[The following is a translation of an article by critic and filmmaker Pascale Bodet published in Trafic 95 (September 2015). I’m immensely grateful to Mr. Samuel Bréan for finding me a copy of the article and to Ms. Bodet for her permission and generous support.]

The Golden Bird

Let’s begin with two dreamlike, unsettling fictional films made by Amit Dutta at the Film and Television Institute of India at Pune, the film school he was trained at: Kramasha (To Be Continued, 2007, 22’) and Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan (The Man’s Woman and Other Stories, 2009, 78’)[1].

Here’s one of the three stories in Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan. Married man Jainath is obsessed with the tattoo of his wife Krishna Bai, who has her own name tattooed on the hand. Jainath wants to cut his wife’s hand off. He wanders around with his friend who jokes (“Till the wrist, or till the shoulder?”), then incites Jainath to scrape the tattoo with a blade, then to attack it with sulphuric acid. In this tale, there are no good spirits to suggest tattooing both names—Krishna Bai’s and Jainath’s—on the same hand. The friend makes increasingly evil suggestions until the moment where Krishna Bai’s name appears, not just on her hand, but on the marital pillow. Noticing this new inscription, we understand that Jainath has let go of his evil spirit (who withdraws out of bitterness) to become his own good spirit. Jainath has another obsession now: he loves his wife; he forces her into embroidery. Independently of its sonic and visual (35mm) beauty, of the charm of its sound effects and of the tropical, diurnal, nocturnal dampness, I remember that the character of the friend/evil spirit renders this tale at once more prosaic (two friends wander about, talk, meet again and separate) and more fantastic (the friend is the evil double of an already malevolent hero).

Now, can we review the viability of cinema as an instrument for the search of truth? Money and human relationships always intervene in filmmaking but technology minimizes their necessity, giving more space and time to the inner journey. Filmmaking becomes more personal, almost intimate. It happens outside the purview of an audience, at least a real audience. No money to be earned, nor much fame. Then what is the reward left to the filmmaker? The answer for me could be: ‘the process’*. The possibility now to live one’s film more profoundly and intimately than ever. The kind of subject one chooses, the reading, learning and thoughts one lives through the making of a film become the most important reason for making it. Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty, and eventually truth (?).

*In Kashmir Saivism, some scriptures have the concept of prakriya denoting a prescribed practice (of ritual or meditation), which is the same as the highest knowledge; the path therein is one with the destination. [2]

There is, first, the sound.

By dissociating sound and image, Dutta turns their non-synchronism into a language of discovery (investigation + reverie). In Even Red Can Be Sad (2015, 60’), the contemporary painter Ram Kumar is in his studio, and we see him from the back in three-quarter profile speaking, but don’t quite hear him. Could it be that he is speaking to himself? Could it be that he is speaking to entities who don’t hear him, or to entities who hear him but whom we don’t hear and Dutta doesn’t either? It’s as naïve as it is mystical. Let me add that the shot of Ram Kumar I’m talking about isn’t carefully composed, but filmed in fluorescent light in the artist’s workshop in a documentary fashion, perhaps an alternate angle from an interview.

Is the self-produced Sonchidi (The Golden Bird, 2011, 55’) an autobiography of Dutta’s? Two young men who look like students wander about in the mountains. They throw stones at insect nests, visit an apparently abandoned house. They enter a troglodytic structure containing frescoes. That is where they finally discover the location from which the spaceship of a mad genius took off. They now know that these spaces they’ve been wandering over are part of the spaceship, a spaceship the size of the world (or India, at least). They are therefore its passengers. The frescoes of the troglodytic structure then emit sounds that one of the men records. In other words, they are in search of a spaceship and moving about for that reason. Once there, they realize that they’ve been there from the beginning and that they can now hear the language of the troglodytic frescoes. They haven’t thus moved about in space as much as gone back in time: the spaceship is a time machine. Childish or profound?

