Everybody knows that Maqbool Fida Husain (September 17, 1915-June 9, 2011) was independent India’s most celebrated artist. And we also know that he died in exile, forced there by an avalanche of court cases filed by people who objected to his depiction of Hindu deities, describing his work as offensive to Hindu sensibilities.

He leaves a huge body of work­—a fair part of it memorable. His superb line-drawings and dynamic paintings are an integral part of the visual memory bank that constitutes modern Indian art. Husain’s best work in these areas ranks with the most expressive produced anywhere in his time.

Fewer people, though, know much about Husain the film maker. Although this body of work was tantalisingly small, it does make one wonder “what if”. He made just two feature films and a short one, but they are memorable.

In contrast with his work as a painter, Husain’s films are little known and are hardly ever discussed seriously. They are regarded in many quarters as an indulgence, even a whim, to feed his insatiable appetite for life. Looking at them again, though—­ Through The Eyes Of A Painter (short, 1967), Gaja Gamini (Feature, 2000), Meenaxi, (Feature, 2004)— one is struck as much by their­ freshness as their adventurous spirit.

Let us first examine Through The Eyes Of A Painter, commissioned in 1967 by the Films Division of India, a government organisation. Twenty years after Independence, Films Division had stagnated and was producing some of the dullest documentaries in the world. Jean (Jehangir) Bhavnagri, working with UNESCO in Paris was brought in as the chief of FD. The first recommendation he made to Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was that non-film makers who had distinguished themselves in the Arts be invited to make films so that they bring in new ideas.

Husain was among the first people to be asked; the result was Through The Eyes Of A Painter, a daring experimental work that foxed quite a few officials in the Ministry of Information who could not follow its supposedly “unfathomable” imagery.

A nettled Husain took the film to New York where a friend had it screened at the Museum of Modern Art. The audience loved the film unreservedly. When he came home, he discovered that “a Bengali gentleman in the ministry had sent the film to the Berlin Film Festival.” Through The Eyes Of A Painter got the Golden Bear for the best short film!

The same people who had complained about the film not having a discernible storyline, now started singing its praises. It did not matter to the enigmatic Husain that folks in the Information Ministry could not understand that images of a lantern, a bicycle, an umbrella and a Rajasthani slip-on nagra (sturdy, cheap footwear favoured by peasants) recurred throughout this black-and-white film. The answer for him was self-evident: they appeared in very many of his paintings and drawings.

As an artist Husain drew inspiration from ordinary people, most of all peasants. He was, after all, born in Pandharpur, a pilgrimage centre in rural Maharashtra. In his years of fame, some detractors called him a canny peasant. It was only logical, he thought, that certain essential objects in rural life that he had drawn and painted should also find their way into his film. He must have further reasoned that these objects would acquire a life of their own since fiction and documentary cinema dealt so vividly with the physical world.

It is believed that live-action cinema is a mirror of the world in more than one sense; it captures all the features of the physical world visible through the lens onto film, and nowadays, increasingly, on video. Consequently, by doing so, it makes the viewer interpret it, albeit subjectively. Through The Eyes Of A Painter was accused of being many things, including an arty tourism film. It may not have been a documentary in the conventional sense, but it was certainly about rural Rajasthan, its psychic state, and of the role that the sweep of time has played in its shaping.

It is, of course, tempting to intellectualise about such matters but they usually end in comical misadventure. Husain would have been amused at all the fuss made over his film. He would have responded by saying that his film was a film and nothing more, and that instead of making heavy weather of it, viewers, including critics should just enjoy it. There was a robust intelligence at work in all his artistic activities which invigorated the earthiness and sensuality present.

Husain had been in love with the cinema since his adolescence. The magic of images onscreen must have fired his imagination when he first came across them in the frugal touring tent cinemas. In the early 1930s, when the t alkies had arrived and he was in Indore, Husain began to relish watching films even more. He saw himself as an aspiring leading man; and why not, he had high cheekbones, a clean, sharp nose, a firm chin and soulful eyes.

