JANUARY 29, 2021
CINEPHILES AND FILM HISTORIANS agree: trying to watch every movie is a doomed proposition. Just like no astronomer will ever come to know every star, nor a foodie will ever be able to patronize every eatery, the cinephile must acknowledge limitations and accessibility in the discoveries of works old and new. Film buffs might ask one another “what to watch” and “when to watch.” The question of “how to watch” may be more existential, but it offers the contemporary conversation a more compelling payoff. As a globally marketized art, cinema has a network of distribution that is inseparable from its commercial viability. By virtue of this, there are some nevertheless important filmmakers who will fall through the cracks.
Filmmaker Amit Dutta (b. 1977) has quietly crafted a decade-long career of marvelous experimental films in isolation without any of them seeing proper distribution or home video release. His films are enveloped in specific Indian experiences and histories: painting, fables, myths, and cultural traditions both ancient and contemporary. His movies take the form of chaptered novels and parables that may be told to children during bedtime. In a new book, Modernism by Other Means, film critic, curator, and translator Srikant Srinivasan expands on his retrospective of Dutta, which was held at the Bombay Arts Society in 2017. Guided by his conversations with and further research on the filmmaker, Srinivasan sheds light on Dutta’s importance and cultural relevance, and how his career fits in a unique place between commercial and art cinema.
Dutta’s name and his reputation has achieved niche repute and intrigue through the interest of curious festival programmers, historians, scholars, archivists, and online file-sharing communities who consider his cinema to be worthy of not only watching, but studying as well. Viability in art can come from many places, but far too often, the limited scope of distribution models works against filmmakers, especially from the Global South, whose movies don’t conform to the preconceived ideas of what can either sell commercially or be considered “art cinema”: to Western audiences and critics. Srinivasan considers the latter as “European rites of passage” — namely, films influenced thematically and structurally by the film movements of Neorealism, German Expressionism, or the French New Wave. It’s a major reason why directors like Yasujiro Ozu and Ritwik Ghatak took much longer to enter Western canons of film than Akira Kurosawa and Satyajit Ray, whose narratives and aesthetics internalize the logics of the European art genre. Nevertheless, there has been a home in obscure film circles for Dutta’s “authentic modernism,” a term Srinivasan uses to describe the filmmakers’ radical structure in camera-work and editing that is informed by traditional Indian forms of art, mainly paintings.
Modernism by Other Means presents Amit Dutta’s entire filmography in chapter-by-chapter breakdowns. Alongside these are the concurrent milestones of his life, which inform the deeply personal and in some cases autobiographical nature of his works. The book’s comprehensive documentation of Dutta’s process — from a film’s inception to its fruition — allows the reader to forge a deeper connection with the artist. Srinivasan suggests that his book need not be read in the chronological order in which it is presented, mentioning that Dutta’s oeuvre, like that of any of cinema’s great auteurs, consists of works that are “in close dialogue with one another.” But, just as the reader can start at any point of Modernism by Other Means, the viewer can dive into Dutta’s filmography from any point.
After spending much of his early career making movies in major cities in India, in 2010, Dutta returned to the Kangra Valley, near his childhood town in the Himalayas, to film Nainsukh, which would become his breakthrough feature film and perhaps his most celebrated work. In an interview with Srinivasan, Dutta explains, “I draw so much inspiration and ideas from this land, something I always wanted to do as a filmmaker. So naturally it became my home and work space.” Dutta’s attachment to his own memories and sense of place echoes through Nainsukh. No surprise, then, that it is the first movie in Dutta’s oeuvre where he clearly expresses his distinctive visual template and use of cinematic language, which Modernism by Other Means details in depth.
These continued cinematic reverberations in Dutta’s filmography spring from a myriad of personal interests, childhood memories, and relationships and idols throughout his time learning at FTII (Film and Television Institute of India). Srinivasan describes the connection that Dutta feels to the Kangra Valley and surrounding areas near his birthplace of Jammu, stating that “his work, like that of any artist with a keen sense of place, needed a geographical base to thrive in.” His cinema also needed a spiritual base, which Dutta finds in influences like film director Mani Kaul, painters like Jangarh Singh Shyam, and historians of Indian art like B. N. Goswami.
Srinivasan asserts that the Indian artistic methods, guided by social and spiritual hierarchy, form the visual canvas as “based on how things are rather than how things look,” whereas Western art, paintings especially, “used a perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique center of the world.” That is to say, the proportions and the arrangement of action in Western art is centered on the way a human would view things with his eyes, an aim for anthropocentric realism rooted in ideals of the European enlightenment. By contrast, Dutta’s films are “in constant dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought and vernacular traditions of art.” Srinivasan also notes, regarding Dutta’s self-evaluation in his own book Many Questions to Myself, that “much as he quotes Western-centric theoreticians […] he attempts to derive the framework for his practice from an indigenous tradition of thought.”
