When he was eighteen, Ranjit Dahiya dropped out of school after failing his exams in the 11th grade. Against his parents’ wishes, he sought employment as a whitewasher in his village of Garhi Brahamanan in India’s Haryana state. Paid 40 Indian rupees for a day of labour, Ranjit graduated from daubing the walls of Garhi Brahamanan to the city of Sonipat. Here, after a day spent whitewashing the paan-stained and graffitied walls of Sonipat Railway Station, Ranjit was accused of stealing a paintbrush, worth 120 rupees. “I wasn’t paid for my labour that day,” he recalls, “and my father was very upset with me, he said I was casting a shadow on his respectability.”
The task of whitewashing a school’s walls led Ranjit back to his first love, painting, after he was asked to create a mural of the goddess Saraswati on one of the walls he had whitewashed. “I was always a good painter,” says Ranjit, a self-described “Bollywood freak”. “At the age of 13 or 14, I would come home from school and make portraits of film stars using photographs cut out from magazines and the newspapers.” Ranjit decided that he would return to school, in the hope of gaining admission to the Chandigarh Fine Arts College.
With a Bachelor in Fine Arts, he went on to study at Ahmedabad’s National Institute of Design, and in 2008 found his calling: street art. Ranjit joined a collective of artists who, when faced with the city’s myriad blank canvases and stretches of grey concrete, felt that “something has to be done”. The Wall Project (it has since found homes in cities across India) invited residents of Mumbai to join street artists to bring colour to the city – their most notable collaboration took place on a 2.7 km stretch of wall along Tulsi Pipe Road, a highway that runs parallel to train tracks and is home to hundreds of homeless families. Here, 350 Mumbai’ites, including Ranjit, created a mélange of graffiti, social commentary and educational initiatives (one artist painted letters from the Hindi alphabet along the wall).
Tulsi Pipe Road, Mumbai. Image via The Wall Project India.
In 2009, Dhaniya Pilo, one of the founders of the Wall Project, contacted Ranjit and asked if he would be interested in bringing his art to an exhibit in Paris. In February that year, Ranjit travelled to Paris’ Salon du Cinema exhibit with 31 canvases featuring his beloved film stars, particularly Amitabh Bachchan, Kishore Kumar and Rajesh Khanna. “The organisers gave me a 32×12 foot canvas and gave me four days to paint it, as part of a live demonstration of my technique of traditional hand-painting, which dates back at least 70 years,” he says. “They asked me what I wanted to paint, and I chose an image of Amitabh Bachchan from the 2008 film Sarkar Raj. Amitabh came to the show, saw my work, told me he loved it and signed my painting.” For Ranjit, there could be no higher praise. “I grew up on Bollywood,” he explains. “Our neighbour’s house had a television, and we were part of the VCR generation – we’d always be at our neighbour’s house watching the latest films. We didn’t go to the cinema in the village often, but every Sunday, we’d watch the movies screened on Doordarshan (*broadcaster) and I fell in love with Amitabh, Dev Anand, Sanjiv Kumar…”
Today, Ranjit spends his days dreaming of bringing Bollywood back to its original home in Mumbai (which he refers to by its old name, Bombay) – he creates striking cinemascapes on the city’s walls, paeans to some of the biggest stars that the industry has created. “I came to Bombay in 2008 and I really wanted to feel a connection to Bollywood – this is, after all, where Bollywood was born. I didn’t feel that connection though. There are lots of advertisements and hoardings for films, but that feeling of being in Bollywood was missing.” Ranjit subsequently teamed up with a friend, Tony Peter, to found the Bollywood Art Project in April this year, an urban art project celebrating 100 years of Bollywood (the film industry’s first feature-length film was the silent movie, Raja Harishchandra, which opened in Mumbai in 1913) and creating public works of art to rekindle this particular feeling that Ranjit seeks. Their first mural featured Pradeep Kumar and Bina Rai, the two stars of the 1953 classic, Anarkali, which tells the story of an ill-fated romance between a courtesan and a prince. A 20×15 feet mural on Chapel Road in the city’s Bandra’s neighbourhood (home to many stars from the film industry) depicts the two in a loving, glorious technicolour embrace.
