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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GHATASHRADDHA / THE RITUAL (Dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1977, India [Kannada])

The opening titles of Ghatashraddha unfold over the bark of a tree in close up, an abstract image that has an unremitting primordial sentiment. Juxtaposed to this singular image is a rhythmic drum beat that is violently out of control, characterising the ways in which Girish Kasaravalli intends to disrupt with a rejoinder to religious orthodoxy expressly Brahminical hypocrisy and casteism. Released in 1977, and coming at the peak of Parallel Cinema, Kasaravalli’s seminal debut along with films like Samskara were an extension of the literary Navya Movement in Kannada in the 1970s critiquing the Brahmin elite. When Parallel Cinema first emerged in the late 1960s, it was a resolutely iconoclastic approach to making films, upending traditional storytelling methods, experimenting with aesthetics and smashing apart conventional themes. If at first it appeared that iconoclasm was merely a reactive expression, unleashing political and aesthetic forces, the rupture of this particular moment was sustained and re-emerged continuously as Parallel Cinema spread regionally.

Based on U. R. Ananthamurthy’s writings, a key voice in the Navya movement, the story takes place in a tight knit religious milieu, a Brahmin enclave complete with Vedic school and temple, framed by Kasaravalli as cut off from the rest of society, existing in a non-temporal state. Nani, a young Brahmin boy, arrives at the school for his Vedic education. Terrified by his new surroundings and bullied by the older boys, Nani strikes up a friendship with Yamuna, the widowed daughter of Udupa who also lives and works at the enclave as a Vedic scholar. In the opening shot, coins are placed into puja thali, which one of the priests carries through a congregation of women in prayers led by Udupa, a Vedic scholar and widower. A seemingly innocuous detail, signifying the exchange of money for prayers, is the first of many refrains that suggests religion exists in a incongruous state, seemingly impossible to adhere to its many precepts.

Ghatashraddha draws its power from three terrifying sequences. The first is the abortion of Yamuna’s unborn child, a clandestine affair that takes places at night and is starkly intercut with a drunken reverie around a log fire, a notably expressionistic rendering of a traumatic pain. The second sequence sees Yamuna attempting suicide as she pushes her hand and arm deep inside a snake hole only to be rescued by Nani. The third and final sequence comes towards the end and details the ritual of ex-communication (conducted by Udupa) which sees the expulsion of Yamuna from the Brahmin community; effectively ostracized, the final image of Yamuna with her shaved head, left to ruin, is a figurative manifestation of both patriarchal violation and religious hypocrisy. Moreover, Ghatashraddha can also be read as a coming of age film; Nani’s tearful departure from the Brahmin enclave runs parallel with the marginalisation of Yamuna, both emerging as victims of a historical, social and structural trauma that Kasaravalli critiques with a febrile eloquence.

IRRFAN KHAN (1967 – 2020) ‘I don’t know when I became old…’

Irrfan Khan had been ill for a while now. Many of us thought he had recovered for the better. His death has come as a shock to the film industry and at the age of 53 he has passed on tragically early in a career that was gaining momentum with each year. Back in 2017 when I was planning the first year of Not Just Bollywood for HOME in Manchester, I contacted Irrfan through Twitter, and as I expected his kind response was full of enthusiasm for the prospect of being a guest. He instructed me to contact his manager which I did. Unfortunately, Irrfan was always too busy and we could never quite make the dates fit with his busy schedule. The first film we screened for Not Just Bollywood in September 2017 was The Lunchbox which played to a full audience. I was also involved with the screening of Qissa in 2017, programmed at HOME as part of a weekender on Partition, and which featured a Q&A with director Anup Singh who spoke fondly of Irrfan. We had planned to do something around his career for the September season of NJB at HOME, and there was talk of inviting Irrfan in the coming months. However, the heart-breaking news of his death comes as a reminder of the precarious times we live in. The moving tributes by the artists he worked with through his career paint a picture of someone who was selfless, kind and hardworking; an actor who didn’t live in the shadow of his star persona.

