My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.
The exhaustive breadth of Amit Dutta’s films refuses easy summation. My first encounter was with a dreamy rendition of rural life in India—the breathtaking Kramasha (2007)—and I have followed his films ever since. They traverse genres, moving effortlessly from crafted scenario to spontaneous encounter, from mindful self-reflexivity to ghostly magic. Art—literature, music, and particularly painting—permeates Dutta’s work. It appears as the subject of his films, yet it is also absorbed into their very material as cinematography and soundscape—as cinema. Sudden sweeping camera pans veer left only to turn right, and surprising sounds of alarm bells and ticking clocks startle us. Like paintings, these films have surface tension. Inches behind this surface lies a cavernous, echoing space where unhurried tracking shots and distant ambiences suggest a less immediate kind of time, one that is long past. Just as such temporal and spatial registers commingle and blur in Dutta’s films, so do art and nature, indeed, the man-made and the natural, until their distinctions fade and make way for the rich resonances that emerge from the gaps in between. I interviewed Amit over the course of a month on the occasion of his upcoming retrospective at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive that will include a sneak preview of his latest work-in-progress, The Unknown Craftsman.
Shambhavi Kaul I spent most of the last week watching and rewatching your films, and this marathon immersion has fundamentally altered my impression of your work. It’s clear that these projects are interconnected, that the making of one leads to another. Sometimes it seems as if preceding films literally rehearse ones to follow.
I see two modes of research at play. One relies on chance encounters, something like fieldwork, and what may read generically as documentary. The other is a more controlled approach that employs narrative at its core. Reenactment comes to mind as a word that couples research and narrative.
Amit Dutta I believe it developed in two phases: first my film school work and then second, whatever came after it, starting from Nainsukh (2010). When I joined the Film and Television Institute of India, I was young and my worldview was still forming. But one thing I was sure of was that I should not say something I didn’t know. At that time the material most genuine to work with was childhood memory. So I invented a pool of recollections and wrote a lot, some of which later became a novel entitled Kaljayi Kambakht (Immortal Fool). I consider my student works flamboyant expressions of whatever I had learned at film school. I really wanted to engage with my influences, get over them, and try to find my own form as well as content.
Starting with Nainsukh, I wanted to make research-based cinema—meaning that through the process of making a film, I should learn. I picked up subjects that intrigued me. I collected books. I did fieldwork. I met scholars and writers and had long discussions with them. I really enjoyed this particular process, and I continue it to this day. When you make a film you spend a considerable amount of time with it, so I wanted to spend my time with subjects I like. I became very interested in indigenous knowledge systems and the workings of tribal/folk and classical modes. How could these systems produce such stunning works? What was the source? My whole filmmaking project to date is in search of that source.
After graduating from FTII, I taught at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad for a year and a half. I wasn’t much older than most of the students there, and I learned more than I taught. I was in the film and video department, but I would sit as part of the jury for other disciplines like textiles, furniture, and toy design. That was the norm there—as you know, since you studied there as well. The one thing that struck me above all was one senior teacher’s sustained emphasis on process; sometimes she wasn’t even interested in the end product. She would always say, “Show me the process.” It really impressed me, and I incorporated that into my work. In a way, research for me is simply the process of living with a subject.
Another one of my teachers used to say, “Make a documentary like fiction and fiction like a documentary.” This really makes sense to me, but while making fiction I also try to delve into the unknowable mysterious part of the process. I always find it slipping, and when it does slip, one’s cinematic influences come into play and the viewer might be reminded of other films. It’s a difficult but fascinating process. Even while enjoying it, I still hope that one day I will find that elusive knowledge that we all seek as filmmakers and come out with a genuine expression.
SK Could you speak to your first encounters with cinema?
AD Cinema was a rather late influence in my life, as I’d seen very few films before film school. My village near Jammu had no movie hall; the nearest one was fortyfive kilometers away, and we watched films there once a year. It was strictly recreational, not to be taken seriously. But there was a library, and it had some of the finest of world literature. Unguided, I discovered writers like Hazari Prasad Dwivedi, Amritlal Nagar, Krishna Baldev Vaid, Nirala, Nirad C. Chaudhuri, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Proust, Joyce, etcetera, at a young age and dreamt of becoming a writer. Meanwhile, Indian National Television started airing short films every Saturday afternoon, and I used to come running home from school to catch them. For the first time, the feeling I got from a film was somewhat closer to what I felt after reading a book. When I found out these shorts were made at a film school in Pune, I somehow convinced myself this must have been in some distant past. Who knew if that school still existed?
