Cinema of India


My first book Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta is now available for order in a limited edition hardcover version, lovingly produced by Lightcube!

 

Book Description

Since the mid-2000s, Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His sensual, stimulating films are as removed from national mainstream cinema(s) 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. Taken together, these films constitute a cinema of aesthetic introspection. Despite universal acclaim, including awards and retrospectives across the world, critical commentary on Dutta’s oeuvre has remained scarce.

Modernism by Other Means is the first book-length consideration of the output of one of the most compelling film practitioners active today. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, it 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.

 

Links

Hardcover book (India only)

Hardcover book (international)

Kindle e-book (international)

PDF e-book (international)

 

Reviews

“A magnificent work, as complete as it is precise, analyzing in depth each of Amit Dutta’s films, intended to be a reference. Congratulations to Srikanth Srinivasan and his publisher, Lightcube. I would like every contemporary experimental filmmaker to find their Srikanth!”

Dr. Nicole Brenez, Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle

Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

– Dr. Omar Ahmed, UK-based Film Scholar and Curator

Amit Dutta might possibly be my favorite filmmaker to have emerged in the 21st century. His mix of playfulness, inquisitiveness, respect for his subjects, his devotion to numerous forms of beauty—all make him a rare and deep talent… I recommend the e-book [of Modernism by Other Means], which is inexpensive, and which is proving to be a really valuable document on a great body of work.”

– Zach Campbell, Independent Scholar

“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.

– Soham Gadre, Los Angeles Review of Books

With rugged clarity and verve, Srinivasan walks us through an extensive portrait of an elastic artist… Modernism by Other Means is nothing short of an essential aid not only in contextualizing Dutta’s films, but in some cases understanding the absolute basics of what each film communicates, the existing register it is working within or developing upon.”

– Maximilien Luc Proctorphotogénie

Helping the director return to cultural circulation is already a remarkable merit for the book dedicated to his work, but not being involved in the cultural economy gives value to both it and Amit Dutta’s films.

– Maksim KarpitskyCineticle

 

[Trailer for the book]

A train moves across the screen from left to right. The camera echoes the movement, panning slowly to the right, in the same direction as the locomotive. In the foreground, in front of the train, are three women, clad in sarees, striking a graceful pose before a tree, their heads gently responding to the moving vehicle behind them. The edge of the panning camera stops just to the right of the tree. We expect the train to come into view after it passes the tree, but no, the iron horse simply vanishes behind its trunk, as if swallowed by this compositional element. This shot, worthy of a John Ford, constitutes the opening of Bengali academic and experimental filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak’s seventh feature, Glossary of Non-human Love, one of the five Indian films screened in June at the International Film Festival Rotterdam (IFFR).

And it’s a shot unlike anything else in contemporary cinema, combining movement and stasis, a classical idea of plastic beauty with some SFX magic. It will be a question of such incongruencies and anachronisms all through Avikunthak’s film, which, we are told, is set in a future when Artificial Intelligence has taken over human life. Divided into 64 chapters, variously titled “Jealousy”, “Affection”, “Remorse”, “Delusion”, “Perfection”, “Rebirth” and so on, the film offers a series of vignettes in which half-a-dozen men and women, presumably hollowed out by AI, try to understand the cumulus of emotions and sensations around physical love.

The chapter names have little relation to what we see in the vignettes; if there is a connection, it is mostly oblique, for instance the chapter titled “Shadow” where an actor plays shadow cricket, or the one called “Non-Duality” where another performer smokes with a CGI double of hers. Many of the vignettes are propelled by dialogue, but the lines are shared by different actors such that none of them has any fixed identity. Several scenes feature the performers in the nude, composed into striking tableaux or engaged in minimal but precise movements, with their desexualized nudity echoing the blank states that their minds are. What sounds like residual memories of lovemaking are invoked, as are mythological and historical accounts; the difference between past and present, male and female, gods and humans all vanish in this collective stream of consciousness.

It is a tall order to process Glossary of Non-human Love in any meaningful way in one viewing, especially for those who don’t speak Bengali, caught as the eyes are between its visual provocations and the subtitles. Unless your name is Ashish Avikunthak, trying to closely follow its philosophical arguments will not take you very far. It will, in any case, take you away from the primary pleasures of the film, which lie not in its text but on its surfaces.

There is always something of formal interest in each of the vignettes, the film constantly experimenting with newer ways of composing them. At times, it is the gonzo camera angles that prompt the viewer’s eye to recompose space; elsewhere, it is the fragmented compositions in which the frame is divided into multiple rectilinear subframes, each one competing for our attention. Or it’s the fine-grained sound design, which suggests a world beyond what we see. Some sketches are presented as single-shot tableaux while others are distributed across several settings, jumping from one to another even in the middle of a single line of dialogue.

It is, however, the use of architecture in the film that is most striking. Discounting the outdoor locations, Glossary of Non-human Love is shot inside half-a-dozen different residences in Kolkata and Mumbai. The buildings range from angular, modernist designs to colonial structures and traditional brick houses; their peeling paint, rusty ironwork, double doors and grilled windows with Indo-Mughal motifs, scorched courtyards and general lived-in quality possess a nonhuman sensuality and warmth that stand in contrast to the icy, naked bodies of the performers.

Despite the dead seriousness of its subject, Glossary is also a film with a subtle sense of humour. Many of its indoor scenes are intruded upon by the external world, either visually through the windows or in the form of ambient sound, which pierces the Great Art Film Experiment conducted by the filmmaker and his collaborators, hermetically sealed within expressly emptied houses. In this, and in its attention to the textures of everyday living, it joins the cinema of Tsai Ming-Liang, whose work too taps into the spiritual possibilities of the quotidian spaces.

Equally provocative, but in another manner, Kerala-based filmmaker Don Palathara’s fourth project Everything Is Cinema is told entirely from the point of view (and the camera) of a Malayali filmmaker called Chris, unseen but voiced by Palathara himself. Chris, we learn, went to Kolkata in January 2020 to shoot some kind of a remake of Louis Malle’s documentary Calcutta (1969). But the project comes to a halt with the outbreak of the pandemic, and Chris is stuck in an apartment in the city with his partner, an actress called Anita (Sherin Catherine). At this point, his film turns inward, with Chris now shooting Anita in her daily routine.

The city documentary may have turned domestic, but the filmmaker’s gaze remains that of an outsider, with Malle’s voiceover over street scenes of Calcutta giving way to Chris’ voiceover over monochrome images of Anita. We see right away that their relationship is in tatters: the pair is estranged; Chris can’t stand Anita and subjects her to a barrage of criticisms on the soundtrack, ranging from mild rebuke for her supposed hypocrisies to misogynistic tirade. With little self-awareness and much self-love, he assumes a higher moral and intellectual stand, regularly quoting philosophers and undercutting Anita’s supposedly pseudo-progressivism.

