Atul Dodiya, Anand with his book of poems, 2020–22, oil on canvas, 60 × 78".

Atul Dodiya, Anand with his book of poems, 2020–22, oil on canvas, 60 × 78".

Atul Dodiya

Atul Dodiya’s solo exhibition “Dr. Banerjee in Dr. Kulkarni’s Nursing Home and Other Paintings 2020–2022” was, among other things, an ode to classic Hindi cinema. The twenty-four works in the exhibition correspond to the twenty-four frames per second in a film. Each image emerges from a freezing of temporal flow, a moment of pause that the artist goes on to paint. In contrast with the drawing of a storyboard before a film is made, Dodiya paints in retrospect, reducing moving pictures to stills.

Dodiya included scenes from famous Hindi films, among them Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Anupama (Incomparable, 1966), Raj Kapoor’s Barsaat (Rain, 1949), and Guru Dutt’s Kaagaz Ke Phool (Paper Flowers, 1959). If it weren’t for the paintings’ titles, however, it might be difficult to identify the characters depicted or the films they belong to. In isolating the image from the larger narrative, Dodiya seeks a sustained encounter with moments that otherwise pass in the blink of an eye. The painting that lent its title to the show as a whole, Dr. Banerjee in Dr. Kulkarni’s Nursing Home (all works 2020–22), features a still plucked from Mukherjee’s 1971 film Anand, in which a nurse looks at oncologist Dr. Banerjee (Amitabh Bachchan) as he descends a short staircase. There is an urgency to her gaze, as though she needs to pass on some important information.

None of the characters in the paintings look at us directly; some have their backs turned. In refusing the fiction of eye contact, Dodiya takes the focus off the actors, flattening and blending the characters into the setting. The protagonists and the props are equalized. We started to notice the backgrounds: patterned lamps, console cabinets, bookcases, statues, paintings, vases, occasionally a piano. The only sense of motion was suggested by the stance of the actor’s body and the flowy curtains in the background. These frames are testament to the image of home and life in postindependence Indian cinema before the economic liberalization of 1991 began changing the nature of cities and reducing architecture to standardized units. The influence of modernism and Deco aesthetics was rampant during this phase of nation-building. In Anand with his book of poems, for example, we see Rajesh Khanna walking past some woven metal chairs toward a brise-soleil wall. In other paintings woven wall hangings, grilles, tiles, pillars, and partitions essay a similar stylistic idiom.

Mostly upper-middle-class environments, these sets sometimes include bizarre elements that nod to the aspirational. In The Coward, whose title is the English translation of Kapurush, Satyajit Ray’s 1965 film, we see Soumitra Chatterjee’s character, Amitabha Roy, passing the frame. A duffel bag with the Lufthansa logo hangs on his left arm. In the background, a tiger skin is stretched on the wall. Both these objects—one referencing the ability to travel abroad and the second, a trophy of a colonial hunting pastime—seemed out of place amid the otherwise humble household decor.

One way to establish depth in film is through the arrangement of objects in the foreground and the background. Layers of color, applied in rough impasto, similarly offer depth to Dodiya’s paintings. The tonal quality is very similar to the celluloid color of films from that era. For example, in Anuradha with sprained ankle, we see actress Leela Naidu wearing an off-white dress. Her injured leg delicately rests on a pillow while she reads a book. She is framed by powder-blue and mint-green pastel hues. A work that stands apart from this color scheme is the largely black-and-white Rita and Raj in moonlight, from Kapoor’s 1951 crime drama Awaara (The Vagabond). The protagonists catch a glimpse of each other reflected on water, illuminated by the moon above their heads—an apt image for Dodiya’s own impulse to find oblique significance in the cinematic moment.