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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AMERICAN HEART (Dir. Martin Bell, 1992)

The solitary yet exceptional full length feature by filmmaker Martin Bell is one of the purest attempts at neo-realism in American cinema, effortlessly detailing the painful relationship between a father (Jeff Bridges) and son (Edward Furlong) in the scuzzy underbelly of Seattle. Anchored in what is a characteristically threadbare neorealist plot that finds father and son attempting to save what little they have so they can make a futile escape to Alaska, Bell’s semi-documentary approach tenderly conveys an actuality full of tangible bit players who hang on the fringes, eking out a pitiful livelihood, recalling the antediluvian textures of Huston’s Fat City.

Streetwise (1984), Bell’s remarkable documentary on the lives of teenagers in Seattle, which was in turn inspired by the award winning photography of Mary Ellen Mark, is a template for American Heart, onto which the writers craft something more accessible. Conversely, the inescapable desolation that father and son must confront is realised in their perpetual separation and union, culminating in an unpretentious dénouement that is disarmingly poetic. Co-produced by Bridges in what is probably his best performance, Bell’s film seems to have largely been forgotten about today but deserves rediscovering and resituating as a key work of American independent cinema in the 1990s.

JOSHUA (Dir. George Ratliff, 2007)

The Yuppies are back (did they really ever go away?) in this expertly crafted psychological thriller that fuses the ornately technical sensibilities of Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby with the bombast of The Omen. The result is one very claustrophobic work, visualising the descent of a family into ruin who become increasingly imprisoned in their high-class New York apartment. Director George Ratliff succeeds at creating a deeply impressionistic horror, favouring a mounting tone of dread than going for the jugular. This is equally a film about motherhood, a terrifying take on post-natal depression, much of it channelled through the exhausting performance by Vera Farmiga as a mother who begins to lose her mind, much of it orchestrated by her son – a piano prodigy psycho child of Satan. The link to the world of finance is made concrete in the obnoxious Yuppie aspirations of the father played by Sam Rockwell, the suggestion that horror and capitalism exist in a twisted parallel actuality. The ending is superbly underplayed, consolidating Jacob Kogan’s exquisite performance as the disturbed Joshua.

PATTY HEARST (Dir. PAUL SCHRADER, 1988)

The much publicised kidnapping and coercion of Patty Hearst by the Symbionese Liberation Army is the focus of Schrader’s 1988 film, a critical look back at the protracted complex political choices that underpinned the counter culture of the 1970s. It is an unusual film to have emerged from 1980s Hollywood cinema and is also one of Schrader’s most political works. Reconnecting with the proletarianism of Blue Collar, Schrader examines how the will to adopt and maintain a political posture is riddled with a gamut of intersectional insincerities that are class and race related. Schrader treats the first part like an exercise in Brechtian tableau, imbuing the SLA with an ideological sincerity while sympathetically framing militancy as wholly reasonable given the wider inequalities.

At the core is Natasha Richardson’s gruelling performance as Hearst who conveys the right degrees of ambivalence to make one uncertain of her motivations and ideological beliefs. Much of the film deals with the assimilation of Hearst, brainwashed to join the group, suggesting the decorative nature of counter culture was simply a momentary allure to middle class white people wanting to interminably escape the system while indulging in faux acts of sexual and political liberation. However, the government’s brutal annihilation of the SLA, carried out with impunity by the police, critiques the gradual erasure of counter culture militancy as something unambiguously ideological; a benign cultural struggle for political discourse, mainstream lifestyles and conformity.