‘Gods cannot be painted in human form’ (and certainly not in the nude) – such is the accusation against artist Raja Ravi Varma in a British court in India of 1896. Yes, they can! A breathtakingly colourful film, RANG RASIYA (Hindi for COLOURS OF PASSION) relates how painter Raja Ravi Varma (ravishing male beauty Randeep Hooda ) takes the liberty to paint the gods and thus makes them accessible to the masses. Varma came from a matriarchal society and had it in him to see the goddess in his muse Sugandha, played by Nandana Sen (an activist, author and actress, who in fact almost was almost accused of heresy herself for taking that part, as she told us at IFFI 2015).
Raja Ravi Varma not only painted gods for everyone to see, he had his paintings printed and widely distributed and thus became a kind of Indian Gutenberg; Through his art everybody could see and venerate the gods, even those people who weren’t allowed to enter the temples.
The film’s cinematography, the music and bollywoodesque acting might at times venture on the verge to kitsch, but those oh-so-beautiful images just carried me away with Raja Ravi Varma, as he travelled around India to discover where all those tales of gods and deities had originated. As the legends start coming to life in Varma’s colourful paintings, he’s finally bold enough to paint one nude mythological character (namely a nymph, who must not be seen naked by her lover, lest she must go back to the realms of the gods) … and is promptly accused of heresy and brought to court. How nudity can even be a problem in the land of Kamasutra is beyond Varma (as it was beyond me). The artist is eventually relieved from all accuses by the court. Sugandha on the other hand – called as a witness at court – gets to feel the full impact of public humiliation, because she has been seen by thousands in the nude.
When a YouTube clip of actress Nandana Sen in one of those nude scenes leaked (there’s one breast visible, much less than on many a European beach during summer holidays) she got accused of ‘impersonating a goddess’ (utter nonsense, but – as in the film – the moralists aimed high to hit somewhere below the belt). Nandana even told us that kissing – as we are used to see it in western films – was somewhat of a challenge in this production. I had never heard of such problems, but, alas, they seem real enough. Learn something new every day … well, the novelty is relative, as Nandana explained: Art is not free in many places – at least religious art isn’t (just think Charlie Hebdo). So – in my conclusion – this film in itself is a little miracle, and … did I mention that it is really beautiful? May it be distributed widely and seen by as many audiences as possible.