Art
Going by the name ‘Kalakki’, artist Charles Britto’s mash-ups of photos of Tamil film stars superimposed over Renaissance and Realism paintings have gone viral.
All photos courtesy Charles Britto

With Vincent Van Gogh’s famous ‘Wheat Field with Cypresses’ in the background appears the monochrome image of a woman in a saree and matching blouse standing with a slight slant. Her hands are folded and her double-plaited hair flows down one shoulder.

If you look into her face, with her piercing gaze and the start of a shy smile, the tufts of white and blue swirling in the background almost seem as if they’re moving. The woman in the frame is late actor ‘Silk’ Smitha, an icon in Tamil cinema during the 80s, who despite having a very brief run won many hearts for her alluring style and beauty. Going by her shy smile and her demure looks, the photo is perhaps from her early years in cinema.

Vincent van Gogh (Wheat Field with Cypresses,1889) ft Silk Smitha

Van Gogh’s Wheat Field series of paintings are regarded highly by artists and art connoisseurs across the world. Created over a period of time, the paintings were his means to connect with nature and find a deeper, spiritual meaning to life. ‘Wheat Field with Cypresses’ (1889), a piece he painted after having taking some time off to deal with his severe mental illness, was especially significant since the artist himself regarded it as his best “summer painting”.

Silk Smitha in ‘Wheat Field with Cypresses’ is the very first ‘kalakki’ (mash-up) that artist Charles Britto did on September 23, coinciding with Silk Smitha’s death anniversary. His mash-ups of photos of Tamil film stars superimposed over Renaissance and Realism paintings have gone viral since. A man of very few words, Charles tells us that the idea formed as soon as he chanced upon this particular photo of ‘Silk’ Smitha.

“It was September 23, her death anniversary, and I found this interesting photo on the internet. I wanted to mash it up with one of Van Gogh’s paintings. I also did another version of it that was shared only on Twitter,” he says referring to the Virgin on gold mosaic version of Silk Smitha’s photo.

Born in Chennai, Charles studied engineering before turning to filmmaking and art. He then dabbled in films before heading to JNU to pursue his master’s from the School of Arts and Aesthetics. “I passed out in 2011 and entered filmmaking. I worked in an indie Tamil film called Revelations as an assistant, and also for a couple of short films before taking up my master’s,” he says.

His knowledge of art, Charles says, has helped him come up with interesting mash-ups so far. There’s the brilliant AC Tirulokchandar’s Adhe Kangal (1967) x Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream’ (1893), the tones of yellow and red blending perfectly; the ethereal looking Maari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (2018) x Caspar David Friedrich’s ‘Wanderer above the Sea of Fog’ (1818); and the boisterous MG Ramachandran’s Ulagam Sutrum Valiban (1973) x Katsushika Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’ (1829–1833).

AC Tirulokchandar (Adhe Kangal,1967) x Edvard Munch (The Scream,1893)

Maari Selvaraj (Pariyerum Perumal,2018) x Caspar David Friedrich (Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, 1818)

MG Ramachandran (Ulagam Sutrum Valiban,1973) x Katsushika Hokusai (The Great Wave off Kanagawa,1829–1833)

Interestingly, when Charles released the Pariyerum mash-up, it was the first year anniversary of the film’s release, and when he put out Sasikumar’s Subramaniapuram x Van Gogh’s ‘Corridor in the Asylum’ (1889), it was the director’s birthday.

And Charles has a favourite too! “I liked the Parasakthi mash-up. It took a long time to look for the images since it’s difficult to get good quality images online. Paintings are available on open source domains by museums and I know where to source them, but for films the quality you get is what you find on the internet. Somehow this one fell into place,” he shares.

This mash-up explodes with Sivaj’s laughter and Van Gogh’s starry night twinkling in the background.

Krishnan–Panju (Parasakthi, 1952) x Vincent van Gogh (Starry Night Over the Rhône, 1888)

Explaining that the idea itself is not new, he says, “There are artists who do it for Hollywood and Bollywood films. In my very first post I wrote that it was inspired by Tabrez’s work.” Charles adds that he will next explore avenues to make merchandise based on request.

“Tabrez already sells merchandise and I’ve got quite a few requests to make posters as well. I do not think IP will be a problem. The artworks I use are out of copyright since they are very old, but I was going to discuss with a friend who is familiar with IP regarding the photos,” he adds.

Dileesh Pothan (Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, 2017) x Vincent van Gogh ( Wheatfield with Crows,1890)

So far, Charles shares, he has got specific requests for mash-ups, some with personal photos. “One filmmaker reached out to me asking if I could make 300 of such mash-ups. There’s another specific request from someone for a mash-up out of Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s movies,” he says.

We also discuss about the sudden recognition Charles has received as a result of these quirky images. “I was randomly posting them but people requested that I organise it better. So I made a thread on Twitter, started a page on FB and opened an Instagram account. Lots of people have shared it. Photographers and directors have called me, some were asking for prints. I will have to rework all of it in high res,” he tells us.

Edward Hopper (Automat, 1927) ft KR Vijaya

Charles, who goes by ‘Poli Sarathu’ on Twitter (a popular reference from Kumbalangi Nights which he found interesting), is blown away by the response. “I’ve been into films for 5 years and directed a couple of plays as well. But this became viral in just 2-3 days, which I didn’t expect. It feels good to get the appreciation and I feel encouraged to do more.”

Also read: Meet Pencilashan: Kerala cartoonist behind Amit Shah’s ‘Offer you can’t refuse’ comic