Since 2009, Amit Dutta has been filming Indian art a lot—miniatures, paintings, artists, places where they live or lived in, work or worked in, wander or wandered about. Could it be said that, in filming Indian art, Dutta is filming the history of Indian art, and just history? When Rossellini filmed India in the late fifties, he first called his film India 58, then India 59, then just India. His idea was perhaps to show India right at the moment he was there, and this project perhaps evolved into a naturally larger one: to show India in 1958 and 1959, he narrated four stories, spread out across the country, stories of equilibrium between men, women, elephants, water, forests, industrialization, tigers, fairground monkeys, so much so that he ended up depicting the India of past, present and future all at once. I’m invoking Rossellini somewhat on purpose, because he too uses post-synchronized sound (though he uses it perhaps more offhandedly than Dutta; the fact remains that, when the bells on the necks of elephants are louder than the trees that they uproot and whose fall is muffled, we are veering away from documentary). In contrast, when Minnelli makes a film about Van Gogh, I get the impression that he just wants us to feel as though we are in Van Gogh’s time, in 1880, and to see the paintings evolve from the point of view of the one painting them, that is to say Van Gogh. Minnelli thus depicts art in the present, not the history of art or history. Minnelli’s great subject, the concordance or discordance of times, appears in films like Mademoiselle, Gigi, On a Clear Day You Can See Forever, or A Matter of Time, and not in films directly about art, except may be An American in Paris.

When Dutta films frescoes, paintings, Indian miniatures, but also Ram Kumar’s paintings or, in Saatvin Sair (The Seventh Walk, 2013, 72’), the charcoal drawings of Paramjit Singh (another contemporary artist), we hear songs, or instrumental music, or the telephone, or birds, or a plane, or water drops, or children, or boat sirens, or the noise of charcoal, all of it loud, post-synchronized, very pure—pure in the sense that Dutta isolates these sounds from a global sound environment. At times, we get the impression that, in illustrating what we see with sound, he animates it, and that it’s his way of making art, or art of the past, come to us. Or when he pushes the sound of charcoaling or of brush strokes to its maximum intensity and purity, Paramjit Singh’s gestures translate into this prosaic and horrific scraping: it’s an entry into the material of sound, a propulsion into a repressed world, at the time of its construction or its deterioration, gesture by gesture. It’s through sound that we enter the works, and that we travel across time.


There is, then, the image.

When Dutta shows us artworks, he goes into the environment of the works and undertakes his contextual inquiry. It’s his entry point, visual this time around, into the works.

Dutta has no qualms entering the canvases, miniatures and charcoals through camera movements into them or through framings that go inside them (a qualm is a small pebble in the shoe that bothers, and which prevents you from going ahead). With Dutta, an artwork isn’t something to be seen, but a material to enter (it’s the same with sounds: we don’t hear them as much as we enter them). Once inside, do we realize that we have always been there? Are the works, like the spaceship of Sonchidi, all-enveloping structures that absorb surrounding space and go back in time?

In any case, they aren’t objects to be seen. There isn’t a privileged point of view from which to see them well. There is, rather, a space to stretch out, to enlarge, to shrink, to deepen, to flatten, to squeeze out at the four corners, and in width, length, height and depth. In Dutta’s films, there is a materiality surrounding the works whose texture can be temporarily modified in order to approach and enter them. This temporary deformation is followed by a return to usual form, itself temporary. Everything is there, in the spaceship. They are there, they will remain there, but are caught up in a continuum of transformations.

