Modernism by Other Means: the films of Amit Dutta – Srikanth Srinivasan (Lightcube, 2020)

Srikanth Srinivasan’s (aka JAFB who writes at his legendary site The Seventh Art) first monograph is a great book about Indian cinema. It is a great book about a filmmaker. Srikanth lists himself as a film critic on the jacket of his book, which he rightly is, but this work is very much that of an accomplished and nuanced film scholar, and indeed which has often been the striking characteristic of his eclectic film writings over a period of fifteen years and counting. I still don’t think he gets the credit and attention that he deserves, underlining the cultural discourse in which film writing is narrowly canonized; remaining within tenuous, highfalutin parameters, with much of it tipped into the favour of Anglo-centric feels.

I first came across Srikanth’s work in 2007 when I was starting to use the internet to write about film, at my first site pretentiously titled ‘Ellipsis: The Accents of Cinema’, which is now defunct. Those were the years when film writers would regularly crawl across the internet to leave comments to new posts in the hope of initiating a conversation and dialogue. Sadly, such diligence and commitment came to an end with the rise of social media and expressly Twitter, which kind of ruined what could have potentially been something quite significant in terms of sustaining a connected global cinephilia with the space to let writers develop their own style and forge a readership. Now with Twitter, everyone seems to be barking out the same film rhetoric, much of it lazily recycled and generally lacking nuance.

Anyhow, if you have been following Srikanth’s adventures over the years, which also saw him take a cultural hiatus to France, his interests in experimental Indian film and filmmakers, about which he has written extensively, continues to elucidate a major blind spot when it comes the prevailing film discourse on Indian cinema, which as he notes in his introduction, is inclined towards ‘mainstream and Parallel Cinema’. I necessarily don’t agree with this point as I would reason the scholarly work on Parallel Cinema is in dire need of resuscitation and further study, with much of the focus having shifted to the much feted Indie scene. And although monographs on filmmakers like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and Shyam Benegal have been far more forthcoming over the past ten years, the non-linear history of Parallel Cinema remains relatively unexplored. Nonetheless, I would reason Srikanth’s monograph occupies a new space, carving out a critical insight that forges a wider cultural intersectional understanding of Dutta’s work, articulated through the elegant, intellectual and strident analytical prose.

Indeed, Srikanth points to the short shrift that experimental Indian film has been given, something he dually rectifies with what is an accessible, exceptional and detailed investigative reading of director Amit Dutta’s output, arguably one of India’s most important contemporary artists working today, and who in many ways extended the premature iconoclastic creative experiments of Parallel Cinema. Having been made with the co-operation of Dutta is significant. Overcoming the politics of access which often remains as an obstacle when it comes to researching or writing on the histories of alternative Indian cinema is telling in the comprehensive and rigorous approach Srikanth takes, journeying chronologically through Dutta’s work and showing us his evolution as an artist who has worked almost in isolation from the mainstream and relatedly showing a disillusionment with the dubious curatorial choices and agendas of film festivals. It is worth noting the monograph broadens and consolidates the retrospective Srikanth curated on Dutta’s work in 2017.

The formative period at the FTII which forms the basis of the first chapter that looks at Dutta’s early films draws out the connections between oppositional film practices, the ability to experiment at length at a privileged institution and how Dutta’s early inspirations drew heavily on his own experiences and expressly ‘indigenous myths’. Pertinently, Srikanth identifies how the creative manipulations of time and space would become a defining theme in Dutta’s work, crafting a ritualistic and measured tone buoyed by a slow rhythm. As Srikanth works meticulously through Dutta’s films, the lucid prose maps a wider cultural framework that connects the traditions of Indian art to an idea of using film as a self-reflexive prism with which to deconstruct narrative, genre and film style as something autobiographical in nature. And what Srikanth teases out so vividly is how real life artists including painters become a defining concrete and spectral presence in Dutta’s work, a constant return to investigate folk tales and mythology whereby it becomes intrinsic to his mixed media methods of communication and investigation. If anything what Dutta’s output demonstrates is how infantile and possibly regressive much of the so called alternative Indian cinema actually is. And in this respect, Dutta’s work seems almost revolutionary, occupying a futuristic pro-filmic space.