Gaja Gamini is really a combination of essay and story in its narrative intent. It is packed with Husain’s ideas about life and art and the great sustainer of both — women.  Ashok Mehta, a fine, under-appreciated cinematographer, brings alive the director’s vision.

He had begun to understand intuitively the relationship between image and sound. He also liked the way stories were told in films. Much later, in the years of celebrity, he did a series of paintings on the cinema, appreciating its qualities of poetry and myth-making, and also acknowledging its relationship with day-to-day realities.

There is a telling, witty poster-like painting of a cine camera—at a lower, oblique point, right of frame—a back-view of a Hollywood type director, pipe in hand. Then, almost on top right of frame, comes the title of the silent film: Savkari Paash by V Shantaram. It was about rural indebtedness and poverty and had made a sufficiently strong impression on the young Husain for him to remember it 70 years later.

He understood that cinema was capable of a dynamism not found in any other art because it could draw freely from painting, architecture, music, literature to create something unique. Cinema was to capture his imagination again when he was a young man of 85.

Gaja Gamini featured Madhuri Dixit, then reigning queen of Hindi films, in multiple roles. Under Husain’s guidance she proved that she was not just a star, but an actress of rare sensitivity and intelligence. He had seen Hum Aapke Hain Kaun, a family entertainer featuring Madhuri, a number of times and was dazzled by her feminine qualities. Husain was determined to make a feature-film with her.

His maiden fiction film would celebrate her mystery and sensuality; celebrate the qualities in all womanhood. The choice of title was curious and not because ancient Indian texts of aesthetics celebrated the slow, majestic gait of an elephant as being synonymous with the walk of a truly beautiful woman. Madhuri does an exquisite rendering in Gaja Gamini of “the eternal woman” who walked the earth long, long before the industrial age.

Husain had decided that he would look at the feminine from various angles and therefore present his story in a non-linear, but continuously interesting manner. The problem was that no known producer or production house would put up the money. Husain decided to finance the film himself. It was an undertaking that would cost quite a bit. He would paint, sell the canvas, and pay for the day’s shooting. He followed this modus operandi till the film was completed. It turned out to be rich in emotion and ideas; it also had flair and style to spare.

A surprise open screening at Habitat Centre, New Delhi played to a full house, and not just of art lovers. If memory serves there were children watching. Nobody left the hall. This writer left deeply impressed. The film was duly released commercially but did not do well because the distributors and exhibitors did not know how to promote it. It did well on DVD. Critical response abroad was very encouraging though professional critics at home were not tuned into the film’s central idea for some reason.

Husain had managed to make an unconventional, illuminating and entertaining film. His youngest son, Owais and his wife Reima, had run the production with unflagging enthusiasm. He was aware that a young, energetic team of associates helped execute his vision.

Gaja Gamini was largely shot inside the studio. Imagination and sound earthy aesthetics gave it a sense of truth and abiding beauty. Sharmishtha Ray, an experienced art director from commercial Hindi films, rose to the occasion and created a poetic ambience that had a ring of truth.

Watching video clips of the film on YouTube as well as the clips on its making is an educative experience. The songs composed by Bhupen Hazarika have a lilt and bounce and are picturised with a lot of energy and yes, sensitivity. The title song “Gaja Gamini Tu Hai Man Mohini” (lyricist-Maya Govind)  sung by Hazarika himself, is about the idea of Woman being Shakti. Shot on a patently artificial set with a disarming elegance, the orange-red bias in the lighting and fluid choreography of actors, and Madhuri’s beauty enhanced by her air of mystery, combine together to create an arresting moment. Saroj Khan and Jojo Khan, both closely associated with Madhuri’s commercial successes, respond handsomely to the director’s demands for a  choreography that combines vigour with langour without sacrificing the discipline of classical dance. In a sense they borrow and transform best elements from the pioneer Uday Shankar’s dance vocabulary to suit the needs of the film. It must be remembered that Uday Shankar made in the 1930s an amalgamation of classical Indian dance forms like Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Manipuri and Kathak and other forms from the folk tradition, to produce a unique dance language, rooted in tradition yet modern in intent, that took Europe and America by storm.

