Through a Different Lens

Benita Fernando
Sheetal Mallar photography exhibition, film studios, rk studios, dibakar banerjee, sheetal mallar model, talk news, indian express

Mallar, 45, hopes to convey the fleeting sense of belonging that people have with places. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the exhibition opens on January 9 at Art Musings in Mumbai.

Filmmakers, set extras, HMI lights and a burned down film studio are the protagonists of fashion model-turned-photographer Sheetal Mallar’s debut solo exhibition titled “Transients”. This assortment is no homage to popular Indian cinema, but intended as a personal set of metaphors.

Mumbai-based Mallar has walked the ramp for labels such as Armani and Rohit Bal, and published lifestyle and travel editorials. Through “Transients” — that plays heavily with shadows — she brings a documentarian lens to the make-believe world of film sets. Mallar, 45, hopes to convey the fleeting sense of belonging that people have with places. Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, the exhibition opens on January 9 at Art Musings in Mumbai. Excerpts from an interview:

What made you turn to photography?

When you model from a really young age, you don’t have a real idea of another real job in the real world. When you are engulfed in fashion, you are kind of spoiled — I don’t mean that models are spoiled, you just make money faster. By 35, I had decided that I would do something else. I had been painting since childhood, so it was clear that I wanted to do something creative.

I was also uncomfortable with not being rooted anywhere because of my lifestyle and pace of work. In an attempt to reconnect with my friends, my neighbourhood and myself, I started doing a series of images and using the camera as a tool. I was oversaturated with modelling. It was like a relationship that was fulfilling, but over. I still model for friends though.

How did film sets and studios become the subject of your new series?

What fascinates me is how we create these worlds in the movies and then bring them down. Even the people who inhabit these worlds, be it actors or whoever else, they make it their own and then they leave that space. “Transients” started because I was interested in Aram Nagar (a locality known for its production houses). In 2013, Ramsay Brothers called me on a commission. They were fantastic storytellers; they were themselves like characters out of a film. I shot at RK Studios after it burned down in 2019. I know Dibakar Banerjee, who gave me access to the sets of his film Detective Byomkesh Bakshy (2015).

One of the photographs shows a bloody murder scene from a film set.

Everything is fiction in the death scene. I like to mix fact and fiction. I see it as a metaphor for collapse, just like the sets that have come up. The colours in this photograph are saturated and the fact that everything seems so perfect, you know it’s fake. That works because it doesn’t seem gruesome. It looks like a painting.

This idea of transient film sets — does it relate to something personal too?

We create something perfect — could be love, could be houses — and then it collapses. I have always felt drawn to that nature of things, I have had it in my own life. There is a need to feel rooted and yet being used to not being rooted.

In your debut series, why did you choose to work with cinema rather than fashion, an industry you are intimately familiar with?

I thought about doing a project on fashion but haven’t started it because I want to approach it in a way that is not really about fashion. I think it will be about models — how the industry shapes them, how it feels and why some people turn out the way they are. If you are not in the business, it is really easy to make stories out of it. I want to find the most sensitive way of showing this.

The exhibition is on till February 10.