With the chapter on ‘Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009)’, Srikanth argues for the sociological dimension of Dutta’s work, although somewhat reluctantly because of the lack of overt political engagement throughout his work, a hallmark of many avant-garde artists. Given Srikanth’s extensive and impressive film knowledge and understanding of international cinema, he is able to draw out the wider intertextual connections that can often go amiss, referencing films by Ray, Greenway, Tarkovsky, Resnais etc. and how they inform Dutta’s directorial choices, an aspect of the monograph that anchors itself in the riches of hybridity, fusion and exchange. The broader cine-geography onto which Srikanth maps Dutta’s work reiterates a cultural duality in which internationalism and indigenous practices are part of an Indian art tradition and aesthetic consciousness that stretches back to the 1920s. Undeniably this monograph examines Dutta’s capacity to create new art forms through the prism of experimental filmmaking and thereby the recurring and informed links to Indian art history becomes an essential feature since one could reason Dutta is part of a late new modernism.

Alongside the delineation of key themes (nature and civilization, memory, space) and shifting patterns of working with technology, there is a deep understanding of aesthetics including the pursuit for an organic film style that runs throughout the chapters with astutely exhaustive close textual analysis of key sequences from virtually all of Dutta’s films. The evolution of a new film style ‘free of cinematic influences’ as Srikanth notes becomes an abiding argument that is developed throughout the chapters and contestably emerges as allusive to the way Dutta has constantly metamorphized as an artist. The chapter on ‘The Seventh Walk’, a remarkable project Dutta made in 2013, is in many ways key to the monograph because Srikanth is able to argue why this work is ‘the nearest he has ever come to immersing himself in the natural world’.

Modernism by other means is a fitting title for an artist who is defiantly contemporary, a polymath whom Srikanth understands and probes broadly with a final stretch of the monograph dedicated to non-film output, all of which is decisive in forming a fully rounded and intimate portrait of Dutta. 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.

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THE APU TRILOGY – Robin Wood (1972) Movie Magazine

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‘Where most of Godard’s detractors wouldn’t dream of missing a new Godard film, there is a general sense among Ray’s that Mahanagar and Charulata wouldn’t be worth the time and bus fare. The corollary is that Ray’s admirers (in print at least) tend to be critics of the conservative Establishment. Film enthusiasts who don’t know Ray’s work well at first hand probably build up a mental image of it as the sort of primitive and literary cinema that has a solid, dull worthlessness but is difficult spontaneously to enjoy or get excited about’. (p. 6)

Robin Wood’s appreciation of director Satyajit Ray’s most famous work, the Apu Trilogy, has been long out of print. Wood’s groundbreaking study, first published in 1972 in the UK, was one of the first serious critical readings of the Apu Trilogy. It is almost impossible to find a copy of Wood’s book today or overstate its worth. More baffling is the fact it has never been reprinted since 1972. Robin Wood has always been one of my favourite film writers and the Apu Trilogy features some of his sharpest writing. Since 1972 the Apu Trilogy has been written about in many different ways. A rich critical discourse has appeared around Ray’s most popular films. Robin Wood like Marie Seton and Andrew Robinson were some of the first writers to bring the work of Ray to the attention of film academia: ‘Ray has himself stated unequivocally that the best critical writings on his films have appeared in the West’ (p. 8). I’ve read a lot of books and articles on Ray, and have also published some writings on Ray. Having finally read Wood’s book I feel somewhat horrified that I have written about Ray without using Wood’s work as a point of reference. Wood’s analysis of The Apu trilogy is still one of the best, if not the most profound I have come across. There is no doubt that Wood’s study is a key and definitive text on not just the Apu Trilogy but also on director Satyajit Ray.