Even within the confines of a private space, Chris and Anita are enacting a filmmaker-actress duo, that classic model of modernist filmmaking with its own gender biases: the camera-wielding filmmaker is the creator-subject (thoughtful, capable of Deep Emotion) with the capacity to describe the actress-object (shallow, conceited if interesting and colourful), not very unlike the power dynamic Malle found himself in in relation to the city he was filming. The camera, in Chris’ hands, becomes the vehicle of objectification and abuse.

The impression one gets, however, is that Chris is somewhat thick in the head. Making this film, he thinks he is incriminating Anita, finding irrefutable proof of her vanity and vileness. The poor idiot even assures us that he isn’t manipulating the footage to place her in an unfavourable light. But the visual evidence incriminates only him. Nothing in what we see of (and hear from) Anita confirms Chris’ negative characterization of her in the voiceover. He generously offers to intersperse footage of Calcutta as a welcome break for the viewer from having to constantly see Anita’s face, but it only serves as a welcome break from his obnoxious monologue.

So Chris’ film gets out of his hand and turns against him. The camera frame, instead of imprisoning the figure it contains, indicts the one behind it. In one of his many moments of self-flattery, Chris compares himself to the protagonist of Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Camera Buff (1979), a man who can’t relate to the world around him unless he sees it through the frame of a camera. But in fact, he is closer to the protagonist of another Kieślowski film, A Short Film About Killing (1988), which immerses us entirely into the subjectivity of a murderer. There are moments where we sense that there may be a more reflective, nuanced individual in Chris, as when he wonders why Anita stopped writing or when he mulls over the possibility of collaborating with her, but it’s these contradictions that serve to throw his darker thoughts into relief.

Palathara’s film is patently treading on dangerous ground. In its very concept, it offers the viewer a space to intimately identify with the deranged impulses of a woman-hater. But unlike a work like Gone Girl (2014), this identification is kept in check in different ways. Firstly, the (presumably) liberal audience of the film already has their sympathies aligned with Anita, especially as she is obviously in the right here. There are, then, scenes of Anita speaking for herself before the camera—like Malle’s subjects who return the camera’s gaze—puncturing Chris’ descriptions of her. Finally, Palathara amps up Chris’ odiousness to a breaking point—and this is arguably a failure of nerve on the part of the film—that we are more hostages to his point of view than accomplices.

The film doesn’t always succeed in working out solutions to the problem of identification posed by its framing concept, but for the most part, we are kept in a state of fugue, laughing sometimes with Chris and sometimes at him. And Palathara certainly deserves credit for taking the risk, for not settling for an easier way out by, say, telling the story from Anita’s perspective. His film is less a cinematic exploration of a relationship gone sour and more an investigation into the ethical questions of cinema through the time-tested device of a marriage-in-crisis picture. In just that, the film accomplishes more that most domestic dramas out there.

 

[Originally published at Mint]

Prantik Basu’s Bela, which premiered at the Visions du Réel in Nyon last week and is headed to the International Film Festival Rotterdam in June, is an hour-long documentary about everyday life in the titular village in West Bengal.

Shot over two years, Bela is the third work born of Basu’s collaboration with the inhabitants of the village. The film, however, conceals the filmmaker’s familiarity with the region and its people. Reserved and self-subtracting, Basu’s digital camera surveys the spaces of the hamlet with a ruminative, bovine gaze. These measured gestures are fitting, for Bela seeks to register the leisurely rhythm of life and work in the village. To this end, the filmmaker assembles footage amassed over several months into a cyclic diurnal-nocturnal pattern, with each “day” unfolding roughly over a quarter hour.

The men of the village are, for the most part, occupied with Chhau performances, a costumed dance form of gyrating, thumping male bodies that blends classical and folk idioms. The women, on the other hand, seem mostly engaged in highly physical, productive work, harvesting crops, gathering firewood or crushing rice. But just as we briefly glimpse men making their living at a timber depot, the women decorate the threshold of their homes with beautiful rice rangolis whose simplicity counterpoints the baroque costumes and movements of the Chhau shows.

These contrasts and continuities in the gendered division of labour are offered for our consideration without a guiding commentary. Compared to Basu’s previous short films, Sakhisona (2017) and Rang Mahal (2019), which are fuelled by Santhali cosmology and myths, Bela is a stripped-down work, presenting no discursive framework to supplement what we see. There is no voiceover, musical score or interviews with its subjects, making the film at once more airy, more austere and more elusive than its predecessors.

In that sense, Bela has more in common with the formalist rural symphony that is Basu’s Hawa Mahal (2015). The filmmaker shoots with an eye for plastic composition: asymmetry, offsetting elements in the foreground, impressionistic effects obtained through frame dropping. His camera would often drift away from a scene to end on a light source or the participants’ feet. Recurring images in his work – electric wires, women carrying wood, twilight skies, rain and thunder, deforestation – become charged with specific meaning, but Basu’s touch remains light, not unlike the women’s rangolis.

We conversed with the filmmaker on his new work.

 

Could you tell us something about your personal and academic background? How did you come to filmmaking?

I grew up in a joint family of eight people, in the suburbs of Calcutta. Films are something that I have always been drawn to. I loved telling stories as a child and would always visualise the short stories and poems from my school curriculum and imagine them as films in my head. While doing my B.A. in English, I wrote the script for a short film and directed it with the help of a few friends back in 2007. That same year, I gave the entrance exam for the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and got into its Direction department.

 

How did Bela come about?

After my graduation, I was called back to FTII to direct a film as a guest filmmaker. During the making of Sakhisona, I met the wonderful performing artists, dancers and musicians of the Manbhum Sramjibi Chhau Nritya Dal. They performed and composed songs for the film. I remained in touch with them and, upon the completion of Sakhisona, visited their village Bela to share with them the final film. I stayed on for a few weeks, without any plans for another film. Over time, I developed great friendship and comradery with them, shooting showreels for their dance group and travelling with them to their dance competitions. And at some point, the seed of a new film germinated.

 

Your previous short films (Sakhisona, Rang Mahal) made imaginative use of Santhali folklore. In comparison, Bela registers as a more sober, fly-on-the-wall documentary. How did you decide on the film’s form?

Unlike my previous films, the formal structure for Bela developed during the process. I started with the dance group, and was mostly interested in tracing the transformation of the dancers from the people they were to the gender-bending roles they played. Since the Chhau dance is mostly practiced by men, I meandered to observe the women and their activities in and around the village. The juxtaposition in itself was telling a story, so adding a voiceover would have made it didactic. We see when we are told to look, but on our own, we observe. So I limited my intervention to the least, and aimed for a cinema verité approach in Bela.

 

Could you tell us a little about the Chhau performances?