Husain, a student and life-long appreciator of old Hindi cinema knew that song-picturisation was vital. In Gaja Gamini he uses the title song to prepare the audience for the multi-angled view of the woman called Gaja Gamini who will also be seen as Sangita, Shakuntala, Monica and Mona Lisa. The song, Do Sadiyon Ke Sangam Par Milne Aaye Hain (words, Javed Akhtar), picturised on Madhuri and Shahrukh Khan, speaks of the idea that the end of an era—actually “sadi” or century—means the beginning of another.

In other words it is about the continuity or flow of time. Husain “takes on” the contemporary commercial Hindi cinema and the ad film, using the visual-auditory vocabulary of both, and with sly wit adds his own syntax, and message .

His approach to cinema was considered ‘unprofessional’, even ‘impractical’, by industry veterans because he had fun making his two films, and worse still, practically financed them himself.

He is not trying to sell you a product or an ideology but he appears to be saying life is a constant movement in time, live it with grace and beauty.

The opening credits have Husain drawing in bold white lines one of his wild horses in profile on a dark grey, almost black brick wall. Above it are ominous monsoon clouds just past dusk that reminds one of such clouds from the tradition of Indian miniature painting. The camera then moves forward swiftly to catch the drawn white horse’s head in profile. The screen goes dark for a moment, and then a gathri or a cloth bundle that village women carry on their heads, descends three or four times in rapid succession, in acknowledgement of a technique employed in television serials. When the gathri comes down with a thud in close view, the camera moves back to accommodate a naked, shaven-headed little boy, who runs and puts his hand into it.

Then Madhuri—till now a full-length graphic on the dark wall comes alive and dressed in a Maharashtrian–style saree— walks backwards towards us, the viewers. She is wearing an Indian dancer’s ghungroo; she is, however, wearing it on the right ankle. Madhuri picks up the gathri and walks away with the slow, majestic gait of a hastini or female elephant.

The song Ye Gathri Taaj Ki Tarah… with lyrics by Husain himself, begins. Those familiar with the idea of the gathri in Indian folklore see it as a bundle of woes. Take, for example, these lines from Mother India, a film Husain must have seen many times, Ayee Thi Akhiyon Mein Lekar Kya Kya Sapne Pyar Ke/ Jaati Hun Toh Aasoo Lekar Aashaye Sab Harke/ Duniya Ke Mele Mein Lut Gayi/ Jeevan Ki Gathariya/ Nagri Nagri Dwarey Dwarey / Dhundu Re Sawariya.

The song speaks of a pauperised peasant widow’s plight at being deprived of or duped of her life’s savings of money and experience, carried in her gathri, in this carnival called life. Husain decides to upturn this “defeatist” concept into one symbolising triumph. He then proceeds to add the name of the saint Vithala in the refrain and, at one stroke, establishes his natal links with Pandharpur, Maharashtra. The gathri is not a load of sorrow ,but a crown of joy.

A contingent of naked little boys appears as a recurring motif, like Lord Hanuman’s Banar Sena from the Ramayana. Incidentally, Husain had read both the Ramayana and the Mahabharata under expert guidance first, and then on his own. Another image in the film, as a throw-away hint, is that of the bullock cart seen in the picturisation of the song, Gaja Gamini… in the beginning. It is, even now, a mode of transport in rural India, and an important element in Devdas. Husain had seen and loved the 1938 version directed by P C Barua starring the great K L Saigal, and then the 1955 version directed by Barua’s cameraman, Bimal Roy, with Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Vyjaynathimala.

This writer saw a revival of Bimal Roy’s Devdas at Moti Cinema in old Delhi and was pleasantly surprised to see Husain a few seats away on his left. Need one add that the master was enjoying himself as much as anyone in the audience.

Gaja Gamini is not just about song and dance picturisation. Husain presented his cinematic ideas swiftly, elliptically. He goes back and forth in time with absolute ease. There is a terrific, short parting scene between the (combat) photographer Shahrukh played by Shahrukh Khan, and Madhuri, in which he suddenly goes out of frame accompanied by a burst of machine-gun fire and we see and hear her crying out his name in anguish. It is not unlikely that Husain knew the name and work of the famous war photographer Robert Capa, co-founder of Magnum, in the 1950s the most respected photo agency in the world.

