Modern master Akbar Padamsee has had brilliant luck with art, and truly rotten luck with movies.
His first film, Syzygy, was released at a UNESCO screening in Paris in 1969, by then chief producer of the Films Division Jehangir Jean Bhownagary.
In his introduction, Bhownagary said: “I would like you to take an aspirin before you see this film. It will surely give you a headache.”
“It depressed me to hear that,” Padamsee says, his voice wavering but sharp. “After that, I decided not to bother screening any of my films.”
That was the first blow. Then, in 1974, Padamsee was asked if his second film, Events in a Cloud Chamber, could be screened at the Delhi Art Expo.
“I sent off my only reel, and it was never returned to me,” Padamsee says. “It got lost along the way.”
Fate had already begun to move in her mysterious ways, though.
Syzygy is a 16-minute animation film with no narrative, sound, or colour; just lines evoking shapes. (The word syzygy denotes connection or opposition, typically used to refer to the alignments of celestial bodies.) It was created, incidentally, with the help of animator Ram Mohan.
After the sad Paris premiere of that film, one person had stayed back, seemingly glued to his seat. “When I went up to him, he said, ‘Most people here couldn’t understand your film [but] it is a masterpiece’,” Padamsee says, “He asked for a print and he told me that I would never regret it.”
That man became programming director at Cinémathèque Française, the largest film archive in the world. And it is only because he preserved his copy that Padamasee’s second film, Events in a Cloud Chamber, is now reinterpreted by filmmaker Ashim Ahluwalia.
Over the past two decades, that Cinémathèque print of Syzygy has been shown at art festivals and private screenings around the world. Film scholar Lalita Gopalan attended one such screening and decided to introduce her filmmaker friend, Ahluwalia, to Padamsee. When the two met, Ashim too saw Syzygy and was blown away. It was then that Padamsee, now 87, haltingly told him about this other movie he’d made.
Where Syzygy was an experiment in thought using lines, Events... was an experiment in colour.
“A cloud chamber is a device people working around radiation wear around their necks. It registers whatever charged energy or x-ray a person is exposed to,” says Padamsee. “My film was made in a dark room where I took a painting of mine and cut it out into different shapes juxtaposed with colour filters. My film, like the cloud chamber, ends up recording all the events that occurred in there.”
Ahluwalia was riveted and asked Padamsee if he would help recreate the lost work.
“It struck me that, for 47 years, there had been a gap in the history of Indian cinema because Padamsee’s films had been ignored,” says Ahluwalia, best known for his National Award-winning 2012 film, Miss Lovely. “It’s as if one generation was removed. Reconnecting with him felt like I was reconnecting with a grandfather who was passing on these secrets to me — why and how he looks at his art, what made him make the films he did.”
Their 20-minute collaboration, also titled Events in A Cloud Chamber, is set to premiere at the Venice Film Festival in early September, in the Classics category dedicated to the history of cinema.
EXPERIMENTS IN THOUGHT
Through the 1960s and ’70s, artists such as MF Husain, Tyeb Mehta and Nalini Malani had all experimented with film.
Watch: MF Husain’s 17-minute film, Through the Eyes of a Painter
“Padamsee’s approach was a more cerebral one. His films could be seen as ‘thought experiments’,” says cultural theorist Nancy Adajania. “Husain, Mehta and Malani were still grappling with the conventions of pictoriality and narrative. Padamsee did away with narrative altogether in Syzygy. He was using the language of film to go beyond film. Syzygy was like a ‘gemstone’ without a setting.”
Watch: Tyeb Mehta’s Koodal, which won him a Filmfare Award for Best Documentary in 1971
For Ahluwalia, remaking Events... took on all the magic of time travel. “What resonated with me was the idea of an artist getting older and coming to terms with it. And the trajectory of creating a work, losing it, thinking it’s unimportant and then 45 years later being told it could be the most important work you ever did,” Ahluwalia says. “It is not just about Akbar Padamsee. It is also about fundamental, universal questions such as, why does anyone make art, and, does any of it matter?”
In Ahluwalia’s Events... you get a glimpse of Padamsee’s studio, where he spends hours painting and, in the film, discussing with Ahluwalia art, the artist and the vagaries of time.
The film is also about rediscovering firsts. As Adajania puts it, the original Events... was new media art before that term existed.
“Consider the musician Geeta Sarabhai, who created an electronic soundtrack for the film. She was one of only a few female musicians in the world making electronic soundscapes at the time and she is totally forgotten today,” Ahluwalia says.
Thirteen minutes into the film, Padamsee starts working on his famous metascape-like art. Different colours suggest a landscape of earth and sky. Onto those sections, Padamsee projects slides of similar colours, giving each shade a ‘moving’ quality.
You can see similar fluctuations in the artist himself. “The film shows Akbar in a vulnerable light,” Ahluwalia says. “You are able to talk to him and see fluctuations in coherence. It felt at times like I was looking at Akbar and seeing an 87-year-old me.”
For Padamsee, recognition -- and redemption -- off the canvas are finally here.
“They are completely different films, but with a shared foundation,” Padamsee says. “It is a film of astounding beauty and sensitivity and I was deeply moved on seeing it.”