FN Souza's life and art captured in an 11-minute award-winning film

Oct 25, 2015, 06:40 IST | Benita Fernando

An Old Dog's Diary, an 11-minute film on India's most expensive artist, is less bipoic and more an essense of the artist on celluloid

Soon after Pablo Picasso passed away in 1973, a Goan artist quipped, “Now that Picasso is dead, I am the greatest!” The man who challenged Picasso’s repute, with what can only be understood as either arrogance or foolhardiness, was Francis Newton Souza, who was once expelled from St Xavier’s College in Mumbai for scribbling graffiti on its toilet walls. On another occasion, he confessed how watching his mother bathe, through a hole he had bored in the bathroom door, had inspired his drawings.

Souza’s paintings are like sting operations, where he strips his figures of embellishment. His jaunty words, then, are a bit like his works; if his figures seem comical, it is only because Souza is trying to soften the blow. His art is neither pretty nor easily lovable.

A still from the film showing a nude painted by Souza
A still from the film showing a nude painted by Souza

In An Old Dog’s Diary that bagged the best short film award at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival (LFF) last week, the sardonic Souza, who once described his life as “just one big orgasm”, sounds exhausted. The 11-minute film leaves behind his obsession with spread-eagled nudes and unabashed self-praise, to bring out a ponderous artist, who asks, “Does man need art when he has no bread?”

An Old Dog’s Diary, a film on Goan artist FN Souza (above, with a self- portrait) won the best short film award at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival last week; PIC/GETTY IMAGES An Old Dog's Diary, a film on Goan artist FN Souza (above, with a self- portrait) won the best short film award at the 2015 BFI London Film Festival last week

For filmmakers Shumona Goel and Shai Heredia, this win is an affirmation of their cinematic language, at once associative and evocative. An Old Dog’s Diary is less biography and more a string of fragments. Drawings from his series, Six Gentlemen of Our Times (1907) and lines from his autobiography, Words and Lines (1959) are interspersed among visuals of mangroves, sunlit marshes and furniture in empty Goan homes. Over email, Bengaluru-based Heredia, 41, says, “We used our own aesthetic to say something about FN Souza, but everything about him cannot be said in a film. We were interested in his inner world. We tried to craft the film in an associative and painterly way and were consciously experimenting with creating a new language for making a biopic.”

London-based charity Xandev Foundation commissioned Shai Heredia (Right) and Shumona Goel (Left) for the film
London-based charity Xandev Foundation commissioned Shai Heredia (Right) and Shumona Goel (Left) for the film

The film was shot by Avijit Mukul Kishore in Goa’s Rachol Seminary, the Salim Ali Sanctuary and Divar, an island on the Mandovi River, which looks today much the same as it would have in 1924, the year Souza was born. There is nothing touristy or rustic here, however; the marshes, even as they sparkle, are haunting. “The spirit of the forest is always mysterious, just as it’s mysterious to make a film about someone you didn’t know, or someone who is dead,” says Goel, 40, who also practises as an installation artist.

Shooting for two weeks and sifting through archival material, letters and essays at a private archive in London, the filmmakers chanced upon a few words scribbled on a scrap of paper — an old dog’s diary. There isn’t a better way to describe Souza, affectionately and intimately. Goel, based in Mumbai, says, “As a collection of impressions, it is perhaps more than just a film about Souza. With this film, we have tried to create poetry through very simple moments. We chose to look at everyday details and explore the diaristic quality of recording impressions.”

The film was originally commissioned by the Xandev Foundation, a charity based in London, in 2012. “While this is how we came to the subject in the first place, on encountering his writings, our process changed dramatically; the film began to take on several layers and became more complex,” says Heredia. The duo’s previous film, I Am Micro (2012), won prestigious awards, including a National Award. Experimental and essayistic, it portrayed a filmmaker struggling to work outside industry economics.

An Old Dog’s Diary’s central preoccupation is Souza’s curriculum on suffering. Scenes from Catholic life abound — a roadside dramatisation of Christ bearing the cross and children in crisp church-wear looking about distractedly. These scenes are mixed with Souza’s lines describing himself as “a rickety child with a running nose and scared of everyone”. Catching the deadly smallpox soon after he was born, the pockmarked artist turned his scars into a metaphor for human suffering. On the faces of his eerily-smiling figures, these appear like stars, at times, connected to make constellations. Crucifixion (1959), at London’s Tate Britain, shows a dark Christ, stretched out like the skin of a drum.

Souza was a number of things — a founding member of the Bombay Progressives, figurative painter, sometimes-unsuccessful husband, castaway communist, lover and rebel — but a hot-selling artist in India during his lifetime, he was not. As it was, Souza’s exhibitions in India were ill-attended, despite the fame he had acquired in London and New York, where he lived. In 1976, only one of his canvases had sold at Dhoomimal Gallery, New Delhi. Souza is the buzzword in international art markets now, ironically, because he passed away in 2002. Just last month, his Birth (1955) sold for approximately R27 crore, making it the highest selling work by an Indian painter. One can’t help but think that Souza would respond with his characteristic snigger: Too little, too late.

An Old Dog’s Diary does not miss its chance to size him up.

As you meditate on a nude by Souza, you wonder: What is the going price of an “artist’s tormented soul”? And not just any torment, but that borne of, as Souza wrote in Words and Lines, the lack of recognition in the country he belonged to.
The LFF’s jury president Daisy Jacobs said, “An Old Dog’s Diary is as poetic and soulful as its subject. It offers a fresh and original way of documenting the life of an artist.” If you are looking for a chronology of Souza’s life, then this is not
the place; it attempts to bring to film what Souza confidently wrought on canvases — discomfort and unconventionality.

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