A scene full of tongue-in-cheek humour is one of a prince signing away his rights to the East India Company so that he can pursue his pleasures in peace! He meets Gaja Gamini in one of her five avatars on one of his rounds of mindless shikar. Effortlessly, Husain shows the decadence that had eaten into the innards of Indian royalty. But he does not sit in judgement. Instead, he views the proceedings with the ironic detachment and humanity of a Jean Renoir.

Gaja Gamini is really a combination of essay and story in its narrative intent. It is packed with Husain’s ideas about life and art and the great sustainer of both—  women. Ashok Mehta, a fine, under-appreciated cinematographer, brings alive the director’s vision.

In 2004, at 89, he made Meenaxi: Tale of 3 Cities. This time his muse was Tabu, an actress with hidden depths. Husain’s instinct was right. Tabu plays three characters based in three cities—Jaisalmer, Prague and Hyderabad with as much conviction and style as Madhuri Dixit essayed her five roles in Gaja Gamini.

Meenaxi in all the parts is an introspective character. Here Husain presents three different kinds of introspective women. The first is Meenaxi, a Rajasthani of aristocratic origins who is dedicated to the idea of intelligent water management for the people of the arid area, but especially poor peasant women who walk miles to fetch water.

Meenaxi is being chased by a dynamic, young IAS officer but she is not interested, she is taken up with Kameshwar Mathur, a handsome young man and an idealist. He will chase her across the other two narratives; in one of them, she is Anna, a young actress from Prague who also waits at tables in a café; in the Hyderabad story she will be a perfume-seller who shall rescue Nawab, a man with a writer’s block, from passing into oblivion.

Meenaxi is very much a woman-centric film like Gaja Gamini, and likewise, men have only a supporting role to play. Raghubir Yadav plays Nawab with a child-like candidness.

Husain again uses songs to express his most subtle ideas. Since Meenaxi is a film about youthful ideas, the music enhances it with its zing. A R Rahman comes up with songs that are catchy yet meaningful. Rahat Indori, who wrote four of the six songs, has two outright winners in Rang Hai Rang Hai… sung by Alka Yagnik, and Ye Rishta Kya… by Reena Bhardwaj. Between these two songs the core ideas of the film are expressed. The first is about life being a celebration and women being the centre of all creativity. The second examines the mystery of the relationship between man and woman or the seed and the earth.

Husain picturises the song Ye Rishta Kya… against a large expanse of blue, crystalline water to evoke the beauty and mystery associated with the idea of fertility. The idea of a rishta or relationship between a woman and a man that does justice to the creativity in the process of life  is central to the film. Husain is, however, clear that it is to woman that man must defer in order to have a worthwhile life.

Nawab meets Meenakshi, the elusive perfume-seller from Hyderabad when he is unable to write, after having a fruitful literary career. She urges him to try again. He even calls a press conference to announce his new novel. Try as he may, he cannot make much headway.

The second story with Meenaxi as Anna, the theatre actress in Prague, in erstwhile Czeckoslovakia in Eastern Europe, has Kameshwar Mathur from the first story set in Rajasthan, appearing in a new role as her Indian suitor. The lyricism of the “Anna Episode” is subtly transformed when the film returns to Hyderabad to create a make-or-break situation for Nawab, courtesy Meenakshi who tells him that what he has written so far in his new novel is utter bosh! Nawab can neither abandon his novel nor muster up the energy to start all over again.

Two songs, contradictory in character, are picturised in this episode. While Nawab struggles to write a worthy tale, on a different location that looks like a cross between a brothel and a quaint pleasure palace, a group of male and female dancers led by two Kalaripayattu dancers (it is a martial art form from which certain crucial movements were absorbed into her dance vocabulary by the late Chandralekha, the Queen of modern Indian dance) lead the way with appropriately vigorous movements, accompanied on the sound track by a chorus chanting Chinnamma Chinnamma… when suddenly the words to the background song change. Sukhvinder Singh, a well-known singer in Hindi films bursts in with a startling opening line, Titli Daboch Li Mainey… which literally means, “I caught a butterfly in a tight embrace.”