Chitrashala (House of Paintings, 2015, 19’) is firstly a gallery. Chairs made of deluxe leather are arranged in the gallery. On the walls is a set of miniatures under framed glass. People walk about outside the gallery, and their reflections are seen on the glass protecting each miniature. Dutta focuses on the glass and its reflections. The gallery is empty, and the miniatures, meanwhile, are fuzzy. In Field-Trip (2013, 23’), we see genealogical registers of a foot in thickness. They were produced at an important pilgrimage site where pilgrims dictated their autobiography to scribes. Thanks to these genealogical registers, the professor emeritus B. N. Goswamy sets out to look for the descendants of Nainsukh, a miniaturist from the eighteenth century. In this second part of the film, we don’t yet know his destination or his intentions. Shots of the professor on roads and pathways alternate with glimpses from these registers [3]. What is important is that the shots of the pages are fuzzy. The person next to me at the screening tapped me on the shoulder to ask: “Why didn’t he focus?” I replied: “Because he is interested in something beyond that.” Something beyond the page or something below? And what if it was the zone of air between the viewer’s eye (or the camera) and the fuzzy register that was clean? And what if this was the “prakriya” that Dutta speaks about in one of the seven questions to himself (quoted above)? The pathway becomes one with the destination. If Dutta had wanted it, the register would’ve formed a clean image and the professor would’ve reached the destination without the intention or the journey. So I’d quote one of the lines heard in Even Red Can Be Said: “His gaze fell on the eyes, something was lost.


Someone asked me which films of Dutta they should see if they couldn’t see all of them. I replied: “They are all the same, and they are different at the same time.” I mix up Dutta’s films. I simply liked being in a certain state, then to regain this state again, which I imagine is that of a fish in an aquarium.


Ramkhinda (Ramkhind, a Warli Village, 2007, 78’) is another work from film school, but self-produced and more overtly ethnographic. Dutta went to an “underdeveloped” village. The first ones to be captivated by his camera are children who assemble before its lens in slightly low, wide angle. It isn’t the exhausting final sequence of trance involving music and a whirling camera—unoriginal in its way of paralleling the trance of the music with formal drunkenness—that I liked, but the film’s various visual experiments, unexpected in this context. Whatever the film, for a given filmed object, Dutta often presents different framing patterns, either cut or in zoom: there are at least three—tight shot, mid shot, wide shot. In Ramkhinda, he zooms in and out. The pitcher on the head of a peasant woman who walks towards the camera expands into an overall view of the landscape. With a forward moving camera, Dutta follows peasants walking with scythes on their shoulders (with the tic-tic-tic of the scythes on the soundtrack). He films the result of this outing in a fixed shot in which a haystack as big as a tree is perched on the head of a departing peasant. In Ramkhinda, there are two shots that anamorphically distort two bidi smokers (the shots are consecutive and of the same pattern). From a high angle, we see the feet of the smoker in the background and his hands in the foreground. His left hand takes out an artisanal object from his shirt pocket, his fingers roll a cigarette, and the bidi is ready; the smoker puts it in his mouth and lights it with a stone lighter. It’s then that the camera reframes the smoker’s face. The beginning of the shot is distorted because of the high angle; the end of the shot, at face level, isn’t. Anamorphosis is the deliberately distorted image of an object, which, seen from another point of view, regains its normal form (for example, the design of a Coca Cola label first seen flat and then in volume on a can of Coca Cola). And it’s the search for this kind of “cold” trance that seems more interesting to me than the musical trance at the end redoubled by the trance of the camera. It’s as though Dutta started to mature his art.