The tradition of hand-painting film posters and advertisements on cinema hoardings and billboards has yielded some iconographic images – original poster prints are avidly collected in India and Pakistan as this art faces certain death at the hands of computer-generated images – but Ranjit chooses to steer clear of re-creating these poster images in his murals. “I approach the film from the point of view of an artist and I look at what the film means to me, what its most potent visual is, an image or idea that has survived across decades,” he explains. Thus, the group’s second mural featured Amitabh Bachchan as the iconoclastic ‘Angry Young Man’ from the 1975 film Deewar (The Wall) – a film that redefined the identity of a generation of young men bristling against traditional values and norms. Dubbed ‘Deewar pe Deewar’ (‘The Wall on the wall’), the mural was created in ten days on the Bandra neighbourhood’s Bandstand Promenade by the sea.
Ranjit’s process is simple: while the 24 year old Tony handles the “production” side of the project by gaining permissions to paint on public property or seeking funding, Ranjit scouts locations for his next mural (he has plans to create at least 25 murals in Mumbai alone before moving on to Delhi or even international film hubs such as Los Angeles). “I do a lot of recce between murals,” explains Ranjit. “I look at areas which have maximum visibility and thoroughfare – the murals should be public and accessible to the maximum number of people.” Ranjit adds that he chooses his images carefully. “I don’t want to paint vulgar scenes or images that are not good for society, which will cause people to make a noise about what I’m doing.” Sometimes, however, Ranjit’s notion of ‘vulgarity’ is challenged. “I wanted to create a mural of Bollywood’s first ‘item girl’ (an actress who appears in a film for one song-and-dance sequence) Helen. But once I’d finalized a wall I wanted to use and gained permission, a woman from the neighbourhood absolutely refused and created a fuss. She said, ‘If you paint Helen here, log uss ko dekh ke pagal ho jayengay (people will see her image and go crazy).’”
During the creation of the Anarkali mural, which took eleven days, Ranjit was approached by curious passersby who would inevitably ask him the same question – “Who is paying you to do this?” “When you tell people that you’re doing this work for free, they’re amazed,” says Ranjit. “They can’t believe I don’t have a motive other than to celebrate this film culture, but it always makes them very happy.” With an average cost of 35,000-50,000 Indian Rupees, the murals are a pricey passion to maintain. Ranjit finances his passion project through freelance design work (he churns out mobile applications and brand identities through Digital Moustache, a graphic design company he founded in 2009) and chooses to work alone, thus cutting out additional labour costs. Following the completion of the mural, BAP held an open-air screening of Anarkali on Chapel Road, bringing Bollywood back onto the streets of the city and away from the enclaves of publicly inaccessible studios and glitzy premieres in London or Dubai.
On the 18th of July, the film icon Rajesh Khanna – the man who inspired female fans to ‘marry’ his photograph and write letters in blood professing their love for him – passed away. Two days later, Ranjit started work on his third mural, paying homage to the star in a 17×26 feet mural at Bandstand. The work cost an estimated 37,000 rupees – entirely worth it for Ranjit, who was approached by a grateful and happy Rajesh Khanna-fan who brought his entire family to see the mural once it was complete. As the project grows, however, Ranjit has had to learn to be prudent. “My first plan right now is to look for funding,” he explains. “I cannot keep paying for these murals and while people really appreciate the work, they’re not willing to help finance it.” His goal is to take his art to “wherever Bollywood-lovers are” and to create his own team of painters. And while he has gained attention in the media, following the creation of the Rajesh Khanna mural, he says his parents remain cautiously optimistic about his chosen path. “My father is a little upset that I’m 33 years old and I spend so much time outside the house, and my mother wants me to get married, to settle down and to have a stable monthly income,” he explains. But at the end of the day, he says “they believe in me and when they see me on television or in the newspapers, they feels proud – they think, hamara larka kuch toh kar raha hai (at least our boy is doing something).” Ranjit’s next plan? To win over his mother by painting her favourite film star, the actress Hema Malini.
You can follow the Bollywood Art Project’s activities via their Facebook page.
All photos via the Bollywood Art Project unless otherwise noted. Feature image via India Today.
By Sanam Maher