Book excerpt: In Modernism by Other Means, an examination of Amit Dutta's filmmaking style

In the book, film critic and writer Srikanth Srinivasan examines how Dutta's work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism.

Srikanth Srinivasan September 09, 2020 16:18:59 IST
Book excerpt: In Modernism by Other Means, an examination of Amit Dutta's filmmaking style

Modernism by Other Means is a critical study of Indian independent filmmaker Amit Dutta’s films and is the first publication of this kind in the country.  In the book, film critic and writer Srikanth Srinivasan examines how Dutta's work strives towards an authentic conception of modernism. Dutta's approach, the writer notes, extends beyond Eurocentric tenets of the movement and pushes viewers to rethink their notions of what modern art means.

In the following chapter from the book, Srinivasan vets Ka, which is "arguably the apotheosis of Dutta’s filmmaking style and thematic preoccupations of this period".

This excerpt from Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta, written by Srikanth Srinivasan, has been reproduced here with kind permission from the publisher, Lightcube.

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Over the course of his association with the Pune film institute as a student, filmmaker Amit Dutta made close to a dozen films, short and feature-length. A number of these were screened at film festivals abroad, garnering acclaim and awards. As a student at a nationalized institute, Dutta, like his peers, had access to sophisticated equipment, archival material, and dedicated personnel to work with. It also provided him the luxury to shoot on celluloid, 16mm and 35mm—an advantage he would only sporadically have in the later years. The films, as a result, are marked by a gratuitous, seductive aesthetic far removed from the austere formalism of their successors. Dutta employs an arsenal of cinematic tricks here, evidencing a curious mind discovering the possibilities of the medium. Photographed, animated, and found footage undergo various kinds of manipulation, disrupting traditional ideas of cinematic space and time. The conventional relationship between image, sound, and text is upturned as each component functions as an autonomous entity. This results in a divorce from the realist model of filmmaking so entrenched even within alternate film practices. In his book Many Questions to Myself, Dutta reflects on his institute years:

‘In my early short student films, I was exploring how to realise the uniqueness of the film as a medium in its own right and free it from the aesthetics of the traditional arts, i.e. literature and painting, by which I was sincerely inspired. As a consequence, these films have an invocatory mise en scène, heavy, crude optical effects, and visual sensibilities peculiar to the camera eye. Despite their preoccupation with memory and nostalgia and their dense montage, I wanted the films to retain their narrativity. The idea was to balance story and discourse, guiding attention and freedom of choice, the subconscious and the intellect.’

Having had only limited exposure to different traditions of thought and art back home, Dutta fell back on personal history to draw inspiration for these films. Most of the works he made at the institute plunge into the ethos he grew up in, collecting as raw material literary texts, folk tales, legends, rumours, and superstitions he had heard and read as a child. Integrated with these sources of knowledge is a cryptic system of personal symbolism vesting a group of objects with specific meanings. These objects would recur in various contexts throughout the films. Dutta speaks of this image repository in Many Questions to Myself:

‘Whenever I make films, I tend to refer quite often to a self-invented pool or mental scrapbook of imagery gathered from such sources as temples, village advertisements, childhood textbooks, calendars, tinned boxes, or any other visual items that have had a deep impact on me without revealing any definite functional meaning.’

One common thematic thread linking the works is an emphasis on storytelling over the story itself. Many of them are framed through a narrator whose subjectivity and unreliability are paramount. The script for Kramasha, for instance, opens with a declaration that the half-asleep protagonist ‘has decided to jot down in his red notebook the weary, everyday duel between dream and reality.’ In some ways, all these narratives are about the passage from childhood to adulthood, semi-autobiographical accounts of a boy forced to grow up despite himself. In an article for Film Comment in 2007, critic and programmer Olaf Möller summarizes the childlike quality of these pictures:

‘The inventiveness and glee with which he deploys the medium’s mechanical and chemical tricks, manipulates image and sound, and animates his films result in a paean to cinema as artisanal activity, while suggesting the work of a precocious 12-year-old with a head full of images. Remember Proust’s observation about childhood becoming clearer when remembered in mid-life? There’s something of that in Dutta’s visions.’

Ka (‘Who?’, 2006/2017) is arguably the apotheosis of Dutta’s filmmaking style and thematic preoccupations of this period. A stop-motion animation made using cardboard cut-outs, plastic dolls, miniature furniture, and painted backdrops, it has an amateur, homemade quality to it. The film begins like a creation myth, with references to the cosmos and the arrival of light. Footage of Edison working on the electric bulb and of astronauts on the moon follow. We soon realize that the film, like many of its predecessors, is autobiographical. Weaving together memories, superstitions and folk tales of Dutta’s childhood years, it presents a highly stylized coming-of-age story of a small-town boy whose mind is set alight by the mysterious powers of literature and science.

‘Technology holds so much mystery that if the science behind it was not normalized in textbooks, one would barely know it as anything but magic,’ remarked Dutta in an interview In the head of the adolescent whose fantasy Ka is, scientific breakthroughs rub shoulders with comparable myths. Shots of the moon-landing are intercut with blueprints of apocryphal flying-machines, images of the Wright brothers’ first flight with a doll with butterfly wings. Ka is at once abstract and childlike, and demonstrates why that is not a contradiction in terms. Seeking to portray a naïve imagination feverishly at work, untouched by the moderations of adulthood, the film sets itself free of narrative conventions.

Ka was first made in 2006 as an art installation and had a runtime of forty-five minutes. Dutta re-edited the film down to fifteen minutes in 2017, reconceiving its soundtrack in the process. It could thus be considered a found-footage film. That it already incorporates historical newsreels makes it doubly so. Suffused with nods to silent movies in the form of cinematic magic tricks and dramatic, single-word intertitles, the film reveals a cinephilic impulse absent from the subsequent phase of the filmmaker’s career. In its current form, Ka contains perhaps the most complex sound design in all of Dutta’s cinema. Developed by Mathew Arackaparambil, the sophisticated audiography consists of a mix of synthetic and natural sounds, of human voices and noise of machines. Sacred chants are intertwined with a recording of James Joyce reading a literary text, high-pitched hum with bass drones. Sounds are slowed down or sped up, played in reverse or corrupted. This sonic thicket could best be described as an environment in its immersive, unsettling nature.

Notwithstanding its origin in indigenous myths, Ka is located in the long lineage of European avant-garde art of the twentieth century. In its fusion of the humorous and the nightmarish, it echoes Surrealist visual culture, as it does in the predominance of caustic, saturated colours. It recalls, specifically, the work of Max Ernst in its fascination with particular geometries and textures. Ka possesses a dream-like rhythm, enabled by a generous use of slow motion. Shot on video, the decelerated imagery appears choppy, as though missing frames. There is a fixation on everyday objects displaced from their quotidian functionality, as in the art of the Surrealists. Like the boxes of Joseph Cornell, Dutta’s artisanal assembly of souvenirs from childhood is a nostalgia project that sets objects taken in various permutations in conversation with each other. Everything is connected here; things don’t have a stable identity and keep metamorphosing. A pair of wings looks like eyes, a skull transforms into a flower, and a book takes off like a faerie. The universe of Ka is in constant flux, eternally transmuting according to the logic of its maker’s boyish imagination.

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