gajwani, whose life's work — those thousands of canvases — can be summed as an involved aesthetic inquiry into the abstract. The camera is a different animal, literal and all-absorbing in its grasp, that gives back to the viewer always and only the concrete reality. Gajwani's short films do indeed present to us all the concrete images that form the detritus of urban life: birds and stray dogs, burning candles, empty chairs and traffic jams. But together, they comprise an abstract vision.

Eight of Gajwani's short films — the earliest of these made in 1973 and the latest in 2014 — were screened in Delhi last week. "I am not telling a story," Gajwani later said to me. "This is not entertainment. I am portraying my ideas onto the onlooker." Gajwani didn't mention the term "viewers" but instead said "onlookers", which itself is suggestive of his style of filmmaking. These short films, 7-12 minutes in running time, are forceful enough, both emotionally and visually, to displace the viewer from his position of vantage as a detached observer of art, turning him into someone who is part of the scenery — an onlooker.

Q. With this series of short films, you join the esteemed list of artist-filmmakers, like Tyeb Mehta and MF Husain, who both made films of their own.

A. Tyeb was a dear friend, actually. And back in the 1970s, we all knew that he was making a film on behalf of the ministry of IT. The film was called Koodal and he even got a Filmfare award for that. After receiving the award, he called me, and he said, "Gopi, I am screening the film, you know, come and have a look." During the same time, I saw Husain's Through the Eyes of a Painter, which again was a remarkable film. Then I said to myself, you know, let me also try this. So I sort of jumped into the water without knowing how to swim. It was the excitement, passion and the desire that drove me towards films. I also didn't have any financial support. So I spent from my own pocket, whatever I could, in a very meagre way. I didn't have camera, and had to hire one. Didn't have films, so bought those 16mm black-and-white rolls and just set out.

Q. So you were directed to cinema by artists rather than filmmakers?

A. Well, I cannot say that for sure. I happened to be a member of the newly-formed Delhi Film Society in the '60s, where they were screening the best of world cinema. And that changed my whole thinking of what cinema could do to you. Fellini's Bicycle Thief, Ray's Pather Panchali, Kurosawa's Rashomon, Bergman's The Seventh Seal — all those great works. During that time, in Delhi's Max Mueller Bhavan they also had a festival of short films from Germany, which is a place known for cine artists who make films that run for as short as one minute. I saw some of these short films in Delhi, and that was really, really, you know — you can't express the feeling in a word — it was fantastic.

Q. Your first short film, The End, is remarkable for its use of news photographs and sounds. What was the idea behind it?

A. I finished my first film, The End, in 1973. A lot of things were going on in the world at the time. Martin Luther King was assassinated, and various war and peace movements were on across the globe. I used to see Life magazine — an American journal — every week during this time. The magazine had very good photo coverage of world events. They used to print these beautiful black-and-white pictures of the war. So I started collecting the pictures from this magazine, pictures of war, which were related to my theme. I merged these images with the footage of flying birds, you know, and gelled them together. It creates a nice moment in my film.

Q. Having made eight short films, are you now considering moving on to the lengthier form? A full-length feature film some day?

A. I don't have the courage, or the capacity, or the financial support for a full-length feature film. Though I really want to make a feature film, bahut paisa chahiye uske liye [a lot of money is required for that]. Some of my friends and I played around with some ideas. But the film didn't happen, for various reasons. I had a dream of making a good feature film, but couldn't realise it. It's also a very demanding job, making a film. You need a team of workers. You work at odd hours. If you want a good shot of the rain, you have to wait for the monsoon. Things like that.

Q. And what about painting? How much time do you give to your original muse?

A. I regularly paint, you know. I am basically a painter and not a filmmaker. I have a small place at home where I work — I draw, I paint, I do watercolour canvas, oil paint. In between, when there's something cooking — I scribble a lot and I keep doodling — some ideas boiling in my mind, I move towards films.

Q. To what extent are cinema and painting, as forms, interrelated? And what are the inherent differences?

A. Both are processes of creation. Both need imagination and thought. But cinema is difficult. If I make a good canvas, people will stand in front of it for a little while and take a long breath. At the most they can say, "Wow, Gopi, what a painting! What a beautiful composition!" That's all they can do. They can sit in front of my work for 10 minutes, 15 minutes, half-an-hour. And that's all. But cinema — if it's good, it can bring tears to your eyes. A painting cannot bring tears into your eyes. Painting can put you into a different realm of thinking; it can take you elsewhere in the world; it can lift you into the cosmos. But it can't make you cry, or really make you sob. Cinema can. Which is why it's such a powerful medium.

Cinema, if it’s good, it can bring tears to your eyes. A painting cannot bring tears into your eyes. Painting can put you into a different realm of thinking; it can take you elsewhere in the world; it can lift you into the cosmos. But it can’t make you cry, or really make you sob. Cinema can. Which is why it’s such a powerful medium.

Q. You're known for your abstract paintings. Is it trickier to explore abstractions in cinema where people always expect you to "say" something?

A. I can't do abstract work with my camera as much as I can with painting. In cinema, only the theme can be abstract. The images can't. And about "saying something" with your art. Often, after my painting exhibitions, people ask me things like, what is this, what're you trying to say, what are you trying to portray, and so on. And I have no answers to that. You know, if Pandit Bhimsen Joshi is taking alap, a very long and beautiful alap, and if someone asks him what are you trying to say, what does he say to that? Tell me. How can he explain the alap? So with my art, I am not preaching. I am simply portraying what I think. Putting on canvas or film my thoughts and my imagination.

Q. What would you say to the new generation of artists and filmmakers in this country?

A. The new generation is really good. It's getting all sorts of ideas. I need to learn a lot from their opinions. Because they're the future. You can't say that an elder person is always right. A younger person can be brilliant too. So one must respect that age-group and learn from them. Of the new Indian cinema, I've seen a lot. I admire the work of these filmmakers. They are good thinkers, very good thinkers. My belief is that you don't close windows on your life. Leave them open. New ideas can only come in when you're open to others.

Q. What next for you? More short films in store?

A. Well, I am itching for something new actually. But it's not taking shape. There are two more short films, maybe seven-to-eight minutes in length. The visuals are growing in my mind. But the task is not easy. It's difficult, all this. Where do you take your camera, where do you get your first shot? Because there's no story, you know. How do I begin?

 
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