Two chance encounters changed everything: I picked up a book on Satyajit Ray from a secondhand bookshop. His life in cinema read more like a literary life. I was impressed that in cinema, too, one could lead a life of contemplation, away from the show business that had repelled me earlier. The other encounter was even more defining. As you may know, my surname, Dutta, is also more widely known as a Bengali surname. I’m a Dogra from the opposite end of India and do not know any Bengali at all. But many of my schoolmates were from all over India, and a Bengali classmate gifted me a book written in his language, assuming kinship. I was touched and, not having the heart to reveal I was not Bengali, I kept the book. Flipping through it, I realized it was a compilation of letters, and one was in English. Written by one Ritwik Ghatak to the vice principal of the FTII at Pune, the letter had an itinerary of exercises for film students and an exciting list of books they should be reading at the institute. I couldn’t believe such a place existed and investigated, confirming that indeed it was true. During those heady days around 1997 or 1998, I traveled for twelve hours overnight to Delhi and joined a small film appreciation course conducted by P. K. Nair, the famed “celluloid man.” There I saw many films on an old 16mm projector, including those of Ghatak, Ray, and, for the very first time, Robert Bresson, and I returned home with a whole new inner world.
SK You mentioned cinematic influences you worked through and sought to “get over.” I sense the presence of Sergei Parajanov very strongly in your films. I also sense the Indian New Wave—it’s hard for me not to think of my father, Mani Kaul—but I don’t want to presume.
AD At the institute, I watched cinema beyond my imagination. All my exposure up until then was to a certain kind of classical literature; you can imagine what can happen when a new mode of perception is suddenly thrown open inside oneself. I watched Mani Kaul’s Before My Eyes and Mati Manas in my second year. The sound design, cinematography, editing—the whole thing was mesmerizing. That this quality of cinema could be achieved in a country like India, with whatever resources one had access to, was a huge inspiration and revelation. I quested for that level of quality. Other filmmakers who left an unforgettable impact on me were Kamal Swaroop, Kumar Shahani, Vishnu Mathur, and Pervez Mehrwanji. But with Parajanov, the whole paradigm shifted. He took cinema to a place as yet unimagined, he liberated it from literature or filmed theater with a lively thoroughness I hadn’t witnessed before: pure cinema. It was for the same reason that I liked your films instantly.
Along with Parajanov, a few others sparked the idea for a form I was searching for—the Serbian novelist Milorad Pavić, John Cage’s music and writings, and also the philosophers and art historians Ananda Coomaraswamy and B. N. Goswamy. Right alongside was the exposure to Indian traditions of thought and art. I was especially following miniature paintings, and texts like Kathāsaritsāgara, Yoga Vāsistha, and Chitrasutra, which opened up new ideas regarding form. All this contributed to the work I made at the institute. But I was very conscious of needing to take a new path, even as I could see that my films were hugely influenced by whatever I saw—they still are, I’m not denying it. But I’m aware of the fact that when you work in the vicinity of a tradition—like the very important tradition of cinema molded by Parajanov, Kaul, and Shahini—one needs to experiment and find new avenues through that tradition. Even if I am successful in achieving a fraction of what they achieved, I will consider myself fortunate.
SK I’m also interested to hear that your time at NID had a strong influence on you. As one of the last remaining Bauhaus schools in the world, its pedagogy is based on a very particular kind of modernism. I’ve often wondered how effective the hardcore “form follows function” ethos is in the context of India, not to mention postmodern India. In fact, it’s astonishing, even glorious, how form mostly refuses to follow function in India. Still, like you, I found the teaching there to be incredibly useful, perhaps in unexpected ways.
The other big tenet at NID is the emphasis on an interdisciplinary approach. I want to know how you arrived at this more fluid approach—editing your own films and sometimes doing your own sound along with direction.
