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Unique art installation pays homage to Bollywood great Raj Kapoor

Artist Srinivas Krishna in front of one of the screens that allows him to capture the faces of visitors to his exhibit "My Name is Raj."

Fernando Morales / The Globe and Mail

The backlit Indian idol has tilted her head, her lips gently parted. Her lover holds her cheek, a prelude to a kiss.

Yet in this romantic movie moment, the lover's face changes. He's no longer the late revered director Raj Kapoor, acting in one of his films from the golden age of 1950s Indian cinema. His face is digitally altered to become contemporary Toronto filmmaker Srinivas Krishna. At other times, the face morphs into everyday people.

It has a novelty quality: Come up, come up and have your picture put in a famous Indian movie! It's the Photoshop equivalent of having your photo taken with your face through a hole in a painted placard.

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However, Krishna's installation piece and elaborate photo booth - set in a corner of Toronto's TIFF Bell Lightbox and accompanying a major retrospective, starting July 1, of Raj Kapoor's most important early contributions to Bollywood - deftly demonstrate how Kapoor's movies tapped into the viewers' aspirations and conscience, particularly among audiences in a newly independent India. The retrospective is being held in association with the star-studded International Indian Film Academy Awards in Toronto this weekend.

As Krishna explains, the idea goes back to the photo studio. Even as late as the 1950s, Indians would get dressed in their finest to have their portrait taken, posed against a pillar or some other formal motif. The images were about what people aspired to, lives like the characters in the newly emerging Indian cinema.

"The idea is that if photo studios are where people explored another possibility of being, they went to the [cinema]to explore multiple possibilities of being. And that's what those filmmakers provided for their audiences," he says.

"That's what Raj Kapoor did. That's what happened in the cinema of those days. That's the kind of theory or understanding that I'm trying to reconstitute for you here."

When you walk into Krishna's installation and homage to Kapoor, entitled My Name Is Raj, there is a wall on the left with hanging photo-studio portraits, lovingly framed, from early last century. Most show dapper individuals formally posed, looking the way they aspired to look. Even a photo of an impoverished water carrier has a formal classicism, with his hand on a pillar.

"You say, What is a water bearer doing in this bourgeois photo studio? Did the photographer bring in a water bearer and pose him like that? Or was he just a studio assistant dressed up to be a water bearer? It throws the whole idea of what is authentic."

On the right-hand side, Krishna creates a mini-cinema showing scenes from Kapoor's 1951 international hit Awaara and 1955's Shree 420, which show the play-acting trickery of the actor-director's face changing into Krishna's visage and other people's. Next to that is a high-tech photo booth, in which visitors can get their portraits taken and placed via Photoshop into images from Kapoor's landmark films.

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The characters Kapoor played in his films, particularly his Chaplinesque tramp, were about trying to transcend the social order, Krishna notes. This particularly struck a chord with audiences and reflected a turning point in Indian cinema, which began exploring more of this social consciousness.

"Kapoor basically sets the stage," says Lightbox artistic director Noah Cowan, who programmed the Kapoor retrospective. "He digested influences from everywhere, from Hollywood, from Russia, from other cultural ideas in India, really energetically forming a new pathway in terms of how cinema is made and how long films are.

"Raj Kapoor is the guy who really pushed the envelope on length. By the time he hits [1964's] Sangam, one of his greatest films, he's up to four hours in length. So the wild run times of Indian cinema ... he's responsible for that."

Then there's the inclusiveness in Kapoor's films. With song and drama, romantic plot lines and humour, his style always was about including a variety of elements within his work, therefore appealing to a wider audience. That may be his biggest legacy, as Bollywood after Kapoor increasingly was cinema aimed at all, whereas Hollywood went in the opposite direction and identified movies very much according to genre.

"He doesn't quite get all the way there; maybe toward the end of his career he's closer," Cowan says. "The true Masala cinema really comes up in the late 1970s, as Amitabh Bachchan, who could 'do it all,' becomes the leading star of Bollywood at the time."

It was that inclusiveness that brought wide audiences to his films. And in those films, viewers, particularly Indian audiences, were looking for themselves.

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"It was really about that aspirational moment - who we could be, who do we want to be, now that we've been through this horror [of South Asian partition following independence] So in a sense, that's what the photographs seek to do, as much as the cinema," Krishna says.

The retrospective Raj Kapoor & The Golden Age of Indian Cinema runs from July 1 to Aug. 7 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox. It kicks off June 16 with a gala in association with the International Indian Film Academy Awards.

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About the Author

Guy Dixon is a feature writer for The Globe and Mail. More

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