One striking triptych in Nainsukh illustrates this point. In it, several actors imitate motions of a battle scene; some men point their spears anticipating a kill, a man in a tiger mask poses as if eating the head of another man, and finally a third man sits in a tree pointing to the tiger. These three separate actions are individual shots aligned in Dutta’s movie and ultimately combine to imitate Nainsukh’s Pahari-style paintings. The final shot is of the painting itself, eliciting the “tensions between flatness and depth” that this classical style of art embodies. Dutta’s repurposing of art history, particularly Indian art history from the Mughal era — traditions such as Pahari-style miniature painting from the 1700s — and the contemporary era — is also evident in The Seventh Walk (2013). An experimental documentary on Impressionist painter Paramjit Singh, The Seventh Walk invokes a distinctly local aesthetic of framing and editing that is wildly incongruous with norms of Eurocentric or arthouse cinematic traditions.
Both The Seventh Walk and Nainsukh are in constant dialogue with their subjects, both painter-artist figures, and Dutta’s cinematic interpretations of their processes and products. The visual language of Dutta’s films offer a translation from the painter’s canvas to the celluloid frame. Srinivasan describes Dutta’s style as possessing a “geometric” sensibility, particularly in how Dutta uses windows, narrow alleys, stairways, archways, and other corridors to compartmentalize people and actions. As Srinivasan writes, in Dutta’s films, “shards of a scene are presented to the audience before the whole.” In certain sequences, like Nainsukh’s tiger hunt, this technique formally recreates the “artist’s process,” and offers a meta-commentary on how scenes and ideas unfold within a movie or painting itself. In others, however, Dutta offers a much deeper and more active social commentary. One startling sequence in Nainsukh has a repetitive shot of characters running up to the camera with violent urgency, then a quick cut to a close-up of a painting of two soldiers grabbing at courtesans. This not only enacts an emotionally charged action scene but also provides a sociopolitical portrait of gender dynamics and power hierarchies during the Rajput dynasty.
Modernism by Other Means thoroughly considers both the formalist and political elements of Dutta’s cinema. In the chapter on Ramkhind: A Warli Village, Srinivasan mentions the consistent agitation between Dutta’s observational approach to documenting indigenous lives and the subjectivity inherent in filmmaking. The placement of the camera and post-production decisions in editing and deciding the sequencing of images all contribute to creating a story that implies a subjective point of view. As the author explains, “Dutta, a city-bred artist out to chronicle an indigenous community already puts in place a power structure involving not just the filmmaker and the tribesmen, but the audience as well.” These political dynamics only play in the background of many of Dutta’s movies and are never the focus of the story. By the nature of his minimalist, isolationist way of filmmaking, Dutta sits between the mainstream and art film, which Srinivasan shrewdly deems the “alternative mainstream” circles.
At the heart of Amit Dutta’s career, then, lies the question of his supposed place in the modern discourse of world cinema, the “canon,” and the future of this art in both a social and economic sense. Modernism by Other Means is structured chronologically, but Srinivasan’s prose flows between influences, memories, and Dutta’s visions of the future of his cinema, invoking Dutta’s style and perspective; he makes the proposition that we are reading about a filmmaker and artist who matters. This is crucial when discussing an artist of immense talent and few resources or avenues for exposure. But Srinivasan makes it clear from the outset however that the neglect of his work is “not a story of art martyred by commerce.” Some of Dutta’s obscurity is by his own design — he purposefully has stayed away from the industry and generally keeps to himself and makes movies in isolation with small crews. The question arises, then: Even as his films have received recognition at film festivals like Venice and in numerous retrospectives, why has so little been written about him? Why is he a figure who is just now, after more than a decade of consistent work, barely provoking the curiosity of critics and cinephiles alike?
This calls into question how the industries that control and adjudicate the procurement and distribution of cinema choose the movies they do. Which films of decades past get restored, and which films get archived for future generations? Generally, American and European companies, festivals, and financiers have dominated both the economic and social conversation around cinema. Asian, African, and Indigenous cinemas are brought into the fold based on how well they gel with the sensibilities of Westerners, Martin Scorsese’s World Cinema Project being an exception to the rule. As the media industries become more centralized and as conglomerates acquire smaller companies, the artistic diversity of mainstream film continues to shrink.
Amit Dutta promotes the idea of an accessible cinema, unbound by the increasingly austere practices of industry filmmaking, where capital is centered abroad. He has publicly said: “Money and human relationships have always intervened in filmmaking, but digital technology is making them less necessary, giving more time and space for the inner journey.” This more personalized, low-budget approach severs the shackles of the artist to a capitalist enterprise that treats his work as a commodity instead of an intangible expression of artistic autonomy. Srinivasan notes how the last shot of Dutta’s 2017 film The Unknown Craftsman, is a perfect metaphor for the independent filmmaker as a journeyman working with a chisel and hammer. He adds that “making films with a simple digital camera, a computer, and hardly any crew, the filmmaker is, for all purposes, an unknown craftsman making positively artisanal work.” Like craftsmen of old, Dutta’s name continues to circulate in casual conversations between enthusiasts and, only later, rediscovered and understood through scholarly works like Modernism by Other Means.