Like all other dance forms, Chhau involves tremendous discipline, coordination and practice. Etymologically, it is derived from the word Chhaya, meaning shadow, image, or mask. It is said that every other boy in Purulia (where Bela is located) is a Chhau dancer, and that they learn the techniques of somersaulting underwater as they learn how to swim in the ponds at a young age. The songs that accompany Chhau dance are called Jhumur, and they follow the dohar (couplet) form. These are entwined with the landscape of Rarh Bengal and its flora and fauna. For example, the repeated meter of Jhumur songs derive inspiration from the echoes that occur while calling out in this undulating terrain, and that the subtle turn of the neck and torso in the Chhau dance is an imitation of the movements of a peacock. These nuances are usually overlooked by the viewer who is often lost is the grandeur of the performance.

 

There is a sense, towards the end of Bela, that this way of life is under threat of disappearance. Even the Chhau performances seem destined for a town crowd.

Their way of life is under a constant transformation, much like everything around us, maybe a little slower, but isn’t that inevitable? This change is probably much less in the region where I shot Rang Mahal; there is a certain welcome resistance too, in the form of the Pathalgadi Movement, for instance. But the community in Bela is at the threshold. Many of the Chhau dancers move to cities across the country and contribute to the migrant workforce. When the team had come to Pune for a performance at the FTII, two workers from a nearby construction site heard the sounds of the dhol, dhamsa and shahnai, and immediately rushed to the campus where they were performing. It turned out that they were from their neighbouring village. The joy of their reunion in a place so far away from home was a sight to behold.

 

In the film, we see men mostly engaged in the Chhau performances while women are largely responsible for productive labour, both at home and in the village. How did you see the relation between men and women in the village?

It was quite compartmentalised, in terms of gender roles. While the men dress up as women for their performance, and the women display immense physical strength in their daily activities, the lines otherwise are rather rigid. So the argument of Chhau dance being masculine for its physical rigour fails to hold true after a point. Of late, few female Chhau dance groups have formed. But the attitude towards them is very similar to the ones towards the women’s sports teams in our country.

 

Did you script or storyboard before the shoot? What was the process?

I was making notes every day after shooting, more like production notes and data logging. I shot for a few months, on and off for over two years and had accumulated an enormous amount of rush footage. So I made index cards of the sequences and did a few rounds of paper edits first. I did storyboard for my earlier films, but since I shot the last two myself, I somewhat knew the kind of frames I wanted. Also, both Rang Mahal and Bela are nonfiction films, so there is only so much one could pre-plan in terms of framing. Most of them were chance and intuitive responses to the scenes unfolding in front of the camera. Sadly, some of the best moments occur when the camera is off. Turn it on, and they are gone.

 

In a number of shots, your roving camera ends on a light source, almost as if offering a cue to the viewer that the shot is about to end. What is your fascination with light?

That’s interesting, I never thought of it like that. In most cases, it was an instinctive response, as I was mostly working with available/natural light. The night rehearsal sequence is one that I can recall. The entire activity took place around a single light source, a 100-watt tungsten bulb. Earlier, it was a longer sequence, where the bulb was set up, the insects hovering around, and then gradually the people gather. While the dancers practiced in circular motions, their blurred movements appeared like celestial bodies orbiting around the Sun.

 

Did you show the film to the people of Bela?

They have seen parts of the film, but I am yet to share the final film with them. Hopefully that will happen soon.

[Originally published at Firstpost]

The Last Farmer, multi-hyphenate Manikandan’s fourth directorial venture, is nothing if not timely. To be sure, in a country where agrarian suicides are permanent fixtures in the annual news cycle, any work about farmers is timely. But the premiere of Manikandan’s film also coincides with the nationwide protests underway against newly enacted agricultural reforms. As a story about the only remaining farmer of a village, it is, at the very least, bound to benefit from and contribute to the discourse.

Any film by Manikandan is a closely-plotted affair, and The Last Farmer juggles no fewer than four narrative arcs. It is, firstly, the picture of a village that overcomes its internal divisions when faced with adversity. Old customs, beliefs and ways of life are revived as the crisis galvanizes the villagers around an expiatory feast. Thwarting its progression, a second storyline finds the titular last farmer, Mayandi (Nallandi), being harassed and ground down by the legal establishment for having buried dead peacocks found on his land.

Woven through this mesh are vignettes that dramatize items from the headlines: the persistence of drought, the introduction of GM crops, the financialization of agriculture and the corporate takeover of farm lands. There is even an extended star cameo by Vijay Sethupathi as a wandering holy fool who moves in and out of village life. The result of this narrative density and shifting focus is that the film is made less of fleshed-out scenes than of short, melodramatic incidents that move the plot forward.

The farmer is arguably the single most sacred figure in modern Tamil cinema, rivalled perhaps only by the Sri Lankan Tamil. And Manikandan’s film has no intention of impinging on this saintly aura. Its protagonist is the last fount of agricultural knowledge within a largely oral tradition. He leaves everyone who comes into his orbit in thrall, and the filmmaker treats him with comparable awe and piety, even at the risk of idealizing the character. This renders The Last Farmer a film primarily addressing an urban Tamil audience, one which longs for a lost unity back home.

With Lenin Bharathi’s Merku Thodarchi Malai and Mari Selvaraj’s Pariyerum Perumal (both 2018), it seemed as though the ideological and aesthetic stakes of village-based Tamil cinema could never be the same again. While it wishes away the deep, irreconcilable caste divides unveiled by the latter film, The Last Farmer owes a debt to the Vijay Sethupathi-produced Merku Thodarchi Malai, not just in its use of crane shots to chart mountainous landscape, but also in the way it adapts some part of its comprehensive political-critical outlook.

But Manikandan is no ideologue. His film is less the product of cohesive theoretical reflection than a personal tribute to his ancestors. (In the film’s opening credits, he mentions his lineage up to three generations—a first in cinema?) It is made with the filmmaker’s characteristic humour and attention to detail, nowhere more evident than in the authentic courtroom scenes, which were already a standout in his previous work, Aandavan Kattalai (2016). He depicts the village with a cinematographer’s eye, integrating its geography, people and nature into a whole ecosystem, which is one of the film’s main themes. The Last Farmer registers as a work Manikandan had to get out of his system, but the feeling remains that his sentimental attachment to a subject close to his heart may have come a little undone by his distance from it as an essentially urban filmmaker.

 

[Originally written for the International Film Festival Rotterdam]

pebbles

There is a scene early on in P.S. Vinothraj’s first feature Pebbles that takes place in a town bus. Diverging from the story at hand, the director fixates on a series of objects that accompany the passengers: a marapachi doll, a yellow cloth bag, a new set of brass lamps, a CRT television, plastic water carriers. It’s the sort of sentimental detail, each item conveying a world of stories, that gives the film its lived-in quality. As the bus plods along the narrow road, someone smokes one beedi too much. A scuffle ensues, waking up a sleeping baby at the back and bringing the shuttle to a halt.

If these sensations of small-town transit are ostensibly wrought from experience, Pebbles supplements them with material ripped from the headlines. The film unfolds in parched stretches in the outskirts of Madurai in Tamil Nadu. Once there were rivers in in these lands, but all that remain today are signs: empty water canals, drought-resistant vegetation, dying springs. And pebbles. The possibility of agriculture having collapsed, some families have resorted to hunting and consuming rats.

