Home Theatre: Picasso - A loving ode to an ancient art form
A fortnightly column that focuses on notable content available on the streaming platforms around you, and this week it is Picasso, streaming on Amazon Prime Video
Abhijeet Warang's Marathi film, Picasso, recently won a special mention in the 67th National Film Awards. Made in 2018, the film premiered a couple of weeks ago on Amazon Prime Video after failing to get a theatrical release. The synopsis on the streaming platform says it is about a young boy, Gandharva, who makes it to the national round of a painting contest that could win him a scholarship to study in Spain, but is unable to afford the entry fee. However, this is just a framing device for what the debutant filmmaker really wants to showcase — the traditional folk theatre called Dashavatara. The end credits dedicate the film to the practitioners of the art form that it claims is considered one of the earliest forms of folk theatre.
Dashavatara isn't the only thing Abhijeet wants to show us. Picasso is set in the South Konkan region, where the art form originated and still thrives, and the place is just as lovingly depicted. After a brief scene from the middle opens the film, we go back to the beginning of the day when a postal service bus departs carrying Gandharva's gold medal for coming first in the state level of the Picasso painting contest. We travel with this bus through the rain-drenched Konkan landscape. We get further acquainted with the area when Gandharva's journey on foot to the village fair where his father is, is shown in great detail.
A good chunk of the Picasso, however, is dedicated to a performance of Dashavatara, which is a lot like our Therukoothu. Gandharva's father, Pandurang, is a Dashavatara performer. And not just any performer, one of the best, though he's lost his touch lately. The film takes place over the course of a day and night. When Gandharva comes home with his gold medal to find that Pandurang has gone to a fair in another village for a performance, he goes there to show his father the medal and ask for the 1500 rupees he has to pay by the next day as entry fee for the national level. That's easier said than done since the family is already struggling to make ends meet. And to make matters worse, Gandharva's mother is ill and needs a sonogram the next day, the money for which Pandurang is having trouble finding. Pandurang is not only a Dashavatara practitioner, he's also a multi-talented artist, a painter and sculptor, who had to give up art as a career since it could not support his family. His day job now is making Ganesh idols. His dream is for his son to become the artist he couldn't be. Gandharva's win thus delights him. But when the boy tells him about the 1500 rupee entry fee, he can only shake his head and tell his son that perhaps this is as far as he could go.
The scenario is ripe for melodrama but Abhijeet keeps this low-key and real. Gandharva doesn't throw any tantrums or even strongly register his disappointment when his father tells him to give up painting and focus on academics. The boy knows his family's situation all too well. Earlier in the film, Gandharva's face, which brims with pride and joy when his principal hands him the gold medal, falls perceptibly when he's told about the entry fee. He immediately realises that it may be something they cannot afford. He hesitates before telling his mother and later, his father, about it. So, when his father says this is as far as he could go, he only sorrowfully asks how it is that Pandurang, who inspired him to take up painting, now wants him to give it up.
The Dashavatara play, on the other hand, is, as is the wont of folk theatre, quite loud and extremely dramatic. It makes for a nice contrast. The theatre performance is shot in such a way that we feel like we're among the audience. And while Gandharva's delight in seeing his father on stage and the way this, in turn, affects Pandurang and pushes him to do better are registered, it's done rather subtly to keep from distracting from the play itself. Abhijeet, however, does break up the play with backstage scenes of petty jealousies and ego clashes. This adds some variety and keeps the film from feeling like a docu-reel of just the Dashavatara performance. We also see the father and son bonding between acts. It all works and keeps us engaged. At only a little over an hour, the film feels just long enough too.
Picasso ends on a hopeful note with a small victory for Pandurang and his family. More struggles likely lie ahead for them, but there is a brief respite. And isn't life often made worth living by such small moments of relief and joy?