The international success Irrfan enjoyed as an actor came relatively late in his career and a lot of discussion regarding his work will likely focus on those films which gained international recognition and crossed over such as Life of Pi. Although Irrfan did work in popular Hindi cinema, he can in no way be claimed as a Bollywood actor. His eclectic approach to acting saw him shift with a versatility across a wide gamut of roles, genres and industries, although he often showed an inclination towards independent and international films. An actor trained in theatre and who searched his way through the late 1980s and much of the 1990s, showing up in an early role in Nair’s seminal Salaam Bombay, Irrfan’s real breakthrough was arguably in Asif Kapadia’s striking debut feature The Warrior in 2001. In many ways, Irrfan’s sensibilities seemed to follow in the spirit of another trailblazer – the late Om Puri, who also forged a cosmopolitan identity as an actor. Incidentally, both Irrfan and Om Puri were cast in Maqbool, the first of Vishal Bhardwaj’s contemporary interpretations of Shakespeare. Irrfan had a palpable screen presence, exuding a kindness and warmth in many of his roles that set him apart from his contemporaries. But he could also manifest a brooding intensity for his darker roles such as Qissa and Paan Singh Tomar. Perhaps more than anything it was range that Irrfan had in his oeuvre, showing a knack for comic timing in films like Blackmail, Piku and Karwaan. Admittedly, Irrfan’s transnational star status with films like Spiderman and Jurassic World situated him in an exceptional position amongst fellow Indian actors, accentuating his willingness to transcend certain boundaries imposed on foreign film stars. Irrfan had a precious vernacular of classicism and modernism which communicated a hybridity, reinvention and reflexivity of what stardom signified today. There was a diasporic, transient quality to the way he was constantly shifting across borders. Irrfan’s Muslimness, a very personal thing, erased in the public eye, advocated a secular and pragmatic star persona and one that seemed to embrace a spiritual philosophy.

What I want to do is turn to a favourite moment, from The Lunchbox, the film that cemented his status as one of the best actors of his generation and made audiences and critics aware of how someone like Irrfan had gone unnoticed for so many years. Already a classic of Indian cinema, director Ritesh Batra’s finely tuned melodrama was an unexpected international success. Featuring a triptych of striking performances from Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur and Nawazuddin Siddiqui, this is an endearing work that connects food and romance with a beguiling charm. Shot entirely on location in Mumbai, Batra’s script incorporates the tradition of dabbawallas who deliver hot food in tiffins to workers during lunchtime. The film won numerous international awards and controversially missed out on being India’s Oscar entry for 2013, and had it been nominated, it probably would have gone on to win.

The sequence in question I have chosen unfolds towards the end of the film. It is a moment that precedes the anticipated meeting between Ila (Nimrat Kaur) and Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan). The sequence begins with the familiarity of Fernandes getting ready for work, fixing his tie and throwing his bag over his shoulder. In a mirror, Fernandes pats his face from the fresh shave he has just had. Having exited, he abruptly returns to the bedroom, taking out his spectacles and scrutinising his shave, noticing the stubble with the white flecks of hair are still present.

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Batra chooses to frame this moment in a master shot of the bedroom. The emptiness of the frame around Fernandes echoes not his loneliness but reiterates the ways in which his life is confined to a few spaces, most of them related to his journey to work and back. Fernandes touching the stubble on his chin, which no matter what you do when you reach middle age becomes irreversible, is a detail of growing old and the first of many gestures magnified by the tender way in which Irrfan carries himself. Since Fernandes needs the spectacles to see properly now is yet another gesture of aging. It suddenly grows into an anxiety when Fernandes goes to the bathroom to take an even closer look at his unremarkable to capacity to shave closely.

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In another master shot, the bathroom, a dingy little space, illuminated solely by the small window letting in some morning light, Fernandes wipes the condensation from the mirror. Once again, the tender and unrushed movements by Irrfan elongate his anxieties. This is followed by a brief pause; Fernandes suddenly appears lost in the moment, not sure what he should do. The pause, often a mixture of dread and excitement, was a signature mannerism that Irrfan had perfected over the course of his career. Moreover, in this context, the pause and Fernandes looking around the bathroom as if someone else is with him is an idea that he expands upon later when he refers to his dead grandfather who once also inhabited the same space. This haunting of the present by the past is consolidated in the next cut to of a close up of Fernandes who once again looks around as if sensing the presence of someone else. Is he is a ghost already? If no one remembers him now, who will remember him once he has gone? In an attempt to temporarily evade the anxiety of growing old Fernandes applies some shaving foam/soap to his chin and shaves haphazardly, knowing quite well it is a futile exercise to mask over a new reality. Later Fernandes tells Ila, via another letter, that he is grateful Ila let him into her dreams since his silent observations in the restaurant point to a sadness of what could have been; a painful longing for companionship.

The sequence next cuts to a mid-shot of Fernandes standing in a train as he makes his way to work once more. Yet again, boredom and routine is now amplified by another anxiety; the ephemeral, transient nature of urban life. Although Batra opts for tight framing in this series of shots, a given considering the compact spaces of trains, and pointing to the claustrophobia of urban life, Fernandes is lost in thought, contemplating the choices he has made. All the way through the film, a pattern emerges, a dance in fact, of the stylistic nuances that Irrfan succeeds in performing through the weight and measure of his magical eyes and their related movements. The eyes of Fernandes are constantly pointing downwards through much of the film, invoking a retreat from society, a refusal to look at the world anymore.

