Through the eyes of the besotted

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  • Published 10.06.11
MF Husain looks at his painting of Madhuri Dixit as Gaja Gamini

M.F. Husain the filmmaker was a natural extension of M.F. Husain the artist.

Besotted by beauty, Husain’s films not only explored the exquisiteness of the female form, much like his paintings, but also looked deeply, almost reverentially, into the mind and moods of a woman.

So when he turned filmmaker — with Through the Eyes of a Painter as far back as 1967 — Husain merely traded canvas for celluloid.

Although it was with Gaja Gamini starring Madhuri Dixit that Husain made a lasting impression as filmmaker, the auteur in the “besotted” Bollywood fan came to the fore in Through the Eyes of a Painter, commissioned by the film division of India.

Just 15 minutes long and without a single dialogue, the film set in Rajasthan was a series of beautiful montages, earning Husain The Golden Bear at the Berlin Film Festival.

Husain did not wield the director’s baton for the next 33 years. In 2000, he cast his muse Madhuri — he admitted to becoming a fan of the actress after watching her 1994 family drama Hum Aapke Hain Koun..! — in Gaja Gamini. A metaphor for the journey of a woman called Gaja Gamini suspended in time and space along with a spectrum of characters taken from art, history, music and poetry, Husain mounted his film like a painting.

“Every scene of Gaja Gamini turned out the way he had envisaged it, beauty in its purest form,” says filmmaker-cinematographer Santosh Sivan, who worked with Husain in Gaja Gamini .

Husain made sure that almost every frame was a showcase for Madhuri — she was Noorbibi, a symbol of stability; Shakuntala, the princess conceived in the poetry of Kalidasa; Monica, the boat woman searching for love; Phoolwania, the flower girl mourning her slain husband; and even Leonardo da Vinci’s Monalisa .

Husain with Tabu, who played Meenaxi

“I found him to be a man who had both the knowledge of and the passion for cinema,” says Bollywood choreographer Saroj Khan who was introduced to the artist by Madhuri.

“He told me: ‘I want my film to be like a painting’. So when I choreographed the dances in the films, I kept his brief in mind. On set, he would hold a paintbrush and with some deft strokes show me how he wanted the actors to move in a song. He was pure genius,” adds Khan.

Although boasting heavyweights like Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Shah Rukh Khan and Madhuri, Gaja Gamini bombed at the box office.

On hearing of his demise, Madhuri told a news channel: “It’s a very sad day for me today.... I am sure that he did miss coming back. I knew from the way he used to talk, remember India, talk about the different celebrations. That’s the sadness that I feel for him, that he was born in India but couldn’t breathe his last here.”

Even with Madhuri as his muse — he created a series of paintings dedicated to the actress earning the tag Madhuri Fida Husain — Husain did not make his next film with her, choosing instead to cast Tabu in his Meenaxi: A Tale of Three Cities in 2004. Depicting the same woman as many — from a mysterious perfume trader to an exotic desert dweller to an orphan — Husain’s focus remained on exploring her mind.

“He was like a vision on the sets, constantly conceptualising and creating on the spur of the moment,” says actor Kunal Kapoor who made his Bollywood debut with Meenaxi.

The abstract storyline, however, meant that Meenaxi suffered the same fate as Gaja Gamini at the box office.

“We have learnt to see cinema as a narrative experience. Had we learnt how to see cinema as a visual experience too, his Gaja Gamini and Meenaxi would have been appreciated the way they should have been,” says filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh.

Husain did not make a film after Meenaxi. His last film project was as the dialogue writer for son Owais’s debut film Pehla Sitara, which is awaiting release.

In April this year, Husain was slated to start work on a new film, but failing health prevented him from doing so.

Through the years, Husain acquired many a Bollywood muse — from Amrita Rao to Anushka Sharma. Rao, whose film Vivaah Husain had watched 20 times, said: “I am still in denial. It’s difficult to believe that the most energetic and alive person I knew is not in this world anymore.... Husain saab was an inspiration, a true genius who knew how to appreciate beauty and talent.”