A poet's vision
The making of ``Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities" was full of eccentricities what with the father-son duo, M. F. Husain and Owais Husain, involved. But it was thoroughly enjoyable for that reason, Owais tells GOWRI RAMNARAYAN.
A CELEBRITY father is not an unmixed blessing, especially if the son follows the same pursuit. Owais Husain has not only chosen to be a painter, but has co-written and co-directed the soon-to-be-released "Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities" with father M. F. Husain.
"Meenaxi: Tale of Three Cities" has striking visuals.
The feature has Tabu as the mysterious Meenaxi-Maria in Hyderabad, Jaisalmer and Prague, and Raghuvir Yadav as the Nawab-novelist. Bearded and black-coated, the fictional character Kameshwar (Kunnal Kapoor) is reminiscent of a younger M. F. Husain. They chase their hopes and dreams of overcoming a writer's block, of finding perfect love, or achieving identity in real-surreal meetings through lush song and dance forays.
The film has striking visuals, a few achieved almost by accident. In Jaisalmer for instance, Owais Husain rushed to the dunes when local goons broke up his state-of-the-art sets. The camel had run away, a boat from the hotel had to serve instead. That was how before the light faded, Tabu was shot beside a red boat on the rolling sands, throwing her hands up against the setting sun.
The shifting balances between what is real, created and imagined are a major concern in "Meenaxi." Santosh Sivan provides camera wizardry in this film of flamboyant colours and choreography, while A. R. Rahman's East-West music resonates with the mood of the three cities, including a Qawwali (Noor-un-ala) written by M. F. Husain. ``The film is a combination of my classical touch and (Owais's) contemporary perceptions,'' says the father.
What does the son say? Here Owais Husain talks about his feature debut in collaboration with his maverick father. Excerpts:
As a painter, how do you react to the bustling teamwork of cinema after the privacy of the atelier?
I had been taken by the medium of the theatre, and then became serious about photography when I discovered Black and White Italian neo-realist cinema. Instead of carrying a painter's sketchbook on my travels, I went `video sketching' in Orissa, Rajasthan and Mexico. I am a figurative painter. Cinema taught me to explore negative space, to look at other areas besides the figure. I began to study film stills and photographs of the European masters.
Yes, I'm obsessed with painting, but after the Guernica and American Abstract Expressionism, and once the white canvas is painted, tell me, what next? Cinema is such a young medium that the whole journey is exciting. Filmmaking is like taming an animal, you want to control it by the horns.
Tabu and Kunnal Kapoor.
Belonging to two different generations, could you and your father see eye to eye when you worked together?
(Laughs) Crazy things happened, disastrous at times. We do have a comradely relationship but also a volatile one. I am more familiar with modern literature and lifestyles, he is at home with older ways of thinking. Not that he is hidebound he is anything but a traditionalist!
Our conflicts had more to do with different kinds of approach. He may want a character to walk away into a happy ending, I would insist on some valid justification for it. We'd argue, sparks would fly ... Somewhere his reasons would have to do with the traditions of painting and folklore, whereas I am fascinated by poetry that leads into metaphor.
My wife Reima, who produced the film, was the peacemaker, especially because she knows more about cinema technically than we do. That is how the three of us developed the character of Meenaxi, the perfume seller, a desert bloom, with eyes shaped like fish but having to become an activist fighting for water in Rajasthan. As Maria in Prague, she is Joan of Arc by night and a waitress by day.
Why Tabu? What was her reaction to your strange storyline that is way beyond the pale of both the naturalistic and the Bollywood moulds?
Who else? After Smita Patil, she is our most serious actress, very enthusiastic about adapting herself to different challenges. In some places she did freak out laughing. She'd let out a `Whaaat.' But she'd do the scene, sometimes going further than our expectations. As Maria, the Czech student of Indology, she was just fantastic!
Were you creating a kaleidoscope with Tabu images, as with Madhuri Dixit in "Gaja Gamini"?
In "Gaja Gamini" my father was dealing with rasas, with mythology, with the image of Shakti. That was a painter's vision. "Meenaxi" tries to be a poet's vision. We have this woman lost in her own world, she can't spell out her emotions. In Hyderabad she motivates the writer to start writing again. In Jaisalmer and Prague we have a love story. Finally the journey is all about the writer overcoming his block. Or has he?
Why these three locations, why not Lucknow instead of Hyderabad, or Vienna instead of Prague?
Jaisalmer is the perfect desert city, all gold, not garish pink like Jaipur, or stark like Chitor. In Hyderabad you can find havelis still in a timewarp, it had more for us to explore than familiar Delhi or Lucknow. As her hometown, it brought out something special in Tabu.
Co-writer and co-director Owals Husain with with Reima, who is the producer of the film.
Prague is the gateway to western culture, architecturally most Gothic, the first European city my father had visited in the 1950s. He had revelled in the music and folk dances at its Spring festival. For me Prague made a fabulous visual backdrop.
Actually my father, Reima and I got charged up after the screening of "Gaja Gamini" at the Berlinale. The next thing we knew, on our flight back to India, we decided to make another film and thrash out the concept of the cities as the theme. We treated each city like a separate book in a trilogy.
Your father made a visual book of "Gaja Gamini" before starting to shoot. But "Meenaxi" had a fluid script, with lots of on-the-spot improvisations. And with two painters in charge, your film must have made strange, singular demands. How did the team react to them?
Eccentricities were to be expected in making a film like this, and our team enjoyed it just for that reason. Being spiritually inclined, A. R. Rahman was able to create music with the mystery and mystique of the theme that has as much to do with places as with people. We went through Prague together, and Turkey too, to explore the Turkish origins of Hyderabadi culture, just to get the flavour.
I designed the sets, and had the movements, costumes and lights ready before telling the choreographer that I didn't want a dance, I wanted to design a song, to picturise the movements of the characters.
In Prague Astad Deboo had to figure out how to accommodate Renaissance paintings, a black angel and the three graces, in composing a dance sequence. At other times Reima would somehow manage to satisfy last-minute demands for a unicorn, an angel with feathers, or an antique hookah!
Can't find a better poet than Santosh Sivan. Sometimes he did go berserk when I filled up the sets with not two or three but 50 different elements. But his camera captured all the textures, feelings and poetry. At the end we found that there was no need to digitally colour-correct the film, it had been impeccably shot. Editor Sreekar Prasad was amazing, -- he'd giggle softly as he cut and spliced and hey presto, you had the rhythms you wanted!
What kind of audience orbit do you expect for this film?
Even when you paint you do want to reach the largest number of people, but you can't work with that aim in mind. In "Meenaxi" too we tried to explore the medium. It's not an over-the-top commercial product, nor is it an art house film. I think everyone can relate to its poetry, music, colour and emotions.
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