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When Asif Kapadia cast Irrfan in The Warrior he did so on the basis of his unmistakably hypnotic eyes, a visual trait that Kapadia emboldens throughout the film. Is it any wonder that Kapadia opens The Warrior with a tight close up on the eyes of Irrfan? A fitting way indeed of introducing Irrfan to international film audiences. Irrfan like many of the best actors (Brando, Pacino, Om Puri) trained themselves to modulate their acting through the way they moved their eyes. Irrfan’s eyes were a prominent and defining part of the star persona cultivated by the media and his eyes on screen were a constant and creative source of expression, conveying a lexicon of emotional states. One of the passengers on the train offers Fernandes his place since he is getting off at the next stop. At first Fernandes hesitates since this act of compassion is loaded with social sentiment about age but he sits down anyhow, symbolically accepting his position in society, one that he cannot alter, no matter how much he has fantasised about escaping with Ila to Bhutan.

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Next Batra cuts to a wide shot of inside the train compartment with Fernandes sutured into the middle of the frame, encased like a mummy in a tomb, unable to escape and surrounded by passengers. In this moment, Fernandes becomes just another passenger, part of the anonymous urban mass, returning to the mundane and uneventful nature of his daily life, one which he fears will be even lonelier once he retires. On the soundtrack, the clanging sound of the railway carriages becomes more pronounced, taking on a life of its own and intensifying the anxieties of a despondent Fernandes, overwhelming his very existence.

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It is only later the true context of what Fernandes has experienced becomes apparent when he relays the meaning of the story to Ila. In this flashback, intercut with Ila and Fernandes at the restaurant, it is worth mentioning that Irrfan is in element as he eavesdrops on Ila. Sitting in the restaurant, the hands and eyes become symptomatic of what Irrfan was able to do in many of his films; reduce everything down to an economical ballet of gestures with much of his elliptical acting style invariably filtered through expressive pregnant pauses, hesitations and sly glances. He controlled audience reaction to his acting through the way he moved his eyes which in themselves were also an extension of the narrative, telling the story through a non-verbal projection.

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If Shaikh (Nawazuddin Siddiqui) symbolises the now, Fernandes is part of a past that has faded away, as illustrated quite explicitly during the rickshaw ride, in which he paints a picture of an ever changing Bombay that has disappeared, replaced by a kind of neoliberal capitalist sheen. Perhaps the key shot, a visual lynchpin, condensing the very soul of the film is the most abstract; Fernandes on his porch obscured by the doorway while listening to radio Bhutan. Elegantly framed, the fractured body of Fernandes, seems to have faded from view. Like his grandfather before him, he too will one day become another memory, a ghost haunting the spaces he once inhabited.

A RIFLE AND A BAG (Dir. NoCut Film Collective, 2020, India/Romania/Italy/Qatar)

What is the price for those who join a political revolution? And what happens once you surrender and attempt to reconcile with a political past? The Naxalite Movement, perhaps one of the most sustained political folk/tribal movements in the global south, is the focus of this brilliantly observed documentary by the NoCut Film Collective of three international filmmakers; Cristina Hanes (Romania), Isabella Rinaldi (Italy) and Arya Rothe (India). A young Indian couple, Somi Sukhram and Pravin Pranay, who have surrendered to the police now live in a settlement supported by former Naxal comrades. Somi and Pravin have two children and we see how much of a struggle it is to send their older child to school, battling the state bureaucracy of obtaining a caste certificate to verify their tribal status. The documentary juxtaposes the daily rituals of life at home with a series of intimate and revealing conversations in which Somi recollects the memories of her Naxal past, much of which is relayed to her family and children.

Since many Naxal films are often situated in a specific historical past, looking back with trepidation, this documentary shifts to a contemporary context, reminding us the Maoist insurgency is still part of daily life for many in India. The oppositional radical empowerment of Naxalite ideology is inescapable, infectious and Somi is prone to passing on her tales of resistance to her children. However, as we learn, Naxals who have surrendered, are not only shunned by wider society but also the movement itself. In the case of Somi and Pravin, their status as outsiders is doubly magnified since they also belong to a lower tribal caste. The lack of historical and political context regarding the Naxalite movement may at first appear like an oversight but drawing away from a lengthy lesson in radical histories and strategizing to amplify agency makes for a documentary in which Naxals are never sanitised or censured for the sacrifices they made to join an interminable communist movement which continues to wage a legitimate political struggle and which the filmmakers compassionately bring to life in all its entanglements.