First Impression – Kekee Manzil
So, I watched an interesting film last night: Kekee Manzil, House of Art. It tells the true story of an Indian tobacco business owner’s son from an upper class family with a privileged background, loaded with money, being instrumental in creating the Indian Modern Art movement in Mumbai in order to help him sell picture frames.
This, I think, was not the narrative intended by its narrator, his daughter Behroze Gandhy, but it was the first impression the movie gave that I had to get beyond to really understand it.
The film is half a documentary about Kekoo Gandhy, a genuinely important figure in Indian art history, and half an homage to the man as the narrator-and-producer’s father, who lived in a rather plush house in Mumbai – the Kekee Manzil of the title.
Its problem is that it doesn’t work out which of these two things it is. Add to that the impression that Behroze never quite says what she is trying to convey, and the viewing can get a little frustrating. This is partially, I think, because Behroze’s sense of propriety and modesty continually hold her back from really making the point she wants to make.
However, though she is unclear in some aspects, she does at other times repeat herself quite often. For example, I counted being told that the Artist’s Centre where much of the Progressive Arts community met was at Rampart Row, Bombay – 4 times. Weirdly, the last time she announced its location, her tone was one of surprise, as if she’d only just found out it was there.
But these are first impressions. And up to now, this review feels overly negative. Which doesn’t convey what I really want to say, either. So, mea culpa for also not getting my point across.
On Second Reflection
Let’s be clear, in amongst the noise and ambivalence outlined above, a fascinating art scene in Bombay does reveal itself to the viewer: extraordinary powerful images from a newly unleashed 1950s artists’ group producing brilliant works of art – and all underpinned and supported by Kekoo Gandhy’s entrepreneurialism and big-heartedness.
Kekoo himself was partly Oxford-educated, and fully Westernised, wearing a suit when he arrived home to Bombay in the summer of 1939, much to the amusement of his family. Trapped in Bombay by the outbreak of war and thus unable to return to his studies, he helps a Belgian businessman move his car that is stuck in the sand at Juhu Beach. A friendship and business relationship forms that leads Kekoo to the ownership of Chemould, and the founding of Asia’s only moulded picture-frame maker. Through other friendships he learns about art and meets a burgeoning community of artists, whom he promotes by selling their work through his picture framing business. His influence is very real as he and his wife, Khorshed support these artists. This is a genuinely interesting story.
That the world-renowned artist Anish Kapoor speaks so warmly of Kekoo certainly adds to the case for his importance, as does Salmon Rushdie’s explanation that two characters in his novel The Moor’s Last Sigh are inspired by this fascinating figure.
So, what to make of his influence and legacy? I would have loved to see more of the extraordinary art Kekoo supported in the ’50s. In fact, though plenty is shown, the context and stories around them are not filled out; nor are the stories of the artists themselves. In almost every case, the focus turns from the art to Kekoo. Observations of his eccentric behaviour, like picking flowers from neighbours’ gardens as an old man, or film of him smoking a whole cigarette in one breath, while amusing, aren’t enough in themselves to carry the film.
For me, the film wasn’t intimate enough to be a family memoir, and not detached enough to be a well-constructed documentary.
That said, it really does make a point about the direction of travel of India’s increased authoritarianism and Hindu nationalism, and the usual bigotry and violence you see from nationalist, racist movements. It is sobering to think that the country with the world’s largest population is heading towards nationalistic fascism, and that message definitely came across.
My Own Confusion And Ignorance
As a Westerner who likes to think of myself as liberal and who has thus noted with detached approval the name changes going on in India as it sloughs off its imperial past, it is sobering to be confronted with the notion that the renaming of Bombay to Mumbai is actually the product of an increasingly nationalistic consciousness under the BJP, India’s leading Hindu-nationalist party. How I square that with my own sense of what is right is something I haven’t yet decided. Thus the ambiguities of the modern world, which I think Bezohre herself navigates more deftly than I do.
As a British viewer with a fair amount of education, various assumptions about knowledge of Indian history did jar with me. I certainly do think anyone with a knowledge of colonial history should be aware of the horrors of Partition and the bloodletting that came with Britain’s botched withdrawal from the country. But there were times when the cultural distance between narrator and me as audience member felt very wide. For example, being told that an artist was “none other than Tayib Mehta” as if I should know him as a household name was confusing, as was being told of the effects of the 1975 Emergency in India, with absolutely no context as to what caused it.
This made me wonder who the intended audience was? It was filmed in English. Behroze now lives in England. She has worked in film production since 1982 and teamed up with long-standing professionals in the industry to produce this project. I wondered then, how much this film was designed to be a small, internal conversation among select Indian expats and how much a film telling the rest of the world about the importance of the Progressive Art Movement in Bombay and Kekoo’s role in it?
During her in-person introduction before the film, Bezohre said she does not intend to show the film at film festivals in India because it might inflame political sensibilities ready to ignite at any moment. So, what is the film’s purpose? To tell her personal story of her father to a tiny group? And at the same time to make passing mention of political problems in India to a converted audience that already agrees with her? Is this what it is, then? A kind of comfort blanket for a dwindling minority?
I feel the same ambivalence about the nostalgia Bezohre obviously feels for the vanished world of “old Bombay”. Bezohre is from a Parsi family, a group extremely useful to the administration of India under the British Empire and in return gained considerable mercantile, administrative and financial influence thanks to colonialism. One thus cannot help wondering if the embrace of Western values by the privileged family group the film features also colours Bezohre’s view of India today? To be frank, I don’t know enough about India to even come close to forming an opinion on that one, but the question seems a fair one to ask.
I did have the opportunity to meet Bezohre after the film, but my questions and thoughts hadn’t fully formed by then, and in my confusion I was concerned that I would appear overly negative and critical were I to ask questions that would have fired off left and right like a blunderbuss in their lack of knowledge, so I respectfully bowed out. I regret that, now.
In all, this movie is worth watching. Yes, I found it occasionally frustrating and at times diffuse, but there is still much to learn. Its budget was an estimated £40,000, and if this extraordinarily low sum is correct, then it does give plenty of bang for its buck. If you see it showing near you, it’s worth a watch.