From Frida Kahlo to Jean-Michel Basquiat to J.M.W. Turner, in the West the artist biopic is alive and well. In India, there are fewer examples. Two relatively recent releases include Amit Dutta’s experimental and elliptical Nainsukh (2010) – an homage to the life and work of the eponymous 18th-century miniaturist – and Ketan Mehta’s glossy Rang Rasiya (2008), in which the 19th-century painter Raja Ravi Varma, who fused Indian traditions with European academicism, is portrayed as a heartbreaker. (As the film includes scenes of a sexual nature that concerned censors, Rasiya was only released in India last year.) Rumours are now swirling of an Amrita Sher-Gil biopic, with actor Sonam Kapoor lined up to play the artist, who died at the age of just 28, and who stands at the apex of Indian modern art. Sher-Gil’s nephew, Vivan Sundaram, had previously worked on a script with the Marxist filmmaker Kumar Shahani, but it never reached the production stage.
Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia’s 11-minute film An Old Dog’s Diary (2015) – which will have its uk premiere at this month’s BFI London Film Festival – is a significant contribution to the genre. Commissioned by the Xandev Foundation to make a biopic on the life of the modern Indian painter Francis Newton Souza – who died in 2002 at the age of 88 – Goel and Heredia were handed a seriously iconoclastic subject. Souza – whose work is in the collections of the British Museum, Tate and the Victoria and Albert Museum – was such a divisive figure that apparently only six people attended his funeral. He was a founding member of the Bombay Progressive Artists’ Group, before setting sail for London in 1949 where he achieved fame in the 1950s and ’60s. John Berger declared his expressionistic style to be ‘drawing on the postwar art brut movement and elements of British neo romanticism’. Distorted, violent and sexual, Souza’s oeuvre is a vast, sustained attack on society’s hypocrisy and puritanism. His desire to shock did not endear him to critics such as the late, pioneering, India-based writer, Richard Bartholomew.
Goel and Heredia eschew the well-worn life-to-death arc, opting instead for a more evocative approach. Souza’s unpublished letters and writings provided an entry point. The black and white film was shot in Goa, where the artist was born, and is accompanied by subtitles stitched together from his writings. Souza introduces himself in his own words, exposing his reservations, struggles and susceptibilities: ‘I was a rickety child […] better had I died […] would have saved me a lot of trouble […] I would not have to bear an artist’s tormented soul.’ These ruminations bring to light a lesser-known, more reflective side to the artist that resonated with both filmmakers, and led them to discover his 1955 series of drawings, ‘Six Gentleman of Our Times’, two of which appear in the film. In these works, Souza presents the brutally contorted, cut up and scarred faces of men in suits and ties, the internal angst, pain and turmoil of these modern ‘gentlemen’ rendered across their visages.
It was a brave decision on Goel and Heredia’s part to dwell on an aspect of the artist’s life and work that departs from the popular mythos which has formed around him. The film opens with a series of stunning images of a swamp in Goa, before segueing into a more ethnographic mode. Footage of a Good Friday procession is interspersed with scenes shot at the Lar de Santa Margarida Home for the Aged and at the Rachol Seminary, where reproductions of work by another Goan artist, Angelo da Fonseca, are hung. These scenes set the stage for numerous observations, while establishing a religious, particularly Christian, subtext.
The ambition of An Old Dog’s Diary lies precisely in not trying to cover the vastness of the artist’s career and messy private life but, crucially, in offering a proposition as to how received biography, legacy and cultural frameworks can be re-imagined and contested. The lives of artists should not be ossified by such creative exercises; instead, they and their work should inspire bold, unbridled exploration: this is what Goel and Heredia have achieved.
For her latest book, the New Delhi-based writer Rosalyn D’Mello – who was associate editor of Richard Bartholomew: The Art Critic (Bart, 2012, which I wrote about for frieze issue 154), in which Souza makes repeated appearances – is planning to pen letters to long-gone artists and writers. Souza just happens to be one of her chosen few. After watching An Old Dog’s Diary, I wonder what she will say.