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  • Hawks and Sparrows. Graphic print 1983
  • History Is A Silent Film
  • History Is A Silent Film
  • History Is A Silent Film
  • Painting (from Phalke Street Series)
  • Painting (from Phalke Street Series)
  • Painting (from Phalke Street Series)
  • Water Colour (from Phalke Street Series)
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Look at that Mountain, Once it was Fire

A fine painter, graphic artist and internationally acclaimed short film maker K.M.Madhusudhanan has been working on his ambitious exhibition project Phalke Street: An Archaeology of Indian Cinema for the last five years. By the end of this year this project will be up in Mumbai. His latest film, ‘History is a Silent Film’ will be shown in MoMA, New York, June 2007. In conversation with JohnyML, he sheds light on his exhibition and film projects


JohnyML: You are one of the founder members of the Radical Group. After the disintegration of the group you kept yourself away from the scene for almost fifteen years. Even during the recent period of Malayali (artists) resurrection, you deliberately chose to be away from the celebration. Why is it so?

K.M.Madhusudhanan: Your question is multi-layered. I cannot say I was detached from the art scene for the last fifteen years. After the disintegration of the Group, I started seriously thinking about a new language in my art. This led me to start thinking of a medium that could involve a lot more ideas and provide space for more people. That is how I became deeply interested in cinema as a medium, and started watching films with much more seriousness than before. I also started reading voraciously about cinema, and writing in Malayalam about art and cinema.

The biggest challenge with this medium, though, is money… money for making a film. Like Godard once said, “Making films means spending money”. When I spend money, there is no return, because experimental films will not give any money in return.

I was not trying to make so called art films. I was trying out possibilities to find a language. With the help of two of my friends, I made my first film, ‘Lighthouse’, using street graffiti. I always take a lot of things from streets… stories, ideas, a character from a forgotten novel…. Street graffiti is like a huge jigsaw puzzle, which continues to amuse me. The protagonist in my most recent film too, I found on the street… perhaps one of the oldest streets in the world.

From the very first film, I have always tried to connect with my other work, such as paintings and graphic art.

All of this triggered in me a new way of looking at art language. My films are not removed from my painterly language. So one cannot say that I was or am away from the art scene.


JML: Madhu, during your initial years in Delhi, you had been doing a lot of illustrations in regional and national publications. I have seen so many young artists collecting the posters you have done, and also getting inspired by the stylization that you have brought into the illustrations. Could you please tell about your life as an illustrator?

KMM: After completing my education at the Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, I started teaching in some art institutions. Somehow I did not find it very inspiring. I came to Delhi in the early ‘90s. My friends were working in major publishing houses at that time and they gave me the opportunity to illustrate for them.

My association with theatre director Prasanna was another reason for me to do a lot of production work for theatre. I did posters and set design for National School of Drama productions and people started identifying my work through those posters and designs.
I would say, my life as an illustrator was partly a survival issue and partly an effort to reach a new art language.

I was thinking about a new language in art practice but was always in an experimental mode. Working, and then working over it was my practice at the time. I tried almost all the mediums in small format, using various techniques.


JML: You did your BFA in painting from Trivandrum Fine Arts College and MFA in Graphics from MS University, Baroda. I have heard that you were one of the best graphic artists that came out from the Baroda Fine Arts Faculty. Why did you leave graphics?

KMM: Interestingly, I have never left graphics at all. Your question brings up another question. What is graphic art? Graphic art is all about reproducing images. When I was a student at Baroda, the potential of graphic art as a medium was very limited. You make many reproductions of your image, but you cannot exhibit simultaneously in many places, or publish your image in a book form. It is very frustrating. But during the period of Russian Constructivists and the periods of Dada and Pop, graphic art had a very important role. John Hartfield’s graphics, filled with questions raised against Hitler still have a value because those images spread all over the world. Hartfield’s images still have an incredibly contemporary look, in that sense. The idea of spreading images in graphic art still fascinates me. I always dream of my images being watched by the whole world.

In my illustration and graphic art practice, I used a lot of etching, lithography and photo-transfer techniques. Even in my films, I think I try to get the same feel that these graphic works would have created. So you see, I have never really left my graphic art practice.

JML: Could you please tell about your decision to do films and please tell more about your film productions?

KMM: For me cinema is an art of seeing. It deals with disappearance, memory, dreams and history. My earlier work, the etchings, lithographs and small paintings and drawings I did also dealt with history and memory. In my early Delhi years, I was trying to extend this and experiment with other mediums. I see the possibility for this in filmmaking also. So instead of leaving one art form and taking up another, I started doing both… painting and cinema.

I have done films that thematically and linguistically deal with the notion of disappearance, memory, dreams and history. In between, I have done some other documentaries, including a longish work on migrant laborers. In both the cases, I work with those technicians who work for conventional cinema. This practice adds quality and perfection to my experimental works.

