Rediff Logo Movies Find/Feedback/Site Index
October 25, 1999


Send this story to a friend

'Gajagamini is a purely poetic statement'

Madhuri Dixit and M F Husain India's best-known artist, M F Husain, turned 84 last month. The occasion also marked another milestone in his long and illustrious career -- the New York premiere of his film Gajagamini, which features Madhuri Dixit.

The film is unusual and unique in many ways. Above all, it is the culmination of Husain's life-long dream of making a full-length film that seeks to convey the essence of Indian womanhood.

Both Madhuri Dixit and Husain spoke to Shanti Karuna about the film during the actual filming and after it was completed.

Genesis of the film

A couple of years ago, when I was in hospital, I thought of making a film on Madhuri Dixit. I have been painting her in different ways, trying to depict her as the essence of Indian womanhood and of the many manifestations of womanhood. So, rather than painting her, I thought let me try doing the same thing in some other medium. I wrote a few lines here and there, and then I started with a visual script, which is about 80 feet long. It is like a film strip. There I did the important sequences, painting them one by one.

That was the basis of how I visualised the film. I then started writing the script, that is, just the story line. But first I fixed two or three metaphors as I had done in my 1967 film, Through The Eyes Of A Painter, where a lantern, a lamp, a cow and a shoe were the inanimate objects that I showed throughout the film -- just music and those images. And I tried to put in those objects feelings and emotions. I didn't show the shoe being worn by any person, but just as an object, as form.

The theme that I now wanted was woman as form, as an icon. So I fixed this metaphor. My mother died when I was a year old. I had never seen her face. That gave me an idea. I call it, 'Andurpur ki ek aurat, sar pe gatri, gode me bachcha, aur paun me ghungroo.' (A woman from Andurpur, with a bundle on her head, a child in her lap and ghungroos on her feet). And then she walks through space and time.

What the film is about and its message

There is a story, but it is not a linear story -- it moves back and forth, in time and space -- and Gamini is the link. She plays several roles, which are reflections or manifestations of womanhood.

There are several episodes. One is in Benares, where some authors like Premchand and Nirmala, as also two or three other characters meet and talk of their own experiences. The lover, Kamdeo, comes down and changes into different forms and we follow them. He becomes a lawyer, a nawab and so on.

There are five women in this film -- like our legendary Panchkanya -- who shake up the equanimity of the heavenly Gods. Gamini is the metaphor of a woman who is shakti and she passes through five different stages without facing the camera, and nobody knows who she is.

This film combines almost all my experiences in painting. All those forms which I have been painting for the last 40 years. This is an accumulation of all those experiences in this film.

The power of woman and her identity is the message of my film. I portray the individuality of a woman, the way she is passing through time and space on her own terms. The essence of Indian culture is shakti, the woman. That is what I am going to reflect in my film. Without really raising any issue. It is a purely poetic statement, the body language of a woman.

This is in line with what Satyajit Ray had said: it is very easy to make a commercial film, and it is very easy to make an art film. But the most difficult thing to do is to make a sensible, popular film. I am working on that because this is the medium with which we should communicate.

The making of the film

I have not only directed the film but also written the script, though at the time of actual shooting, we improvised, as in a painting. I also wrote the theme song and designed the sets and the costumes -- it is almost like a one-man show. Once again like one of my paintings. But this is a different type of painting.

I have not gone in for making a film for commercial purposes. This film is purely a symbolic expression. At the same time I have used all the glamorous elements like dance and music. But the music that I have used is that of the famous music director, Bhupen Hazarika, who has won many international awards. So, through music, all these metaphors that are in the film will be conveyed to the people, to the common man.

There are also songs in Sanskrit -- Kalidasa's -- and one in Bengali by Rabindranath Tagore. When you go to see an Italian opera, you may not know the language but you know the gist of the story. You do not have to follow each and every line in order not to miss the connection of the story. It is a purely visual experience.

There won't be the usual song and dance routines that you see in Indian films. In Gamini there are two lovers -- one is young and the other is elderly. There is also a painter, a poet and a scientist. All the characters are there -- some from the 17th century, others from five thousand years back like Kalidasa, and they meet. This film is about the way they try to visualise a woman. There is no time here. Here, you don't know what is fantasy and what is reality.

Shabana Azmi and Naseeruddin Shah in Gajagamini It is a very 'painterly' film in the sense that the sequences are like paintings. It has not been easy working with all these stars. To get their dates was a headache. Actually there are not too many main stars, except for Madhuri. Shabana Azmi agreed to play one role.

It is not a full-length feature film of three hours -- one-and-a-half or two hours at the most.

Right from the very beginning I had wanted to become a film-maker. But I didn't want to make one of those commercial films. I had always been a very keen student of cinema. I knew the theory of film-making and had seen the great films of Kurosawa and Rosselini (I lived with Rosselini in the early 60s). I had met Fellini in Rome. I was in the thick of it all but I couldn't get a chance to make a film because this medium is expensive and nobody would finance me.

I did get a chance in between, when Indira Gandhi was there. I made a film and took full liberty. It was later called Through The Eyes Of A Painter. But that was not my title. There were several elements in the film such as a cow, an umbrella, a lantern and a shoe. Now, this has nothing to do with anything, but I went in for a very bold experiment.