Amid this bleak picture is the story of a father and a son. The man, an alcoholic, seethes with uncontrollable rage at his wife who has left him. The internal movement of the film is closely coupled with the rhythms of this man’s quivering body. Despite the bottle, he walks briskly, his chest heaving, as his child follows him far behind in a mix of fear and concern. For the most part, Pebbles is a horizontal film made of characters traversing the frame from left to right. As the man heads towards his in-laws’ place to find his wife, we also get a tapestry of scenes from the village in the background.

The child, in contrast, is a mute receptacle to his old man’s violence whose muteness is also a force tempering this violence. He wants his family to stay together. When his father sets out to board a bus back to his village to take it out on his wife, he tears up the wad of cash entrusted to him, forcing both of them to walk back home. As a collector of pebbles, the boy knows that this unforgiving landscape has a way of smoothening rough things. Sure enough, the long pedestrian voyage under the scorching summer sun does things to the man’s head, even if it doesn’t entirely cool it down. By the time he reaches home to down some water and food, the film too has settled into a sedate rhythm. Pebbles, then, isn’t as much a story of the terrain as a story by the terrain.

Even when it goes through familiar emotional beats, Pebbles manages to remain fresh, an important quality for a debut work. Vinothraj executes bravura sequences with serpentine camera movements, but he is also concerned with capturing a child’s confusion within a conflict situation. His film is about survival, about life in its barest details, but it doesn’t rule out the capacity for aesthetic experience: waving a balloon out the bus window, transforming dry leaves into a simulated rain shower, collecting feathers and pieces of a broken mirror. And pebbles.

 

[Originally written for the International Film Festival Rotterdam]

Is it possible to say anything about this world-historical year without some amount of preliminary hand-wringing? Culture writers, film critics included, appear to feel obliged to present their bona fides, to relativize their work in view of the pandemic and to pre-empt any accusations of frivolity. We are already masters at the art; it is, after all, a profession that hits you with the question of relevance every single day. The silver lining, if one can call it that, in this catastrophe that has touched every person on the planet may be that barely any other pursuit seems any more relevant. Here’s to all those who lost their lives to the virus, to those who have been fighting to save us, and to those who haven’t lost sight of causes for justice, peace and compassion amid the global health crisis.

The enormous impact of the pandemic on film production, distribution and exhibition has been obvious. Streaming giants, namely Netflix, Amazon and Disney, who have been successful at vertical integration in the past few years (and are poised to go even further), seem to be the biggest gainers from this disruption. Whatever their claim about increase in consumer choice, it seems to me that it hasn’t really resulted in a diversity of viewing patterns. (Consider, for instance, the Sight & Sound critics’ poll: the 2019 edition had a total of 353 films chosen by 100 contributors whereas the 2020 version has 353 films from 104 contributors—hardly a sign of a paradigm shift.) Given their subscription model, these firms have every incentive to pump more and more money into marketing and hog the discourse. If this annus horribilis has proved anything, it’s that publications are more than willing to bend over and serve as unaffiliated PR organs for these companies.

While the cancelling of film festivals across the world was unfortunate, it gave publications and critics an unprecedented opportunity to bypass traditional tastemakers and widen their horizons. Considering that so many organizations, by generosity or lack of choice, presented their programs online for international viewers for the first time, it was an invaluable chance for film journalists to let their readers know that there was good, smart, moving and entertaining work—old and new—available outside of subscription walls and subcultural echo chambers they have themselves helped create. To my limited knowledge, this opportunity was squandered. Publications, predictably, saw their task as giving readers “what they want” instead of elevating them.

My own viewing this year was dominated by older films. Thanks to torrent archives and illegal websites, which are seemingly the only platforms making any effort to save and make older work accessible, I had the privilege of seeing countless great works from across decades and across the globe. Watching dozens of films by William A. Wellman, Luc Moullet and Alfred Hitchcock, most of which are available for free online, remain especially fond memories (Waltzes from Vienna (1934) and The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934) are top-drawer works!). I had great fun writing about some of them for my classical Hollywood column until it was scrapped in June.

Of the 130-odd new films I saw this year (of which three in theatres), I found no masterpieces, several accomplished works amidst a sea of middling-to-uninteresting efforts. (Shoutout to Malmkrog, Siberia and The Last City for plunging into territory conventionally considered bad taste and coming out trumps.) What I sense is that, thanks to cheap digital media, more and more independent and experimental filmmakers are simply documenting every aspect of their lives, amassing vast amounts of footage without any specific purpose in mind, and reusing them when a chance arises. With the production halt of 2020, I suspect this habit will only be more apparent in the coming months. While that is certainly a valid method of working, I can’t help but feel that so many films I saw this year came across like half-cooked soups, disparate material thrown together with the hope that it will all, somehow, result in poetry—one reason why works on this list, with their rigour, intelligence and feeling, stand out in my mind.

 

1. Hopper/Welles (Orson Welles, USA)

I’ve had no greater screen delight this year than watching two white dudes chat for two hours. Orson Welles and Dennis Hopper hole up in a dark room with half a dozen technicians to talk filmmaking, politics, religion, love, magic, news, television and literature while dutiful assistants scurry about readying one refill of liquor for them after another. Welles plays the Grand Inquisitor, pressing his timid interlocutor to state his artistic and political beliefs, conjuring theories to counter him and never allowing him a resting ground. We never see him, save for rare glimpses of his bellowing pin-striped trousers moving at the edge of the frame. As Hopper’s cinematic forefather, Welles looms large, appearing to be incarnating some kind of metaphysical force, orchestrating a Kafkaesque trial for the young man. What results is a stark power imbalance between the seen and the unseen, the subject and the author, the one who is recorded and the one who wields the camera. But the primary pleasure of the film lies in seeing two artists in a terribly absorbing conversation, grappling with the cinematic-aesthetic problems of their time. Going public after fifty years, Hopper/Welles is both a standalone film and an anniversary celebration. It hasn’t dated one bit.

 

2. Forensickness (Chloé Galibert-Laîné, France/Germany)

Chloé Galibert-Laîné’s funny, sharp and dizzyingly smart video work begins as a commentary on Chris Kennedy’s Watching the Detectives (2017), a desktop film about the crowd-sourced investigation on Reddit following the Boston bombing of 2013. As the director breaks down Kennedy’s film, analysing its narrative construction and its tendency for geometric abstraction, she voluntarily gets caught in an ‘analytical frenzy’, not unlike the Redditors themselves. As Galibert-Laîné seamlessly chains one stream of thought after another, her film evolves into a meta-reflection on our relation to images and our compulsion to create meaning from visual material. If Just Don’t Think I’ll Scream (2019) saw cinephilia as a self-made prison of images, Forensickness digs deeper, revealing the epistemological malaise that is the search for meaning that animates all cinephilic pursuit. Her film lays bare the adventures of the critical mind, throwing open not only its own making, but also the thoughts producing it. Forensickness may look like an object of pure play, the result of a filmmaker “seduced by her own jokes”, even a solipsistic game in the way it asserts the inescapability from these self-imposed maps of meaning, but this magnificent work is unmistakably insightful regarding the way we make sense of the world through images.

