A glimpse into the life of artist Krishen Khanna
Renowned artist Krishen Khanna’s paintings are known to add prestige to walls at swanky hotels in the country and are exhibited at galleries around the world. Filmmaker Sruti Harihara Subramanian documents the life and art of this ingenious 90-year-old artist through her engaging and enriching documentary titled A Far Afternoon – A Painted Saga by Krishen Khanna.
In an exclusive chat during a private screening of the film, the Chennai-based filmmaker talks about the strokes and brushes she used for the beautiful onscreen portrayal of the legendary artist.
What inspired you to make a documentary on the renowned 90-year-old artist?
Piramal Art Foundation, who had commissioned the project on Krishen Khanna, offered this documentary to me. I started my career as an assistant to actor/director Revathy. I then assisted Vikram K Kumar on the Hindi-Tamil bilingual film, 13B (Yaavarum Nalam) and Vishnu Vardhan on his Telugu film Panjaa. As an independent filmmaker, I have worked on corporate videos and documentaries for Britannia, Craft Council of India, Vasan Health Care, Villgro, CanStop and Khwaahish, etc. So, when I got offered this project I was excited to meet a great artist and see how his mind works. (She has also modeled for ad-campaigns and acted in a few regional TV shows).
What kind of research did you have to do for the documentary?
I had heard of Krishen Khanna but didn’t know him. When it comes to making a documentary you need to know a lot more about the person. So my Cinematographer, Aravindhan GPS, and I spent time with the artist. Since Aravindhan is from Pondicherry, I am from Chennai and the artist is in Delhi, we couldn’t be there for a long duration, but every time we had an opportunity we met him. We read up a lot on him and tried to figure out things that haven’t been said so far. Invariably, when you read up about an artist certain things or anecdotes get repeated. So it was a conscious decision to tell something that is not already said. It wasn’t like we finished the research and began shooting. Throughout the 6-8 months of shooting, we were discovering different aspects about him.
A Far Afternoon – A Painted Saga by Krishen Khanna focuses on the making of his latest eponymous mural and revolves around it. Did the subject of the documentary evolve organically or had you planned it at the outset?
The producer Ashvin (E Rajagopalan, who is also her husband) wanted us to catalog / archive the painting as he (Krishen Khanna) created it. We started off from there and would go visit him and shoot as he painted. Then, I would have discussions with my Cinematographer and Editor – she was in Bombay so I would update her – about the footage. Through the second schedule we figured that the film was going to be about the painting. We realized that he is a great 90-year-old artist who has many stories to tell and experiences to share. So, we can’t limit him. And as we started shooting him as he painted, we realized that the work encompasses all the elements of his life and experiences – the motifs he has used in his other paintings like ‘Bandwala’, etc. So, we made the painting / mural as a centerpiece and decided to talk to people about him through it.
Ashvin also suggested that as A Far Afternoon is a five-part painting (20-feet-long) it comes under the mural category, so we should talk about his murals. Krishen has made canvas paintings as well as murals, and not many artists have ventured into both mediums, and not much is spoken about this aspect of him either. So, we decided to bring in his other murals – ITC Maurya (Delhi), Chola Migrations and the one at Mahim garden (Mumbai) – that are equally unique. Obviously, Krishen had said he doesn’t know where the painting takes him so there wasn’t anything concrete, but we were sure of incorporating his other murals. One can’t tell everything (through the documentary) but the idea is tell enough for people to get interested.
How much time did you spend – from start to finish – on the documentary?
Krishen took six months to paint the mural. We joined him when he started working on the second panel of the five-part painting. Everything from shooting to post production took us about six-eight months.
What camera equipment did you use to shoot?
Since it was about art and the artist we didn’t want to compromise on the visual quality thus we used ARRI Alexa and the Black Magic camera for the bandwala’s (a band of musicians who perform at wedding baraats) sequence.
Can you tell us about your team – Cinematographer, Editor, Music and Sound Designer – and how you got them on board?
