Art-centric biopics are a rarity in Hindi cinema. There isn't anything of significance, therefore, that Rang Rasiya can be measured against. Just as well. This remarkable film is in a league of its own in many ways.
Writer-director Ketan Mehta's cinematic celebration of the life and times of Raja Ravi Varma skillfully harmonises the sweep of period drama, the allure of pretty images and the impact of emotional intensity on a wide canvas that delivers more than just pretty frames.
The film articulates ever-relevant truths about the continuing assaults on artistic freedom and the huge gap that separates the exuberance of the world of the imagination and the cruel exigencies of real life.
Rang Rasiya is marked by a blindingly bright and bold colour palette that yields enthralling and evocative visuals. But that is only one aspect of the film.
The remarkable story of the 19th century Kerala-born painter who altered the face of Indian art forever by taking the icons of Hindu mythology out of the temples and royal palaces is told through flashbacks and the fragmentary reminiscences of Raja Ravi Varma's no less illustrious protégé, Dhundiraj Govind Phalke.
The film takes a while to gather momentum and begin to underscore the principal conflict points in the legendary artist's career.
The narrative is marked by metaphorical blotches of darkness - these add multiple layers to the forceful drama and serve as counterpoints to the overwhelming beauty that cinematographer Anil Mehta puts on the screen.
The film swings from the highs represented by the untrammeled passion that drives the process of creativity to the lows brought on by the myopic interventions of self-appointed guardians of conventional religious belief and morality, and glides across much else in between.
Rang Rasiya is by no means a perfect film, but for the manner in which it tackles an extensive range of important themes related to the place of art in a tradition-bound society, it is an impressive achievement.
The film, which has been adapted from Ranjit Desai's Marathi biography of Raja Ravi Varma, probes multiple themes - freedom of expression, religious bigotry, deeply ingrained caste and class divides, and the dilemma of a woman who dares to surrender herself completely to the man and the artist she loves and trusts. It does so with restraint and subtlety.
In Rang Rasiya, we witness Ravi Varma being transformed from an unassuming but supremely talented young man to a full-fledged rebel who paves the way for a wholly new approach to art.
He marries a princess, goes the whole hog with a lowly maid for the sake of his art, earns the title of Raja from the impressed ruler of Travancore, is banished from Kerala by the latter's successor, shifts to Bombay, and secures a commission from the Maharajah of Baroda that allows him to travel the length and breadth of India in quest of inspiration.
At the end of it all, Raja Ravi Varma emerges as a successful artist who is both revered and reviled. But firm in his belief that "art is always unfettered", he continues to fearlessly ply his trade, earning many enemies in the bargain.
With the help of an Indian businessman Goverdhan Das (Paresh Rawal) and a German printer Fritz Schleizer (Jim Boeven), he sets up a lithographic printing press in Bombay that reproduces his paintings by the hundreds and thousands.
That fuels the ire of the fundamentalists and he is dragged to court for hurting the religious sentiments of the people, a plight that artists have continued to face across the country ever since.
Rang Rasiya is bolstered appreciably by the strong performances by the two principal actors - Randeep Hooda as Raja Ravi Varma and Nandana Sen as his muse in Bombay, Sugandha Bai - as well as by the formidable supporting cast (Darshan Jariwala, Vikram Gokhale, Sachin Kedekar, Ashish Vidyarthi, Paresh Rawal, Vipin Sharma, Gaurav Dwivedi).
Randeep does not strike a single false note in a complex interpretation of a towering figure, capturing the highs and lows of Raja Ravi Varma's life with effortless ease.
Nandana Sen, too, is pitch-perfect as Sugandha. She is the ideal foil to the moody male protagonist, traversing an entire gamut of emotions - from the charmingly coquettish to the deeply conflicted and anguished, from moments of ecstatic love to the trough of a death wish - without losing her poise.
The surfeit of music, both in terms of songs and the background score, strikes a discordant note in a film that is otherwise well modulated.
Why must a film about art be overlaid with so much music? As difficult to grasp as that might be, very little else in Rang Rasiya is out of place.
This film has been in the cans for several years, but given the timelessness of the story it tells and the crucial issues it addresses, it has lost none of its relevance.
Rang Rasiya is as good a film as any you have, or will, see this year. Strongly recommended.