My Name Is Raj

My Name Is Raj featured image

Review by Marc Glassman

My Name Is Raj
Video, photo and digital installation by Srinivas Krishna
Based on the feature films Awara (1951) and Shree 420 (1955), directed and starring Raj Kapoor, family photos from early 20th century India and a digital photo booth

Great installation art often works through juxtaposition. Certainly that’s the strategy used by Srinivas Krishna, a veteran filmmaker, who has created in My Name is Raj a work of contemporary art that captures the desires of bourgeois and working class families in India during its British colonial period and the early heady days of independence.

You enter a room that has a wall filled with photographs of Indians dressed formally, photo shopped as if they’re posed against fantastic backdrops evoking wealth and prestige. To the right, there’s a small seating area with a screen on which is projected scenes from two films by one of India’s greatest stars, Raj Kapoor. In a neighbouring room, there’s a modern version of a photo studio, where you can have your face photographed digitally and inserted into the Kapoor films.

Simple enough in structure–but Krishna has something complex in mind. The photos display the ambitions of regular families in India at a time when material wealth was on the rise and cravings for an independent state were in the air. One can imagine the images taking pride of place on a mantelpiece in someone’s home.

The films by Kapoor reflect back those desires to his audience, many of whom were the people that got photos taken. Kapoor’s image was of a Charlie Chaplinesque “little Tramp,” a slightly comical but romantic figure, who came from poverty but eventually got the girl–and, usually, the money. Using Kapoor’s wonderfully melodramatic scenes, Krishna waits for scenes of romance, when Raj and his leading lady Nargis are about to embrace–and then he inserts other faces, freeze framed images from the digital photos taken by attendees at the installation.

The effect is wonderfully absurd. What are these faces of contemporary Canadians–from diverse places on the globe—doing in classic Bollywood fare? They’re the modern audience, of course, who may have the desires as Kapoor and Nargis and their crowd of admirers. Or perhaps not. The installation allows you to challenge Kapoor’s melodramatic cosmology- or embrace it—at least as a romantic catharsis.

The films Krishna chose for the installation are two of Kapoor’s greatest, Awara, which was a rare Indian film to play in competition at the Cannes Film Festival and the box office smash Shree 420. Krishna plays them in counterpoint, turning the separate stories into one melodramatic scenario. In both, Raj is broke and a criminal, while Nargis is his foil, the beautiful innocent. He’s the bad boy she wants; she is everything that he aspires to be. Even in brief scenes, Kapoor’s artistry stands out: the songs are wonderful, the romance vivid, the drama over-the-top with emotion.

Srinivas Krishna’s My Name is Raj is the first collaboration between Luminato and TIFF. It’s an auspicious beginning. The installation will run until August 14 at Bell Lightbox, 350 King Street West, at John.

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