Book Review: Modernism By Other Means- The Films of Amit Dutta by Srikanth Srinivasan

Arun A.K. reviews Srikanth Srinivasan’s Modernism by Other Means – the first book-length study of the films of Amit Dutta, renowned as one of the foremost filmmakers working in experimental cinema today. 

Publisher and Date of Publication – Lightcube, 2020

Amit Dutta is regarded as one of the foremost filmmakers working in contemporary experimental cinema with his films shown in major festivals and museum programs across the world. In the last decade, he has had over half a dozen retrospectives in India and elsewhere. Even so, there has not been a single book-length study of Dutta’s work—a lacuna Srikanth Srinivasan’s book—Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta, seeks to remedy. Part of the reason for this gap is the difficulty in accessing Dutta’s works. Not one of his films has had a commercial release in India. It is only recently that a retrospective of his works has been made available for online streaming in India on the OTT platform —MUBI. Even abroad, they have had very limited circulation outside of festival screenings and retrospectives. It is lamentable that contemporary experimental audiovisual practice in India has been sidelined by disproportional critical and scholarly focus on mainstream and ‘parallel’ cinema. 

In eighteen essays, the book analyses the breadth of Dutta’s filmography, consisting of about thirty short and feature-length films. It also discusses the three books that he has published to date. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, the book examines how Dutta’s work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism, one that bypasses Eurocentric rites of passage, inviting us to reframe our ideas of what being modern in art means. 

Since the early 2000s, starting from his film school days at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His unique blend of films are as removed from national mainstream cinema as from the international arthouse tradition. They are, instead, incarnations of a personal quest, a lifelong project of research and self-cultivation. They propose newer forms of cinematographic expression through their constant, ongoing dialogue with ancient Indian artistic thought.

His unique blend of films are as removed from national mainstream cinema as from the international arthouse tradition. They are, instead, incarnations of a personal quest, a lifelong project of research and self-cultivation.

A concern for form is apparent right from Dutta’s short films at the FTII. These early attempts display a stylistic exuberance seen against which his later work appears positively sedate. Speed-altered footage employing heady camera movements combine with a pulsating editing pattern and a dense sound mix to produce narratives poised on the horizon between dream and waking life. Focusing on the mechanisms of storytelling itself, these films evidence the excitement of a young artist discovering the power of his medium. Broadly speaking, Dutta’s practice falls in the variegated lineage of ‘experimental’ filmmaking in India consisting of pioneers such as Pramod Path and S.N.S. Sastry as well as illustrious film school alumni like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Kamal Swaroop, and Vishnu Mathur, all of whom have had an important influence on him. It was Robert Bresson’s film Mouchette, that got Dutta interested in films. The editing of the final sequence of the film in which the girl commits suicide is what invoked in him the desire to study filmmaking.

Though far more tempered than his earliest works at the institute, Kramasha (2007), which critic Jonathan Rosenbaum called ‘a dazzling, virtuoso piece of mise en scene’ and Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009) still show the filmmaker donning the role of a magician-raconteur capable of pulling stories from thin air and threading them into strange, alluring patterns. It is with Nainsukh (2010), however, that Dutta’s cinema witnesses an overhaul. An imaginative biography of an eighteenth-century miniature painter from the Pahari tradition of the Himalayan valleys, it is a work that uproots the filmmaker from the confines of personal history and replants him into the history of art. That is not to suggest that he was never engaged with art history before this film. Both Ramkhind (2001), an observational ethnographic documentary about a Warli village, and Jangarh: Film One (2008), an investigation into the tragic life of the titular Gond artist, make forays into the field. In a research publication on the tribal painter Jangarh Singh Shyam, Dutta observes how the artist reached a modern style without having to learn, and subsequently reject, the idioms of European naturalism, as is expected of cultivated primitive painters like Henri Rousseau and Joan Miro.

But it is Nainsukh that facilitates more fundamental changes to Dutta’s practice. It kicks off Dutta’s long and fruitful collaboration with art historian B.N. Goswamy. Goswamy’s scholarship, and especially his way of looking at Pahari paintings, was so revelatory for Dutta that he conducted several long interviews with the professor in the following years. These conversations were later compiled into a twenty-five-hour project, never screened publicly to date, titled The Wondering Eye (2012). Goswamy’s writing on the Guler painter not only provides the basis of research for Nainsukh, but also initiates Dutta’s exploration of ideas of tradition, lineage, inheritance within the domain of art history in films such as Museum of Imagination (2012) and Field-Trip (2013). These are films embodying a certain kind of cinematic cubism in which the object to be represented is fragmented in space and time. 

Dutta’s cinema from Nainsukh onwards shares these qualities as well. In these films, he would construct the impression of solid space through fragmentation and shot division, translating the ‘traveling perspective’ of miniatures into montage. This tension between flatness and depth, between stillness and motion reaches a high pitch in three subsequent projects on art: Future of Cinema (2013), Gita Govinda (2014), and Chitrashala (2015). In these films, we observe Dutta train his focus on fragments of artifacts. 

Dutta’s filmmaking in the past couple of years has taken another sharp turn. Contrary to what one might expect from an established filmmaker, he now makes films on a shoestring, relying at most on grants and public commissions. Paradoxical as it sounds, his increased productivity in recent years is the fruit of this financial constraint. In his recent, self-financed projects, the filmmaker has donned the role of writer, director, cinematographer, editor, and sound designer. 

The essays presented in Srinivasan’s book, therefore, adopt an ‘auteurist’ approach with a formalist persuasion. The book is not expected to be read in the given order. The reader could dive into any chapter, perhaps after having seen the corresponding work. Like the Masrur temple complex of Finished/Unfinished (2015), they are emanations of a single monolith that is Dutta’s self, conscious and otherwise. 

About the Author

Srikanth Srinivasan is a film critic from Bangalore, India. His blog, The Seventh Art, was named one of the top sites for film criticism by the Film Comment magazine in 2010. 

 About the Reviewer

Arun A.K. is a communications professional working in Mumbai, India. He is a cinephile who enjoys writing about cinema, and his articles have been published in Film Companion. His shorty story ‘Great Spirits’ has recently been published in the US literary journal, The Writing Disorder. Arun holds an MBA degree in Marketing from Symbiosis, Pune and B.E. in Electronics from Mumbai University. He can be reached through his twitter handle @arunusual.

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