 

3. A Machine to Live In (Yoni Goldstein & Meredith Zielke, USA/Brazil)

What remains of the modernist dream of reshaping human societies from the ground up based on scientific, rationalist principles? Goldstein and Zielke’s ambitious, erudite and formally complex city symphony seeks to find out. Its subject is Brasilia, the artificially created capital of Brazil that architects Oscar Niemeyer and Lúcio Costa forged out of the wilderness in the late fifties. The imposing geometric forms of the city, expressly conceived in cosmic terms and perfected like Kubrickian monoliths from outer space, appear to have all but snuffed out human presence. Machine sees this city as an otherworldly geography unfit for human life, but also allowing the possibilities of imagining utopias, catholic cultists, freemasons, biker gangs and Esperanto evangelists all finding a home within Brasilia’s orbit. Employing heterogenous narrative modes, Goldstein and Zielke develop a visually striking portrait of a city that has come to resemble a religious monument in itself, demanding awestruck worship and constant maintenance by people who can’t afford to live here. Their Brasilia is either a place that inspires dreams of reimagining life or an abyss where dreams come to die. Even as it looks back at a moment in modern intellectual history, Machine evokes questions about the future, inviting us to reflect on the eternal human desire to play demiurge.

 

4. The Disciple (Chaitanya Tamhane, India)

Tamhane’s superb second film feels like home territory for him. Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer, is not the greatest of talents, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, one that gives a structural meaning to his life. But, the promise of omnipresence and instant gratification of the modern world beckoning him, not only does he find himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, he’s also is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues to serve his elderly teacher, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them is lost. Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview, with humour, suspense and a calculated formal reserve that redoubles the impact of the emotional violence. His film invites viewers to constantly process narrative information in order to access it, providing a rich dividend for the effort.

 

5. Unusual Summer (Kamal Aljafari, Palestine)

In Unusual Summer, Aljafari repurposes CCTV tapes that his father left behind after his death in 2015. The tapes are from the summer of 2006 and were used record the parking spot outside his home to see who’s been breaking the car window. Despite the dramatic promises of the CCTV aesthetic and the location of the house in the crime-ridden district of Ramla, what we get in this film are quotidian incidents, sightings of neighbours passing by, the picture of a town going about everyday business. Aljafari adds a sparse ambient soundtrack that imparts Tati-esque colour to the proceedings, with the passers-by on screen becoming veritable characters. This transformation of private surveillance footage into a session of window-watching and people-spotting produces a feeling of community and forges a relation of inheritance between the filmmaker and his father, the only two people to have seen these tapes. Supremely calming though it is, Unusual Summer is also seared by loss and mourning, the familiar faces, places, animals and trees that register like spectral presences on the lo-fi video having vanished in the intervening years following intrusions by the Israeli state. A minimalist gem that speaks to our now-amplified urge to reach out to others.

 

6. The Game of Shifting Mirrors (Amit Dutta, India)

Dutta’s richly dialectical new film draws out themes from Chitrashala and Finished/Unfinished (both 2015) and puts them in a stimulating new conversation. The first section, set in the Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj museum in Mumbai, jumps across artefacts from several centuries while a voiceover describes an encounter with tribal artists and paintings. This contrast between the linear time and historical narrative of the British-era museum and the mythical worldview underpinning ‘indigenous’ art is given a third dimension by the film’s latter section that showcases the 8th century rock-cut temples of Masrur. Like tribal art, the temple complex has a founding myth that departs from the rigorously documented secular accounts of archaeological practice. As the industrial working hours of the first section make way for a day-night cycle, we observe the complex’s sculptural reliefs that have been partially eroded by nature. The film’s evocative organization then embodies an ambivalence towards museological conservation: while modern museums salvage art from natural degradation for the benefit of posterity, they wrench objects out of their original context, severing them from the knowledge systems and traditions that gave birth to them. In its fruitful frictions, Game suggests that perhaps all preservation necessarily entails a loss.

 

7. Bloody Nose, Empty Pockets (Bill Ross IV & Turner Ross, USA)

The Ross brothers’ new docuficion follows the last day of operation of The Roaring 20s, a downscale bar fictionally set in Las Vegas, at which a bevy of social castaways gather to mourn and celebrate. While all the actors play themselves, the filmmakers loosely fictionalize the scenario, giving direction to it with certain pertinent themes. Set against the backdrop of collapsing American businesses, Bloody Nose is a hymn for failure, a note of solidarity to what the American lexicon calls “losers”. The Roaring 20s is the opposite of everything one associates with the glitz and glamour of Sin City: it’s a floundering venture that is the negative image of the American Dream. For its regulars, however, the bar is something of an institution that provides them with a public (and, at times, private) space that has become scarce elsewhere and where they can be themselves. The film’s broader view of class is compounded by a specific generational perspective that refutes the idea that the young, the ‘millennials’, can’t make it because they don’t work hard enough. A film that hits the right moods without tipping over into condescension or miserabilism, Bloody Nose deserves all the plaudits it’s been getting.

 

8. Corporate Accountability (Jonathan Perel, Argentina)

Perel continues his exploration into Argentina’s military dictatorship by examining the role of large private corporations in enabling and carrying out state-sponsored pogroms against political dissidents of the junta. He photographs the company facilities as they are today while a brisk voiceover lists out how each firm helped military and security forces detain, torture and get rid of problematic workers in exchange for financial perks. The text, read out from an official 2015 report, is numbingly repetitious, and drives home the pervasiveness of these military-industrial operations. Perel’s decision to frame the sites through his car’s windshield creates a sense of illicit access, even though there is visibly little stopping him from going nearer the facilities. Some of the companies continue to operate under their own name, while some others have changed, with at least one site carrying a memorial sign for the injustice perpetrated there. Perel is, in effect, photographing the ur-filmic image of factory entrances, but all we see is a handful of vehicles leaving the gates. This eerie absence of human figures evokes the disappeared workers who, at some companies, were picked up at the entrance, a site, as Harun Farocki has demonstrated, of class dialectics. A tough nut, but wholly rewarding.