JML: Could you please just detail your filmography?

KMM: I would like to mention my recent works. Self Portrait (2002), Razor, Blood and other Stories (2005), Maya Bazar (2007) and History is a Silent Film (2007).

JML: Your works are honored at MoMA, New York. Please tell us about that.

KMM: ‘Self Portrait’ was shown in a film festival Clermont Ferrand, a village in South of France, known only for this short film festival. The film curator from the Museum of Modern Art, New York was there and he selected my work. It was shown at the MoMA in May, 2002. This film deals with the life of a photographer who uses an old technology. He survives through the great wars and disasters happening in the world. As the technology becomes outdated, the man is jobless. A policeman friend of his tries to help him by giving him odd jobs, such as taking FIR photographs. Slowly, his room is filled with the photographs of the dead. One day, during a communal riot, the policeman takes him to a crime scene. He takes the photo of the dead man and when he develops it he finds his own portrait in it. Basically, the film deals with the inner meaning of visual images. Or, one can say, what we see and what we know about the images.

 On the opening day of the film at MoMA, after the show, a Mexican lady came to me and said that this is possible in any country. Even in Mexico she had seen those old ‘technicians’ living with and through their technologies and surviving the all-shaking wars. The film was well appreciated on the opening day. It also got me an international award for best film from Greece and was shown at several international film festivals.

My meeting with Jonas Mekas, the founder of the Anthology of Film Archives, New York, was one of the rare moments in my life. He was a close friend of Andy Warhol. He has many of Warhol’s films are in his Archives. Mekas showed me his warehouse where he has collected underground and experimental films from all over the world. It is an amazing collection. Jonas Mekas fights against ‘forgetting and disappearance’. There are several important underground and experimental films that can only be seen in his Anthology of Film Archives. Mekas liked my work and included ‘Self Portrait’ in his Archives. It was a great experience.


JML: You have been selected to show your latest film at MoMA again in June, 2007. Tell me more about ‘History is a Silent Film’.

KMM: As I said before, my intention is to capture history in my own medium. In a way I am preoccupied with the notion of ‘disappearance’ as a historical motif. This disappearance has happened to everything in history. Certain things vanish from history as people cease to refer to it.

I want to look at the history of cinema and certain aspects of its disappearance through the very medium of film itself. The first thing that comes to mind, when thinking of making a film on films, is a documentary. I did not want to do a documentary on films. I wanted to incorporate various expressions in order to deal with the disappearance of a great era in the history of cinema, which was always silent.
For years I have been researching the history of silent films in India and have found so many areas that are now erased from history. I traveled to the National Film Archives in Pune, the only place that you can find the surviving silent films made in India, which are few and far between, and that too, mostly just fragments. It is very interesting to study how Babu Rao Painter, an artist, established the Prabhat Studio in Pune…. It is now the famous Pune Film Institute. Santaram, Fatelal and Damle were Babu Rao Painter’s students. There is a cruel history of erasure when we look at the life and works of Babu Rao Painter. His works can now be seen only in fragments.

In the same way, Dadasaheb Phalke’s life and films, how he single handedly started the indigenous film industry, made several films without compromising his artistic ideas, makes for a very intriguing study. Interestingly, he also studied art at Kala Bhavan in Baroda, which is now the Faculty of Fine Arts.

I came across the story of Vinayak Rao Patwardhan, who adopted the western Magic Lantern technique (projecting slide pictures as a form of narrative entertainment). He called it ‘Shambarik Kharolika’. He and his two sons invented indigenous techniques for making interesting slides.

I strongly believe that silent film images are much more powerful than the images which we now produce in films. Possibly, one reason could be that they shared many things from art and most of the creators were artists themselves.

There are so many people like them. They are now getting erased from history, as their works are not referred any more. Through my film, I want to work against this disappearance.


JML: Phalke Street: An Archeology of Indian Cinema is your latest project. I believe you are planning a huge exhibition of paintings and films.  Could you please shed light on this project?

KMM: You’re correct. Several paintings and a film – History is a silent Film. This project examines the optical devices used in early cinema. Incidentally, the Museum of Moving Images that I visited in the US has a collection of over sixty thousand optical devices used in cinema. These optical devices tell you very different stories. The small objects and the makers of these small objects all disappeared behind the dark curtain of history. The optical devices that have followed subsequently, such as the television, have become such an integral part of our existence, we cannot imagine doing without them.

Phalke Street deals with the memory of silent films. This memory is predominantly based on images created by the silent filmmakers, and the development of advertising and commercial art. It is also a period that is significant in art history… the time of the extremely popular Ravi Verma oleographs.

The Phalke Street project is really a journey to find the inner meaning of these images.


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