A form or any object like a tree or a man -- you don't have to go and talk to it. You cannot go and talk to a tree. But a tree has its own language. How it is raised, where it is and how it related to the point. It is purely a form, a structure. A structure of different forms. So, in that way, I built a whole film. Everybody at that time laughed at me saying it was nonsense. When I showed that shoe or the lantern, I wasn't using it as a symbol of light or of education or anything. I used the shoe as form -- totally out of the context. You look at a shoe as a shoe and not because you want to wear it or see what it is made of.

This is what a visual experience is. Because what we see normally, people don't see. Because their minds have been conditioned by what they know about this thing. If they see that thing, they will notice it. Otherwise they just ignore it. The role of the artist is to make people aware of what form is, just as musicians make you aware of what sound is. It was the pure structure of imagery and I used no dialogue. I just used music. There was no purpose but the pure visual experience. I was not telling a story.

When I finished the film, the government rejected it because it had no meaning for them. The Government Of India Films Division thought it was a joke. They said: What is this? It is like a juvenile fantasy. Everyone -- even my very close friends -- ridiculed it! They said: What nonsense is this? We should never have let you touch this medium. But inside, I was fully confident. I knew what I had done. I had totally reopened the norms of film-making even though I had no previous experience of actual film-making.

I then took one reel of the film and showed it in New York, at the Museum of Modern Art. And they liked it so much that they wanted it for their archives. So I told them: Please write to my government. When the government got the letter, they took notice and sent the film to the Berlin festival. But first they had rejected it!

So I will not be disappointed if this new film of mine is a commercial flop. Not at all! I am not expecting that at all. But at the same time, it should not become totally obscure.


I have not stopped painting because of the film. Not at all. When I was in hospital, I did two paintings. In July last year, I had a big exhibition in Chicago. Then, in October, there was an auction in London: Hundred Years Of Indian Contemporary Art. Some of my new paintings are dedicated to Octavio Paz. They have nothing to do with Gamini (One can work on two or three levels).

Today, I may be the best-known painter, but there are no objective criteria in art. But for doctors and engineers, they have to acquire knowledge. Here there is no such thing. This is a profession in which anybody can pick up a brush and become a big artist! And he is easily accepted. There should be some check on this because 90 per cent of those who get into it are non-artists. They are after a fast buck.

There must be some substance. As Salvador Dali used to say: You can become world famous, but only for 15 minutes. Then you are exposed. You are discovered. So this is the age of the media. If you go about it with public relations and all that, then you are known.

I want to bring art to the people. People understand my paintings and like them, the reason being there is an element of Indianness about them. I tell a story, which is very Indian. That is what Jamini Roy did and what I have been trying to do in my paintings in the last 40 years. The essence of Indian culture is celebration. Benaras is the seat of Indian culture where even death is celebrated. The art that we see now is no doubt great but my objection is that -- because of western education -- all the points of its reference are in the West. I never deviated from any movements (like the avant garde movement), but I customised them.

In the '60s, I was almost written off. All the painters said that Husain as a painter was finished. They said: What is this you are painting? Still Indian? At that time we thought being Indian meant you were intellectually bankrupt. All the elements of what you call alienation is valid only in the West. They have gone through two world wars and so this has gone into their psyche. But why here? Here you have so many millions of people. Even today you can walk into somebody's house and nobody will ask why you came.

While I was doing this film, I could not spend as much time as before on painting. But it was worth it. But I have been painting what is related to this film. The same images. The woman with the gatri that is coming up. I am putting all my experience into this film, which is the culmination of my lifetime. This is because cinema is the medium of the 21st century, which incorporates everything -- if it is used creatively. That is what I am trying to do.

I will not be making any more films. I just wanted to make one. This medium is very expensive. Madhuri and I have put in everything. We have not taken any finance from anyone.

Madhuri Dixit's role

Madhuri Dixit in Gajagamini I am lucky to find her. When I first had the idea of this film at the back of my mind, I didn't say anything to her. At that time she would have been shocked. It took me nearly a year to bring her around.

I am glad that she has understood what I have in mind. Still, for a long time, she was not totally convinced. For several months, I was continuously feeding her and bombarding her with this idea. I was brainwashing her! I wanted her to be hundred per cent sure. Then only could she give her best.

She is fed up of working in commercial films. She has reached the peak. There is no way to go further unless you go on dancing, dancing. She is really fed up. She says she really wants to work with some serious director but there are no scripts here. Because the people who invest money want returns. There is one film that Madhuri told me about -- it was called Sangeet -- in which she played the role of a blind singer. It is a brilliant film, but it was a flop commercially.

Madhuri wanted to act in this film of mine which is not a commercial film. People in the industry warned her that she was taking a big risk. He is not a film-maker, they told her, he is a painter. But she is defending me. So this is a fascinating experience, where I get full freedom. It is a film for an international audience. It will not be on the commercial circuit in theatres.

Husain's fascination for Madhuri Dixit

This film is the culmination of my fascination for Madhuri Dixit! The whole film is for her. She is also very much involved in the success of this film. We don't want any return except to make a statement, a cinematic statement. Madhuri and myself. because I consider her the most dynamic film star of today -- her body language is out of this world. So that is my mission.

Madhuri Dixit has her say

Excerpted from New India Digest, with the publisher's kind permission. New India Digest is available from the India Digest Foundation, Sahyadri Sadan, Tilak Road, Pune 411 030. Annual subscription for India: Rs 195; for the US: $ 15.

Do tell us what you think of this interview