 

9. Film About a Father Who (Lynne Sachs, USA)

Lynne Sachs’ frank, morally messy documentary turns around her father, Ira Sachs Sr., a ‘hippie businessman’ whose unconventional living and constant womanizing comes down heavily upon his nine children, some of whom have known the existence of the others only after decades. Sachs weaves through footage shot over half a century in half a dozen formats and layers it carefully into a simple, direct account with a voiceover addressed at the audience. She takes what could’ve been a narrow family melodrama into much stickier territory. Her film isn’t a portrait of her father, but a meditation on relationships with this man as the connecting element. Sachs goes beyond all gut responses to her father’s behaviour—disappointment, rage, disgust—towards a complex human reality that can elicit only inchoate sentiments, as suggested by the film’s incomplete title. She isn’t filming people or their stories, but the spaces between people, and how these spaces are always mediated by the actions of others. Father’s wayward life, itself rooted perhaps in a traumatic childhood, profoundly shapes the way his children look at each other. Sachs’ film is ostensibly a massive unburdening project for her; that she has been able to draw out its broader implications is a significant accomplishment.

 

10. Victoria (Sofie Benoot, Isabelle Tollenaere & Liesbeth De Ceulaer, Belgium/USA)

As part of his work, Lashay T. Warren, a young family man from Los Angeles, is posted in Cal City, California, a town wrought in the fifties by a lone developer out of the Mojave Desert with the hope that it would become the next Los Angeles—a dream that didn’t come to fruition. Along with other men and women his age, Lashay is responsible for maintaining this ghost town by reclaiming its streets from nature and restoring some semblance of cartographic order. Victoria teases out various thematic layers from this singular scenario. On one level, it is an absurd tale about one of the many dead ends of capitalist enterprise, a kind of anti-Chinatown portrait of a Los Angeles that could’ve been. Lashay is like a worker repairing a remote outpost in space, marvelling at every sign of life in this almost otherworldly landscape. But he also resembles the American pioneers, whose diaries on their way to the West he emulates in the film’s voiceover. Ultimately, Victoria is a poignant, humanist document, in the vein of Killer of Sheep, about the dignity of a young Black man providing for his family, trying to graduate from high school, all the while fighting the gravity of Compton’s streets.

 

Special Mention: Red, White and Blue (Steve McQueen, UK)

 

Favourite Films of

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Chaitanya Tamhane’s splendid follow-up to Court (2014) deepens, inverts one of the primary themes of his debut feature. If the defence lawyer of the earlier film (Vivek Gomber, the producer of both projects) was an idealist groping his way through an indifferent system, Sharad, an apprentice Hindustani music singer not only finds himself unable to live up to the lofty ideals of his tradition, but is gradually disabused of these ideals themselves. Sharad (Aditya Modak, a Hindustani singer himself) is a conservative in the literal sense of the word. His occupation is to conserve: he works at a small music publishing house that transfers old cassettes and LPs into CDs. On a regular basis, we seem him physically caring for his aging, ailing Guruji (Pandit Arun Dravid), applying ointments, helping with his toilet, preparing food for him and accompanying him to concerts as well as clinics. Sharad is not the greatest of talents, he’s not even his Guruji’s best disciple, but imagines himself as part of a tradition, a tradition that gives a structural meaning to his life, but one that dissolves into legend the further one follows it into its past.

Sharad witnesses this tradition getting progressively ‘diluted’ under the pressures of modernity and technological advancement. He possesses rare recordings of lectures by his Guruji’s teacher, a fabled figure named Maai (‘mother’), none of whose music exists in any recorded form. Maai’s lectures call for an ascetic, spiritually rarefied, extremely demanding way of life on the part of the Hindustani musician (the words ‘disciple’ and ‘discipline’ sharing etymological roots). His own Guruji, on the other hand, concedes to a few intimate concerts to make ends meet. Sharad is scolded by Guruji for wanting to start performing concerts at the age of 24. He, in turn, finds it in order to set up a personal website and to teach music at a school, but chastises one of his teenage students who wants to join a ‘fusion’ band. On television, he watches kids without any musical lineage finding wide recognition, just as he notices on the internet that his peers have had larger worldly success without having to go through the rigours he has had to. The promise of omnipresence and instant gratifications of the modern world beckon him, but—spirit willing, flesh weak—Sharad soldiers on, hanging on to Maai’s words like St. Bruno to the crucifix: “While the world changes, the cross stands firm.”

On one level, the film is dramatizing artistic doubt, the musician’s feeling that he simply isn’t good enough. But, as a Hindustani vocalist, the stakes are higher for Sharad. His own failure to live up to certain ideals is one thing. But it’s when he learns from a music historian—or rather, realizes himself—that the tradition he enshrines is itself a bundle of legends that his life’s foundations are assailed. It isn’t, then, a dilution of tradition that modernity ushers in as much as a disillusioning, a reinterrogation. Maai and Guruji, it turns out, aren’t the exemplars Sharad had taken them to be. To be sure, he had this doubt all along, for he knows that his own father, despite his passion for and knowledge about the music of his tradition was a mediocre musician himself; for, at some point, Maai’s discourse becomes one with his own inner voice. The fountain is corrupt, innocence is lost.

Tamhane builds up gradually to this assault on Sharad’s worldview. But he isn’t particularly interested in showing how Sharad reacts to this epistemological violence. In fact, he takes particular relish in not giving us an idea of how he reacts. Throughout the film, he cuts from a popular talent hunt on television to Sharad watching it with a poker face; that is, Tamhane doesn’t tell us how to react to the TV show. That’s because it doesn’t matter whether Sharad regards the show with the condescension and contempt of a superior musician or whether he is jealous and resentful about its enticements. What matters is that he is exposed to socio-artistic structures outside his own.

In a very direct manner, The Disciple zeroes in on a fundamental, civilizational sentiment that underpins artistic succession in the subcontinent: that of filial piety, as opposed to the parricidal narrative that informs the Western conception of self-realization. Even when his faith has been questioned, Sharad continues his service to Guruji, caring for him till the final days, like icon worshippers who hold on to their idols even (and especially) when the meaning behind them are lost. Physically as much as psychically and artistically, he labours under the weight of Guruji, just as the rebelliousness of the lawyer of Court simmers under a begrudging respect (and dependence on) his father. In both films, this Oedipal repression is set against the pragmatism of the mother, who, in The Disciple, is more worldly, not possessing the redoubtably attractive idealism of the father. In the film, Sharad is estranged from his mother following his father’s death, and connects with her only after the idealist parental figures—Guruji and Maai—pass away in his mind. I must add that this bit of psychoanalysis isn’t at all gratuitous; it seems plain that the film is dealing in these simple, bold relations in a very frontal way.

Bold is not the adjective one may think of when speaking of the baby-faced Tamhane, who comes across as a well-behaved, dutiful child himself in his interviews, or of his two films, which seem rather averse to emphasis or overstatement. But some of the bluntness of The Disciple could hardly be described otherwise. One of Tamhane’s ostensible strengths is his belief in the importance of humour to his work. While comedy remained a sporadic visitor to the Court, here it is systematized, generalized in the way the filmmaker links two sequences. Some of it is pretty on-the-face: shot of Sharad sitting stunned in disbelief at losing at a competition cut to him meditating at a yoga class to let off the steam, moaning sounds from a pornographic clip spliced with Sharad’s belaboured aalap. If this is easy laughs, it also attests to a filmmaker’s increasing confidence about his material: the humour doesn’t undermine the characters’ values or the gravity of their situation.

