There's another reason why I started this review by talking of this briefest of nude scenes. It is, sadly, the most interesting thing about Ketan Mehta's film. Not the scene itself, mind you, but the fact that the censors let it go through after five years. Rang Rasiya, about the great 19th century painter Raja Ravi Varma, was actually made in 2008, but was stayed by the censors. Over the years, it acquired a reputation as a suppressed masterpiece. I'm glad it's finally in theatres, untarnished. Rang Rasiya deserves to be rejected on its own terms.
The movie is constructed as a series of nested flashbacks — which sounds more interesting than it actually is. We start off in the present, with a violent mob protesting an auction of Varma's paintings, several featuring Hindu mythological figures in various stages of undress. We're then taken back in time and shown Varma's journey, from a precocious child in 1850s Kerala to the brash young genius who fused Indian and European art traditions. Later, at a temple in Bombay, he meets the woman who'll become his muse. Her name is Sugandha, and even though the film treats it like a big reveal, it's no surprise when she turns out be a prostitute (the irony of devotional portraits being modelled on a veshya is too much for even an old hand like Mehta to turn down).
Varma had a singularly interesting life: he travelled the country in an age when few Indians did that, started a printing press, and was awarded the Kaisar-i-Hind medal by Lord Curzon. The film does try to include a lot of these little details; I was reminded, for instance, that Dadasaheb Phalke worked with Varma in his press before embarking on his pioneering career in cinema. But unlike Harishchandrachi Factory, the 2009 film on Phalke's life, this one never establishes its period setting satisfactorily. Most of the dialogue sounds like it's out of a Bollywood film — did girls in the 1870s really threaten to hit strangers with their chappals?
As Varma, Randeep Hooda is an intriguing mix of stubbornness and charm, ambition and naiveté. Often, he seems to be fighting against the film's silliness, lending it a dignity it desperately needs. The women he's paired with, though, are uniformly awkward — Tripta Parashar as Varma's wife, Feryna Wazheir as a Parsi woman who helps him out in Bombay, and Nandana Sen as Sugandha. Sen is onscreen the most after Hooda, and though she's obviously trying hard, her Tweety Bird voice and perpetual wide-eyed expression make her difficult to take seriously. Only Gaurav Dwivedi, in his scenes as Varma's harried younger brother, suggests a character intriguing enough to merit his own sub-plot.
Is Mehta turning into another Dev Anand — unable to distinguish between a halfway decent lyric and "Tere tan mandir mein mera man khoya"? He's no stranger to bad moviemaking — try as I might, I can't un-watch Maya Memsaab or Oh Darling! Yeh Hai India! Yet, this is also the person who made Bhavni Bhavai and Mirch Masala, films in which he displayed, at the very least, a unique visual sensibility. Perhaps his next, Manjhi: The Mountain Man, with Nawazuddin Siddiqui, will be a return to form. In Rang Rasiya's case, however, the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.
This review appeared in the Sunday Guardian.