For me, wide angles go with bad taste. I don’t like the distortions that Dutta’s short focal length subjects things to, even without high angles. It’s not realistic. The human eye doesn’t see like a fish eye. That didn’t, however, turn me off, not any more than the “drone aesthetic” seen in Saatvin Sair: successive aerial tracking shots and omnipresent sonic drone. When Ramón Novarro, as the titular Ben Hur, demanded director Fred Niblo to include a tracking shot of his legs (or was it a pan shot?), it was because he wanted us to see the beauty of his legs. It was to glorify himself. When Dutta tracks vertically over a tree, I’d argue that it is in order to get down from the tree, to get up again and then to get down again—and for no other reason: he doesn’t track to show the tree, or the beauty of the tree, or the vertical tracking shot. It isn’t like in the films of Welles or Ruiz, where visual distortions and sophisticated camera movements are incitements to suspicion: are things the way they are or the way they appear? This question doesn’t surface in Dutta’s films. What Dutta, Welles and Ruiz have in common is an art of enchantment by which they supplant normal vision, the first with a ship that contains everything, the latter two with a theatre that derives from the cabinet of curiosities. Ruiz undermines; he is a critic who perverts Hollywood visual grammar (that we take to be “natural”) and who searches for other mechanical means of access to utopias. So he designs his scenes. Dutta seems to me to be more topographical, less intellectual. He is more of a fish. Ruiz dreams of being a fish (Ballet aquatique, 2010, short film) but he has legs and hands, he climbs up and down spiral staircases, walks, stretches out, looks at the ceiling, crawls, gets up, stands still, turns his head etc. Dutta, on the other hand, swims, floats, lets himself be swept along by waves and flows: it’s impossible to remain on a scene, immobile or in movement, when you don’t have legs—or rather, when you ignore gravity and float along weightlessly in an all-encompassing ship.


I’d now like to discuss Amit Dutta’s humour. While, in Welles and Ruiz, there is a proliferation of signs, in Dutta, there is a rarefaction of information. This rarefaction is what I liked about his films.

Jangarh: Film Ek (Jangarh: Film One, 2009, 24’) is a film in the more ethnographic vein of Dutta and has nothing humorous on the face of it. We see poor villagers at first. They talk about a dead painter, Jangarh. At the beginning of the film, a title card tells us that this painter committed suicide in 2001 in Japan, at a museum where he was in residence. Jangarh’s nephew is a painter too. Dutta meets him in context, in the fields. The nephew takes Dutta to the courtyard of his house, where he has brought out a drawing of his, which he begins unrolling. But Dutta cuts before the nephew has time to show it to him. Is it right to leave the nephew hanging like this? What I thought of then is the horse-drawn chariot that Dutta animates in Chitrashala. It isn’t a real chariot but one painted in an ancient miniature. Chitrashala is a cartoon made of miniatures since Dutta literally animates miniatures that he films in the gallery. When Dutta animates the chariot, he makes only one of its wheels turn, not all four. I thought that the nephew’s painting wasn’t the wheel he wanted to show. I also thought of the power that his films draw from his capacity to rarefy.

I already spoke about the noise of the charcoal or the brush strokes, their sonic treatment in Saatvin Sair and Dutta’s magnified attention to that which is material, and this obsession with the prosaic leads straight to the horrific. The link between a hyperattention to things, the comedy that this obsession produces and the terror that stems from it is known, from the great primitive burlesques until Moullet. Rarefaction produces laughter, like a gag. Then it ends up producing fear. Let’s take Nainsukh (2010, 72’). Nainsukh is this eighteenth-century miniaturist at the focus of Field-Trip. In Nainsukh, Amit Dutta makes a historical reconstitution. Nainsukh’s father, in costume, is at the window and smokes a hookah. Nainsukh and his brother, in costume, continue painting, talking. We hear the breathing, otherworldly, invasive gurgling of the hookah. A cartoonish joke? The obsessive gurgling of the hookah recalls Krishna Bai’s tattoo, a student-like obsession… To rarefy: in order to reconstitute Nainsukh’s paintings, Dutta sticks to the inscriptions on the miniatures. Dutta thus has the miniatures for the image, the inscriptions for the meaning, but also for the sound. So we hear only the hookah, or the gold coins of disgruntled debtors at their meeting with the king, or the noise of scissors working on the king’s beard, or the coughs of the king in exile. Rarefied and abrasive noises of the hookah, the gold coins, the scissors, the coughs, that’s where the comic and the horrific meet, since humour is the first step towards the realization that one doesn’t have everything at hand to claim victory. Humour is this bent of the mind that, under a serious or playful appearance, seeks to cruelly make fun of everything that is lacking and can’t possibly be otherwise.


