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Amit Dutta: The reticent revolutionary

Can we reconnect with our own roots in an organic way: Amit Datta   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Cinema becomes a way of searching and learning through culture, history, music, beauty and eventually truth. — Amit Dutta, Many Questions to Myself

Talking to Dutta is always a joy. He lives with his artist wife Ayshwarya in Palampur, a small town in Himachal Pradesh, and when I met him there this time, he was enthusiastically researching and shooting a new film on Guler, a small principality in the Himalayas, to which the great miniature artist Nainsukh and famous Hindi writer Chandradhar Sharma ‘Guleri’ were connected. As always, Amit is full of new film projects, which indicates his deep passion for cinema.

Cinema can either be that of representation — of one’s thoughts and understanding of the world or the self through characters, plots, relationships, images, sounds and more. It might be exciting in the first viewing but soon exhausts itself into well-formed ideas in the minds of viewers and becomes tiring or repetitive in even a second viewing.

Audiences of such a cinema can either agree or disagree with the ideas distilled from the work, and the presence of the work ends there. Because, in the end, it gets replaced by the ideas it purports to convey.

Nexus of sound and image

There is cinema of another kind, which might use similar ingredients to come into being, but where all the material is oriented not towards representing an idea but exploring the nature of the human condition. This kind of cinema never gets simplified into received ideas, but takes the viewers along into a journey to explore love, compassion, violence, colour, darkness, temporality, words, movement, stillness, etc.

Dutta’s is cinema of the second kind, of exploration. Exploration of the traditions of painting, sculpting, storytelling, interrelationship of the arts, the sounds of nature, layered textures of human relationships, and many such tender and essential phenomena. The exploration takes place with an extremely refined cinematic technique, the imaginative bringing together of sound textures with visual elements, the subtle use of gradations of light, of tonalities of colours interspersed with the brilliant use of a written script or subtitle as the nexus of sound and image.

Dutta’s explorations are basically in two directions. He explores the history of cinema itself in his films (as in his diploma film ksh-tra-jna) and second, he explores other artistic traditions and the lifestyles around them. He thus succeeds in posing questions to both cinema and the art form he explores. Dutta asks: “Can we think of spaces like the school in Hermann Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game, which elevates students from immediate reality and helps them see nature and culture as a single interlocked ecosystem? Can we reconnect with nature and our own roots in an organic way? Can we imagine film schools that embrace the best of human tradition in all fields of knowledge?”

His comparatively recent film The Unknown Craftsman is a search to understand how the episteme (shastra) of temple architecture was brought into play by the techne (shilp kaushal) of the craftsmen of the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh when they designed and constructed the temple of Masroor. As Dutta says, “Now that all the tools are close at hand, can the filmmaker produce and distribute like a traditional craftsman?”

The protagonist, a craftsman, is searching for ways to construct a temple that reflects the totality of existence as an ideal temple should do. He journeys into nature to find the wisdom to create. It is in this loneliness that he is able to catch the delicate fibres of whispers not only from nature but from his own understanding of architecture. The film beautifully makes one realise that the nuances of traditional knowledge unfold more clearly amidst nature. It is as if nature holds the key to the vyanjana, the suggestions inherent in such knowledge. Or the other way round. As viewers we feel we are between two times: a time when the temple is yet to be constructed and a time when the temple is already up. Dutta doesn’t propose any final answer to the question of such an interplay, but invites us to visit the locus where such an interplay is unfolding and involves us sensuously in the micro-dialogues in the minds of not only craftsmen but also the users of temples, churches and such spaces.

His film on the 18th century Pahadi painter from Guler, the eponymous Nainsukh, delves deep into not only the multilayered beauty of Nainsukh’s miniatures but also into the process of a form such as miniature painting with its many layers of beauty, history, music and rasas — shringar (erotic) to hasya (amusement). In this film one sees a dialogical relationship between two art forms: the miniature paintings of Nainsukh and the cinema of Amit Dutta. Instead of illustrating the paintings, the film undergoes a radical transformation and almost becomes a metaphor for the paintings.

As Dutta says, “In miniatures… various events happening separately in different places and different time periods are depicted within the same painting… In [cinema’s] long take, too, space and time are arranged simultaneously and interchangeably in a seamless continuum.”

Brush on canvas

The salient feature of the cinema of exploration is that it always tries to find new ways of coming into being. The traditional term for this endless inventiveness is marg and such arts called margi. The range of experimentation in cinema such as Amit’s is wide. On one hand, he has made films like Kramasha, based on a portion of his novel, Kaljayi Kambakht, which he started writing when he was a student in Pune’s FTII. The film’s narrative moved in jerks and yet a certain kind of lucidity was achieved, so that the whole was experienced as a flowing tale of music, sounds and images. His film with the well-known modern urban painter Paramjeet Singh, Seventh Walk, is a meditative look into the relationship between a walk in nature and the movement of brush on canvas, the transformation of foliage into painted colours. The film has the most wonderful long shots which sensitise the viewer to the sounds and imagery of the dense flora and their subtle effect on the mind of Paramjeet Singh. It’s a long film, which unfolds slowly like the alaap of a Dhrupad.

It is no coincidence that the film’s music is given by the extremely talented veena player of the Dagar Gharana, Mohi Bahauddin Dagar. Says Dutta, “The focus is on mental attention and how the actors have to maintain their equilibrium to guide — or not guide — the attention of the viewer. For wide-angle close-ups, the minute gestures of the face should complement its distortion: how much should an eyebrow rise; what angle should the head slant; how to control the angle of the gaze.”

Dutta’s cinema has been received with tremendous curiosity and respect the world over. He has had retrospectives in Centre de Pompidous, Paris; Berkley Museum and Pacific Film Archive, University of California; Oberhousen Film Festival, LAC Museum in Lugano, Switzerland; IFFK Kerala; and elsewhere. He is a rare film-maker who has also written several books besides his novel: a book on cinema, Many Questions to Myself (published in Hindi as Khud se Kuchh Sawal), and a book on artist Jangarh Singh Shyam, Invisible Web. He has also made a film on Jangarh Singh Shyam, shot in the village where this Pardhan painter lived before he came to Bhopal and later committed suicide in Japan.

Dutta’s films seem to make palpable what French master filmmaker Robert Bresson wrote in his book Notes on the Cinematographer: ‘The omnipotence of rhythms. Nothing is durable but what is caught up in rhythms. Bend content to form and sense to rhythms.’

The author writes poems, short fiction and plays, and also edits Samaas, a journal of literature, arts and civilisation.

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Printable version | May 14, 2021 9:48:53 PM |

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