We were a small team. I had a good executive producer, Rohin V, who took care of the logistics of the shoot. Aravindhan and I worked together as assistants. We became friends over the years and I often bounced ideas to him. We never had an opportunity to work together so I thought this was a good assignment to do it. Aravindhan and the Editor, Puloma Pal, are friends. I met her and felt she can bring in something very different from what I can provide. The sound and music was done by Aravind – Shankar (Aravind Murali and Jai Shankar Iyer), who are my good friends. They have composed music for a lot of regional films and ad-jingles.
Can you tell us about the music and sound design for the documentary?
Krishen had spoken a lot about Carnatic music, as he has a deep connection to it. Unfortunately, we couldn’t include it in the film. But I wanted it to be part of him as it was a strong personality trait. He had mentioned a couple of ragas that he really liked – Shankarabaranam and Kathanakuthukalam. He also talks about Bach and Western Classical music. So I was breaking my head over what kind of background score to use. Being a south Indian I was veering towards Carnatic music as I don’t have too much knowledge of Western Classical, so I decided to go with the ragas he had mentioned. But I didn’t want it to be heavily trenched in Carnatic sounds, so we got a Cello player to play raga Shankarabaranam; the music was a mix of eastern and western just like him. Then we extensively used raga Kathanakuthukalam too.
Where can people get to watch A Far Afternoon – A Painted Saga by Krishen Khanna?
We had screened it in London where they were commemorating his 90th birthday. We will have private screenings in Delhi, Bangalore and Mumbai. We also intend to send it to festivals and release it on DVDs and alternate platforms as it has a niche appeal.
Did Krishen Khanna give any inputs ‘coz after all the documentary is about him?
He loves to talk. He is a people person and easily warms up to anybody. He loves to tell stories from his life. You ask him one question and he will give answers for ten questions. So it was easy, but difficult on the edit table. He is very camera-friendly, maybe because he is always in the limelight. After a point our crew just took over his house. His wife was very sweet. They were very hospitable. All this was enough for us to do our work and get his best.
As a Director how differently do you approach fiction and documentary film? Was the transition from one format of film to another easy or difficult?
Documentaries are a whole different ball game so you approach it differently. In fiction you have everything locked – the script, actors, sets, scenes, shooting styles, actors’ position et al – so you more or less know what is going to happen. And since you know what you want, editing is pretty simple. But with documentaries you can’t go with a plan. You might have a plan, but if it doesn’t go that way you can’t manipulate people to behave or say things in a certain way because that is not the truth. It is easy to manipulate on the edit or change things to make it sensational or whatever. People do stage things in documentaries but I don’t work that way. I had to be honest. So the film takes shape on the edit table. We had so much footage that we literally scripted it on the edit table. We had to figure what worked and didn’t work. First, we had a three-hour cut but we knew it was too long. So, we re-edited the rough cut and had to have a focus point. I took time to get into the rhythm and unlearn things. In fiction you say ‘start camera and action’ and the actor begins, but here I might not notice something and the cameraman may notice it and begin shooting it. So, it was a learning experience in that sense.
Back home, in Chennai, you initiated The Cinema Resource Center, can you tell us about the endeavor?
Collecting film memorabilia started off as a personal collection as I am big movie buff. After a point we (my husband and I) realized it is too much and it needed preservation and conservation. So we put a trust TCRC in 2009. Since then we have been actively collecting film memorabilia, digitizing it and archiving it. Our focus is on south Indian cinema because being from the south I feel we get step mother treatment. Of course we have a good collection of Hindi and English films but our focus is to promote south Indian cinema and educate people about it. Eventually we intend to have a museum, make it an interactive space and support independent cinema. We’ve already started holding film screenings but right now everything is going into archiving memorabilia. It is really sad that India makes the maximum number of films but we don’t have a proper archiving system in place.
Between all this, what about making fiction films?
For the last one year I have been busy with A Far Afternoon. I have the script of a fiction film, which could be in any language. I feel its sensibilities are better suited for Malayalam or Hindi cinema, they might not work in Tamil. But then it also depends on where I find someone to produce it. Meanwhile I have a team and together we make documentaries, corporate films and ad-films, which takes care of my bread and butter. Every time I did a corporate film or documentary I learnt a lot. For instance the documentary on Krishen Khanna creatively opened up my mind.