A friend of mine wasn’t moved by Dutta’s films. Even the vision of decadence in Nainsukh didn’t move her. Indirect emotion is, however, a strong emotion. In choosing to film the court where Nainsukh painted in a destroyed palace, and sticking to inscriptions featuring on the miniatures, Dutta adheres to a fragmentary, destroyed, schematic and spectral past.


If I’d been in Japan, I would’ve met the same fate as him. I’d be dead”, says a villager in Jangarh Film Ek. Why is he so violent? I don’t understand why the villager doesn’t say: “If I’d been in Japan, I would’ve prevented Jangarh from committing suicide. I’d have changed Jangarh’s fate.” The villager didn’t say what I wished he said. So I imagine him with Jangarh, both dying in Japan—a blow of fate, or a curse, or a spell cast in a fairy tale. That’s how Amit Dutta’s films are: they dive into a world where it isn’t social, economic and political analysis that first comes to mind and where violence is translated by horrors of the fairy tale. It must perhaps be understood that the villager couldn’t have survived the art world—like Jangarh, who found himself alone and lost, at the other end of the world, in Japan, faced with sponsors, forced to produce as many works as possible since they had acquired considerable popularity. And it’s later that a man, seated on the floor and framed at the bottom of a whitewashed wall, narrates Jangarh’s tale: an Anglo-Saxon had come to the village in search of an Indian scholar, fell upon Jangarh’s paintings by chance, and then Jangarh left for Japan, where he killed himself. This man smiles from ear to ear, and his wife corrects him, seated at a doorway, on the right of the frame, in the shadows.


Dutta’s films are like the title cards in Sonchidi, his film showing students looking for a place from which a spaceship took off. Part of the story is narrated through title cards. Characters from Indian script (sic) are suspended on lines in a notebook. When we French write on the page of a notebook using characters from Roman alphabet, we write above the line: the line is the base that allows us to plant our script. In the title cards of this film, small line segments crown the characters suspended on straight lines of the page: the line is a roof.

The fountainhead tradition of Indian aesthetics* envisions all forms of art in a state of fundamental continuum. Accordingly, comprehension of one form is impossible without the overlapping comprehension of the others. Can we envision cinema in such a continuum of art forms? Think of cinema as we think of music or painting; likewise, think of editing (and not imitative shot-taking) as handling the perspective (of time and space); think of other art forms not literally but poetically.

*The core concepts of Indian aesthetics can be applied to any art form from poetry to sculpture to music. For example, the soul of poesis, dhvani, defined as both suggestiveness and reverberation, is applicable to any art form. It draws its essence also from the 9th century Kashmiri Saivist world- view that the cosmos is essentially a vibration, which manifests itself in all forms. Thus creation itself is mimicked in every artistic endeavour.


Living in his corner of the globe, Amit Dutta aspires to a total art out of this world. And it’s with the help of professional technicians who have a lot of respect for him and who, very well paid in Bollywood, make his films for almost nothing.

(Thanks to Emmanuel Levaufre.)



[1] Of the fourteen films by Indian filmmaker Amit Dutta shown by Marie-Pierre Duhamel-Müller at the Cinéma du Réel 2015, I missed Purna/Apurna (2015, 240’). At the request of the artist, this film was projected as an installation at the Forum-1 on the closing day of the festival. At the masterclass that closed the program, I learnt that Dutta had made seven or eight short films between 2002 and 2007, but he doesn’t want them to be shown anymore. I also learnt that he just turned thirty-eight. Seeing his films, I thought he was seventy.

[2] The quotations are from Seven Questions to Myself, by Amit Dutta, published in the Cinéma du Réel 2015 catalogue.

[3] Translator’s note: The glimpses are, in fact, of printed pages from Prof. Goswamy’s books.