It certainly has one of the best introductions you will likely to come across arguing for the need to take Ray’s work seriously, comparing him to both Renoir and Rossellini, arguing his ‘desperately old fashioned’ (p. 9) approach to filmmaking, redolent of classical Hollywood cinema, showed an unparalleled economy to storytelling. At the same time Wood describes Ray’s work as both ‘literary’ and ‘innovative’. A point of literary comparison Wood pinpoints The Rainbow (1915) by D. H. Lawrence: ‘Apu’s progress through the trilogy to some extent corresponds to the movement from the comparative stability of the Marsh farm’ (p. 17). Furthermore Wood recognises the ‘musical aspects’ of Ray’s cinema and how this clearly shaped the rhythm of his films. The role of music in communicating themes and telling the story in Ray’s films is an area of scholarly interest that is still ignored. Wood’s approach is a predominately text based study of the Apu Trilogy (old fashioned film analysis at its finest), elucidating the complex relationship between mise-en-scene, camerawork, sound, editing and performance that marks Ray as the most astute of directors to be able to articulate the most multifarious of designs in an often misunderstood simple film style.

The first section on Pather Panchali analyses four extended sequences: ‘the quarrel over the stolen necklace, the children’s first view of a train, the death of Durga, the preparations for departure’ (p. 20). It is the minutiae of the three films that Wood describes and scrutinises with such wonder and intent, demonstrating Ray’s staging is constantly linked to the realisation of ‘psychological impulses’ (p. 26) interconnected through the trilogy. What he also brings to light in all three sections of the book is the centrality of the ‘death-in-separation motif’ (p. 26), a unifying thematic, arguing Ray refuses to descend into morbidity when compared to cinema in the West:

‘For Ray, death is not so much a mystery as a terrible fact, something one has to learn to live with rather than a final judgment and challenge that abruptly and mystically changes one’s whole perspective’ (p. 83).

Unlike Pather Panchali and Apur Sansar, which is awarded more respect and greater analytical engagement, the same cannot be said for Aparajito, ‘the least completely satisfactory of the three films’ (p. 40) and ‘more than adequate considered as a transition to The World of Apu’ (p. 41). Nonetheless, Wood still takes a measured look at Aparajito, suggesting:

‘the justification for the very slow tempo is that Ray is not trying to tell us things but to communicate a total experience: the film invites us to steep ourselves in the characters’ feelings and live-through their conflict to its outcome rather than take an intellectual ‘point’ (p. 50).

In fact, Wood is suitably impressed with the second half of Aparajito especially the last act when Sarbojaya and Apu return to the village, arguing ‘the universality of Ray’s concerns is nowhere more evident’ (p. 51).

The World of Apu, ‘one of the most moving films ever made’ and ‘the crowning achievement of the trilogy’ (p. 61) forms the last section and is my favourite since I’m in complete agreement with Wood’s reverence for the film. It is surely Ray’s most complete film, a masterwork. Wood begins by discussing the ‘exceptional people’ populating the Apu trilogy who ‘remain intensely real’ (p. 62), arguing the ‘essence of Ray’s humanism’ (p. 62) is reflected in his propensity to ‘grant a grace or dignity beyond the demands of the function in the plot’ (p. 63) to even the minor characters. Here Wood uses the sequence where the landlord visits Apu to clarify Ray’s vivid faculty, depicting an interaction between the two characters with just the right degree of sensitivity through the mastery of performance, framing and exchange of dialogue. The charge of humanism may seem a little outmoded now when discussing Ray’s films. It is a term often associated with directors like Renoir, De Sica, Rossellini and Kurosawa who made films with universality to them. Humanism also meant the abjuration of pretentiousness and the valorisation of humility; qualities that are all but absent from much of cinema, the Dardennes a likely exception. Something often talked of is Ray’s imagining of the train, a symbol of life, death and progress, and relatedly Wood succeeds in tracing the iconographic use of the train, analysing its place in the overall narrative schematics. This is finely summed up in relation to Apur Sansar:

‘the train, once magical objects of wonder, are now commonplace, a part of the city’s squalor’ (p. 64).

The analytical focus in Wood’s final section concerns ‘Apu’s decision to marry Aparna’ (p. 65), studied in detail, considering Apu’s personal reasons and his friendship with Pulu. Time and time again it is Rossellini more than Renoir whom Wood uses as a point of authorial comparison:

‘The cumulative effect of Ray’s films is somewhat like that of Rossellini’s – felt especially at moments when a decision is reached and the whole weight of the film sensed to be behind it’ (p. 72).