Tamhane also has the very valuable knack of picking up interesting faces. His lead actors, many of them musicians themselves, are all very good; Modak undergoes an incredible physical transformation midway in the film, gaining a telling paunch that reinforces his kinship to the lawyer of Court. But I refer to the faces in the crowd, each of which seems individualized, with its own story. Tamhane’s sedate, wide-angle style was served well by the subject matter of Court, where almost every scene has a crowd. The Disciple, however, except in its fascinating shots of concert audiences, limits the filmmakers to a few characters, resulting in several conversations filmed tastefully as a two- or three-shot over a table, with the camera slightly arcing towards Sharad.

Equally of note is Tamhane’s decision to vary his compositions throughout the film. Firstly, we hardly see Sharad in the same place more than once. It takes a while for us to inventory all the spaces Sharad haunts: Guruji’s spare loft in a chawl, the independent house where he lives with his poor aunt, its terrace where he practices, the recording studio where he works, the yoga class, the various concert halls and patrons’ houses. Even when Sharad is in the same space, the composition is so starkly different that we don’t perceive right away that it’s the same location. The effect of this variation is that it doesn’t let Sharad settle into a routine, and he is constantly caught in a spatial flux. The only strong, anchoring image of the film finds Sharad on his bike, cruising on Mumbai’s deserted late-night roads, listening to Maai’s lectures—his sole guidepost in a changing universe. The Disciple is also a period movie that unfolds over several decades—and a meticulous one at that, picking out era-specific electronic gadgets, currency notes and porn clips—and ends in our time of the thumping return of conservatism (to be liberal about it), which imparts an ironic colour to Sharad’s disillusionment. Maybe it’s appropriate that, in our era of hollow idols, the film closes with Sharad stepping into his father’s shoes, giving up performing to run a music label, even though the hallowed values of his father have been rendered void.

[The following is a translation of a set of letters between Raymond Bellour and Marie Redonnet on Satyajit Ray’s Days and Nights in the Forest (1970), originally written in 1993 and published in Bellour’s Pensées du cinéma (2016, P.O.L.)]

Days and Nights in the Forest

It’s always strange to walk out of a film with another person when we don’t know them well enough to be sure (a dangerous certainty) that they are thinking what you’re thinking. Especially when the film surprised you, took unexpected turns that you felt you followed well, and you don’t know if the other person, who might not have the same relation to cinema, reacted to the film in a similar way, or will at least use similar words to describe it.

Here, on the other hand, was a certainty, still a silent one: we liked the film. Terribly so: it left us speechless for a while, but we knew we’d have time to discuss it in the evening (a civilized ritual around the 8PM screening: have the dinner after the film in order to work on it slowly, privately, like an event that you don’t want to overload with other things, or digest at the wrong time).

Like all memories, of course, it later becomes something of a dream (I have always admired, with perhaps an excessive mistrust, those who are able to recount old conversations as if they had recorded them: are they so different from me, or do they implicitly embrace a mixture of truth and fiction? Or maybe they take notes immediately. But in that case, etc. etc.) I remember latching on to some references to articulate my surprise, to rationalize my amazement: this Satyajit Ray, who couldn’t apparently be more different, made me think, at least in his setup, of Rohmer (this was suggested to me by a friend of mine who loved the film and urged me to go see it right away), of early Fellini (I Vitelloni, for example), or even of Hawks (the fate of groups, the games of men and women, the transition from light to serious, the logic of plot reversals: the miraculous balance of “classical” cinema, modern though it is). In short, it’s still about the Rules of the Game between ethics and aesthetics (now that I’m writing (to you), I recall that Ray had assisted Renoir on The River).

I perhaps told you this, we thought it was really extraordinary that we could prepare for this transformation, that we could retain all the trivial elements of this story, as though suspended in a fishing net, in order to fully make use of them, in the form of a viewer memory, when the story veers, first slowly and then suddenly (that’s where the dexterity, the miracle lies), into the tragic, assuming a sweeping density by endowing its four merry men with a touch of fate.

We didn’t need to recount the film to each other at that point because we had just walked out of it, but we have to play that (minimal) game here. It’s not wholly true though: we did recount it in way, in order to pinpoint the moments in the film that had struck us and to arrive, unwittingly, at what had transfixed us.

So I’ll recall the crux here: four friends leave Calcutta to spend some time in the countryside. Two of them, familiar actors in Ray’s films, look like respectable executives; the third is a famous sportsman (he’s the only one with a backstory, presented through a really unexpected flashback that occurs during their journey, in the middle of their banter, signalling the future course of the film: his girlfriend has left him brutally following a mediocre, incriminating letter from him.); the fourth is the joker of the gang. They move into a forest guest house after bribing its watchman. There’s another house nearby, and the men get to know the family living there: father, daughter, daughter-in-law and her young boy. There are also women of the village, Duli being one of them. The film tells the story of these four bachelors who are out seeking adventure, going around these women towards whom their desire remains vague, only to turn concrete before their imminent departure: Sekhar, the jester, doesn’t get anyone; the sportsman Hari is committed to Duli; Asim to the daughter, Aparna; and Sanjoy to Jaya, the daughter-in-law (I checked these names in Charles Tesson’s book on Ray).

We were hardly interested in Hari, I think, except in order to notice what was extreme about the beautiful native (Duli) who sells herself, who is of a sensuality at once raw and perverse, mastered and uncontrolled, but very autonomous in any case, during the love scene in the forest, the only scene of lovemaking, of which the hero ends up being the victim (after the young woman leaves, he is assaulted by a villager whom he had unjustly accused of theft: the villager had observed the scene, which thus becomes more intense)

But the impression left by the scene fed into what we were constantly thinking about: that here was an extraordinary film on men and women, extraordinary because of the stance taken by a man to show the superiority of women when it comes to intelligence and behaviour in romantic relations.

We soon arrived at the great scene between Asim and Aparna, which could appear to be the most beautiful moment in the film. The groundwork for it is laid by two previous scenes thanks to which the film takes a turn and speeds ahead: a memory game in the forest in which Aparna crushes everyone, Asim in particular, the only one who puts up a fight; and a visit to the local fair, during which the group splits into three couples, with the sensual counterpoint of traditional dances to go with it—it’s audacious of Ray to film these female bodies so modestly and so sensually, to show them in harmony with the couples trying to find their feet.

