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Moving Portraits (1987)


Warning: screenonline full synopses contain 'spoilers' which give away key plot points. Don't read on if you don't want to know the ending!

Young artist Arvind wants to go to an exhibition at the Tate, but instead has to rush off to buy clothes for his family-run business. His family have traded for 3000 years, and Arvind's father, Hamit, takes the calling and his home traditions seriously. He cannot fully understand his son, who would even be late for the Temple, but indulges him and his artistic obsession.

Arvind escapes from the Temple and gravitates to run-down areas of the East End, where he engages the local winos as he paints their portraits. He draws them as they are, starkly and brutally, although one of the drunks, a barely disguised racist, would prefer to be made-up and given a smile.

But, as Arvind later explains to his friend, it is important to engage with the reality, to make the invisible visible. Arvind feels that something is missing in Britain, where life is artifice or kept behind locked doors. His friend admires his inner courage in stepping out to a place like Brick Lane, where there is a lot of 'Paki bashing'.

His father wants Arvind to turn that courage outward, towards his responsibilities to his family, community and caste. Hamit first seeks to talk to him gently about his strange Karma - which he first noticed when, as a child, Arvind went into the homes of Africans when they lived in East Africa. Hamit wants him to abandon this strange craft, unusual for members of his caste.

As pressure mounts at home, Arvind is supported by Peggy, an art teacher at the local college, where Arvind is artist in residence. To woo Arvind back, Hamit offers a generous bribe: his own shop to run. But Arvind rejects this in favour of his art. Angrily, his father disowns him.

Peggy introduces Arvind to a new network of artists and art dealers. Working towards an exhibition, Arvind appears at peace, drawing alongside a disabled artist. The drawings that emerge for the exhibition are powerful, stark and depressing. Their intensity leads to a deal with an art dealer. But when in the following weeks the pictures don't sell, the dealer suggests he change his style to something more colourful and 'Indian', fitting what collectors expect from Asian art. Arvind accuses him of cultural imperialism and walks out.

Later, with Peggy, Arvind laments his quandary. Everybody recognises he is talented but he can't make a living from such a talent on his own terms. Peggy reassures him that there must be a way forward. She asks him whether it isn't time to return home and reconcile with his father. He leaves the answer hanging.