If Ray learnt from Renoir lessons in humanist objectivity then Rossellini taught him the way a film’s pacing had to be realistically determined by the characters and their associating actions. And arguably it was from De Sica that Ray understood the simplicity in directing emotions, a point raised by Martin Scorsese and Kent Jones in their documentary on Italian cinema (2001). Wood says ‘The central section of The World of Apu offers one of the cinema’s classic affirmative depictions of married life’ (p. 72), an idea he goes on to explore in the book’s most sustained passages of textual analysis, producing a moving insight into the six sequences that forms the soul of the film, some of the best work Ray ever did. In my opinion, it is this part of the book that makes this text such a revelatory once since Wood has a grasp on the finer nuances, the micro details and writes about them with an incomparable adroitness. Intriguingly, Wood criticises the renunciation sequence in Apur Sansar, saying it is ‘the weakest in the film’ (p. 86) for its obviousness, a point that I unequivocally disagree with since it is one of my favourite moments in the trilogy. In fact, it is a pure cinema sequence, another reason why Ray’s films are so uncomplicated when it comes to relaying to us the most basic of human emotions. Wood ends poignantly, deconstructing the final sequences, which culminates in one of the great moments in film history, and reminding us of the ‘visual poetry’ (p. 64) of the trilogy and its numerous achievements:

‘The film ends with him seated on Apu’s shoulders as Apu walks away towards the future. In accepting the child, he has accepted life, has accepted the death of Aparna. Whether or not he is going back to become a great novelist is immaterial: he is going back to live’.

One cannot help but think about Antonio and Bruno at the end of De Sica’s influential Bicycle Thieves, holding hands as they join the crowd. Scorsese & Jones describe it as one of the most precious moments in film. We could the same about the ending of the Apu Trilogy.

The Films of Girish Kasaravalli by Sakti Sengupta (2015)

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We have indubitably seen a continual rise in publications on Indian cinema and while many books gravitate to popular Hindi cinema there is still a lack of monographs on directors and films especially on Indian art cinema. Playwright and theatre critic Sakti Sengupta’s self published book focuses on the films of award winning auteur Girish Kasaravalli. This is an invaluable, much-needed publication as the dearth of materials on Kasaravalli points to the wider obscurity of unconventional cinema in India. Sengupta’s book appears under the heading of ‘Discovering Indian Independent Cinema’ implying this is the first in a series of books on independent Indian directors, another welcoming idea.

The acknowledgment of Kasaravalli’s involvement in the book from the outset is critical in many respects as such an endorsement lends the book a sincerity, which is maintained throughout. Sengupta structures his monograph around eight key works, ranging from the seminal Ghatashraddha (The Ritual, 1977) to Kanasembo Kudureyanari (Riding the Stallion of a Dream, 2011). Each chapter is richly contextualised in terms of social and political historicising, effective in getting to grips with a sustained and insightful ideological analysis of Kasaravalli’s understated visual style that arguably has more in common with directors like Satyajit Ray than ones often associated with parallel cinema. A major thematic interest Sengupta continually returns to is Kasaravalli’s contradictory relationship with his status as a wealthy Brahmin and the ways in which his characters regularly seek to question and confront existing hierarchies, rituals and processes. Furthermore, the book also traces the authorial evolution of Kasaravalli, exhibiting the director’s experimentation with film styles such as neorealism (Thaayi Sahiba, 1997) and failed attempts at commercial cinema (Mane / The House, 1991). Authorship is tied to Kasaravalli’s preoccupations with the history and culture of India, which Sengupta argues is presented through a subaltern perspective.

It is worrying that none of Kasaravalli’s films are available in the UK. It is probably a similar situation in India. Although the politics of access is an on-going impediment in terms of scholarly research, Sengupta’s fortitude in being able to access the director’s key works is something that should be praised since it allows for one of the first fully informed critical assessments of Kasaravalli’s work, thus reclaiming him as a key figure in the landscape of Indian independent art cinema and helping to fill in an authorial black hole that haunts many Indian directors working outside of conventional film industries. Conclusively, this is a terrific introduction to the work of Girish Kasaravalli, rich in terms of context, appropriately researched and assuredly written entrusting its likely appeal to the general reader, academics and cinephiles alike in furthering their understanding of the vagaries of Indian cinema.