We were amazed by how Aparna’s character, quite enigmatic so far, somewhat charming but sarcastic and rather removed, bursts out with a contained violence towards a half-flirtatious, half-romantic and mostly childish man, to whom she nevertheless imparts a consistency because she confides to him: her ability to memorize everything since early childhood, her brother who killed himself three years ago seemingly without reason, her mother who set herself on fire when Aparna was twelve. All this to explain her distance, her inability to enter the game of explicit seduction and her marked singularity (I thought so later, I think so now: is this Ray’s romanticism, an idealism that bestows the woman with an extra bit of aura and depth? Or as we originally thought: the naivete and vulgarity of men with their simplistic, dull desire—or, at least, the image they give of that—which rejects not only what is singular in a woman’s desire, but also the identity proper to a mutual desire, its only chance of being shared.)

But we hadn’t yet come to the scene that became, for us, the scene—that’s why we wanted to see the film together the next day, to freely write a few pages each to prolong the memory of what we discussed that evening, before, during and after the sad result of the elections (I’m looking at this obscene image on channel 2 again, enough to singlehandedly condemn television, which can never be cinema: between Madelin and Longuet, presentable forty and fifty somethings passably done up, stands a pulpy student of twenty-three years, fleshy lips and long hair, supposedly representing French youth and especially showing the desire they may have for her).

I think it was I who stopped suddenly at the scene that was hiding beneath what we had discussed before, like how one stops before an evidence: I told you that we’d just witnessed one of the most violent scenes of desire that cinema has ever offered. Until this scene, Jaya seemed, in contrast to her sister-in-law, a rather simple character: a sociable, cheerful woman (we have just learnt of the suicide of her husband from Aparna, but our attention doesn’t shift to her). Jaya returns home with Sanjoy from the fair to which he had accompanied her; she offers him coffee; they are alone in the house, where Ray has set up a muted but very charged lighting scheme that tightens the space. Jaya goes into her bedroom for a moment (there’s a fluctuation of memory here stemming from one of those loose ends characteristic of great mises en scène) and comes out of it transformed, covered with jewellery bought with Sanjoy at the fair. She offers herself with an absolute immodesty that reinforces what she recounts: the death of her husband, widowhood, the wife’s desire expected to vanish with her husband’s death. Sanjoy listens to her in silence, terrified. He is unable to take a single step towards her or make even one of the gestures he evidently imagined and looked forward to; he can only clam up. The more Jaya’s desire saturates the space the more thoroughly Ray’s sequencing withdraws into itself, so as to suddenly limit the whole world to what is happening—or rather, what is not happening—between this man and this woman.

That is where we began to feel differently. I was with Sanjoy, lost, understanding of his terror, projecting something of myself onto the character without knowing where each of us was, caught in a vague no man’s land. I told you how, when confronted with certain bodies, bodies that are too strange but whose strangeness is fascinating, a kind of imaginary madness opens up; I guess everyone has his own, which he recognizes the day it happens (this is amplified for me here by the evident otherness of the Indian woman that Jaya embodies so strongly: heavy, somewhat fleshy body of a glowing sensuality that doesn’t coincide really with the material body and induces a disorder, a dissociation between seeing and touching, or even between two modes of seeing, two modes of touching, which we’d prefer keeping apart). You seemed surprised by this male thing; and you spoke to me about the woman. You told me (I couldn’t think of it that way): a woman can offer herself like that only in order to want to not be taken. She remains in her mourning, which she bears tragically, which she exhibits, to the point of obscenity. This excess she indulges in is what protects her; this excess in which the other is nothing, can’t project himself into, for she desires him in a dead man’s place, as though to prove to him that he has no place there. Writing to you, I wonder if it’s this very intuition that Sanjoy has, considering that his terror mounts to such a degree: the fear of being denied, like the fear among women, as they say, when they can’t tolerate a pure, immediate physical desire. The harrowing magic of the scene, which we must see again to know more about, at least on the means of producing such a shock, could be in not letting either the man or the woman, who are trying to talk to about it like us, decide whether there’s a shade of comprehension or an opacity in what surfaces and dramatically stops between a man and a woman, whether either of them is aware of the horror they provoke in the other or whether these two horrors simply coexist in a space that has become, either way, unbearable.

R.B.

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[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]

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Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta

I’m elated to announce that my book on Indian independent filmmaker Amit Dutta, titled Modernism by Other Means, has now been published by Lightcube! The book is a critical study of Dutta’s work, from his earliest diploma films to his recent digital production, as well as his three books. It devotes special attention to formal qualities of the films and attempts to locate them within a broader national and international artmaking context. I’m very hopeful this book will fill an important gap in the literature on experimental cinema in India.

The volume has been published independently and with modest means. Its life will depend entirely on the backing of kind readers and generous patrons. I request anyone interested in supporting this book to share this information in their personal and professional networks. Please buy the book, yes, but more importantly, please review. That will help give the book some crucial momentum. If you represent a publication and would like a review copy of the book, please drop me a message at justanotheremailid@gmail.com.

Description

Since the mid-2000s, Indian experimental filmmaker Amit Dutta has been producing work that defies easy categorization. His sensual, stimulating films are as removed from national mainstream cinema(s) 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. Taken together, these films constitute a cinema of aesthetic introspection. Despite universal acclaim, including awards and retrospectives across the world, critical commentary on Dutta’s oeuvre has remained scarce.

Modernism by Other Means is the first book-length consideration of the output of one of the most compelling film practitioners active today. Through close-grained critical analysis of each of his films, it 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.

Links

Hardcover book (India only)

Hardcover book (international)

Kindle e-book (international)

PDF e-book (international)

 

Reviews

“A magnificent work, as complete as it is precise, analyzing in depth each of Amit Dutta’s films, intended to be a reference. Congratulations to Srikanth Srinivasan and his publisher, Lightcube. I would like every contemporary experimental filmmaker to find their Srikanth!”

– Dr. Nicole Brenez, Professor at the Sorbonne Nouvelle

Srikanth Srinivasan’s book on Amit Dutta is an invaluable foundational text for anyone wanting to explore the rich contours of Indian experimental film and is also an indispensable authorial study that opens up a far reaching interrogation and critical awareness of modernity and its relationship with contemporary filmmaking in India today.

– Dr. Omar Ahmed, UK-based Film Scholar and Curator

Amit Dutta might possibly be my favorite filmmaker to have emerged in the 21st century. His mix of playfulness, inquisitiveness, respect for his subjects, his devotion to numerous forms of beauty—all make him a rare and deep talent… I recommend the e-book [of Modernism by Other Means], which is inexpensive, and which is proving to be a really valuable document on a great body of work.”

– Zach Campbell, Independent Scholar

“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.

– Soham Gadre, Los Angeles Review of Books

With rugged clarity and verve, Srinivasan walks us through an extensive portrait of an elastic artist… Modernism by Other Means is nothing short of an essential aid not only in contextualizing Dutta’s films, but in some cases understanding the absolute basics of what each film communicates, the existing register it is working within or developing upon.”

Maximilien Luc Proctor, photogénie

Helping the director return to cultural circulation is already a remarkable merit for the book dedicated to his work, but not being involved in the cultural economy gives value to both it and Amit Dutta’s films.

– Maksim KarpitskyCineticle

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