The revelry continues with even greater energy and Sukhvinder makes a nice comeback with the line, Zindagi Khayaal Kiy Tere. Then, suddenly, the lead dancer dashes a bottle of liquor to the ground which he has thus far been waving about rhythmically.

Meenakshi goes looking for Nawab but cannot find him: The poor man is trying desperately to write. He slowly sinks into unconsciousness... death?

Elsewhere, a wedding celebration is on, the mood is joyous, people are laughing, dancing when the qawwali written by Husain, Charon Taraf Noor-un Ala… about Allah’s glorious light,  sung by Murtaza Khan and Kadar Khan, comes on. It has a profound line, written with throwaway mastery, Ye Barq–e-Tajjali meaning this bolt of lightning that illuminates the mind. As the celebration goes on, in his lonely haveli, Nawab comes back to life. The wedding celebrations reach a climax.

Meenaxi is an exquisite film because the energies are all positive. One can say the same about Gaja Gamini. Violence, individual and collective, state-sponsored or under the patronage of private parties, is the stock-in-trade of commercial cinema in Hindi and other regional languages. Husain, without entering Never-Never Land, rooting his films in perfectly reasonable ideas informed by a sensual imagination, shunned physical violence, perhaps because of its crippling effect on the human mind and spirit.

His approach to cinema was considered “unprofessional” even “impractical”, by industry veterans because he had fun making his two films, and worse still, practically financed them himself. Yash Chopra, one of the biggest names in Hindi films, distributed Gaja Gamini and Meenaxi through Yash-Raj films, his production company. The promotion was inadequate and not many people came to the theatres to see them. It is believed both films did quite well through the sale of DVDs.

Husain’s use of a set of actors across different episodes in a film was practical. They were good and they delivered.

In the 1930s, the French master Sacha Guitry did the same; then, of course, directors elsewhere in the world followed suit. There is no record of how Husain talked to his actors though it is tempting to conjecture that he did in his witty, elliptical manner. Owais, his youngest son would be the correct source of information since he was his father’s right-hand in all matters cinematic. Owais and Reima are the producers of Meenaxi and they worked tirelessly to make it a success, as they did on Gaja Gamini.

Husain’s cottage-industry approach to film-making flummoxed a lot of people although he worked with top-notchers in the crucial departments. His methods were refreshingly amateur but he used solid professionals to realise his vision.

A nation’s cinema is a pretty good index of its cultural, moral and ethical values. Commercial Hindi cinema today or for that matter of the last 50 years or more tells you more accurately than many erudite theses about the steady erosion of human values, the onset of religious intolerance, indeed bigotry, among the poor leading to their manipulation by a microscopic minority that owns the majority of India’s resources. The fallout from such relentless exploitation is  recourse to a blind God, of course via a charlatan!

Popular films in Hindi or in any regional language are actually like newsreels on current affairs, without intending to be so. The cinema of Maqbool Fida Husain, like the cinema of Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak before him, belongs to an earlier era; it may be called the cinema of idealism, of dreams.

The high promise of Through The Eyes Of A Painter was more than fulfilled in Gaja Gamini and Meenaxi.

A man from the grassroots, Husain  fought his way up with tenacity and in the only way he knew—through his work. His drawing, informed by pulsating energy, his draughtsmanship made him a truly dynamic artist. He drew his lessons from the traditions of Indian miniature painting and applied his own aesthetics, rooted in Indian folk art, and from Expressionism and Cubism of the West.

Husain’s cinema, too, drew its inspiration from indigenous and external sources but its heart was completely Indian. How else can one explain his playing K C Dey’s kirtan-based song from more than 70 years ago, Tere Ghatri Mein Laaga Chor Musafir Jaag Zara in the credit title sequence of Gaja Gamini, and that too with such impish wit.