AD After film school, the films I’d planned had virtually no opportunity to get funded. But I had this urge to create and engage with the craft, even if I had no money. That’s why NID was so important. Students there were shooting and editing their own films. We watched experimental films made at the Bauhaus and exchanged ideas with many institutes across the world. One of my close friends, a student of Mani Kaul at Harvard, had visited around this time to shoot a film on a small Bolex and edited it by himself. That spirit of independence and enterprise appealed to my temperament instantly, to live as an independent filmmaker.
The interdisciplinary approach was the key to my understanding of cinema at NID. It was so effortless there. It wasn’t only the interdependence of crafts within a social fabric, but the core concepts of each craft spilling over into the other. One acquired a natural enthusiasm to engage with them all without feeling like an outsider. It invoked, for me, the story from Vishnudharmottara Purana, where a king asks a sage to teach him image-making, and the sage questions back whether the king knows something of painting, which is a requisite for sculpture. The king admits ignorance and asks to be taught painting as well. The sage then asks whether the king knows dance, then music and poetry and prosody and so on, until he gets to grammar and starts teaching from the very beginning of the list. In our compartmentalized, superspecialized world, a mere glimpse into the workings of another discipline is a big step toward health, both economic and artistic.
SK The emphasis on research and process in your work also means that the people who you work with eventually influence the film you are making. At the end of Ramkhind (2001), I was interested to learn you had collaborated with a professor of anthropology. Of all your films, Ramkhind reads the most like an ethnography.
In the film, you choose to focus on the hidden dimensions of the village: the powerful narratives that are invisible to the camera, but very real and influential to the culture of the village and to the craft of the Warli artisans living there.
AD I would like to believe every small interaction with every single person is a collaboration in my films. I also believe that each individual involved creatively in their own way of life is an expert; that belief, combined with the mystery of inherited knowledge systems, is my only way into what you may call ethnology. Ramkhind was made when I was studying at FTII. In my second year, I used to visit the anthropology department at Pune University for research. When the head of the department came to know that someone from the film school visited regularly, he became intrigued and asked for me. Once we were well acquainted, he told me that a team of his students was doing fieldwork in a Warli tribal village and he asked whether I would be interested in making a video report. Having no budget whatsoever, he offered me the bus fare, and I was free to partake of the food cooked for the students in their camp. As the tribe and their art had always fascinated me, I readily set out with an old video camera, some used tapes, and two classmates of mine. I quickly thought of making a portrait of the village and situating their art in between their rhythm of life.
In retrospect, the hope was that the villagers be our collaborators, since collaboration implies equal contribution and mutual benefit, tangible or not. But I was also very aware of the directorial gaze and retained that distance throughout the film. It deliberately includes clues of our presence and intervention. As you pointed out, the camera occupies the middle ground between them and us and registers the gaps neither of us can notice except through the lens.
SK The transposition of the particularities of one medium onto another is crucial to your work. Painting is obviously important—so important, in fact, that I resist using painterly to describe your cinematography—but thinking of your work with literature, the word adaptation comes to mind: the adaptation of one medium into another, as well as the adaptation of a literary narrative into a cinematic one.
AD When I was growing up in Jammu, I had a friend who had migrated from Kashmir. He used to make small sculptures for children. His sculptures were mostly abstract, but sometimes he gave them a simple name that suddenly gathered extremely evocative meanings and associations. For example, I saw a very small and delicate arrangement of wood and stone. It looked beautiful, though not relatable to any recognizable shape or significance. But when he named it My House in Snow a strange magic happened: the same abstract shape started morphing into a house in snow and evoked an onrush of memories, including political turmoil. The imaginative force of this combination of word and image strongly impressed me. Inspired, I started using titles for my films. It gave me the freedom to go as abstract as I could, because a single word could bring harmony and coherence to a complex work.
When you mention adaptation, I also recall Marguerite Duras, who is a significant inspiration. Her novels are like films and her films like novels, and in a way they liberate each other. They belie traditional expectations. Following that example, I have moved away from the premise of “narration” as the primary structure of film. When every medium becomes a clue to the operation of every other medium, the possibilities become infinite. Then adaptation need not be straitjacketed to one particular aspect, like “story” in the case of literature to film.
SK Pahari painting—Himalayan miniature painting that took shape over the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries—is an important presence in your work. I’m curious about how you came upon it, and what makes it so central to your films.
AD I was introduced to Indian miniatures while studying at FTII. I was amazed at the complex web of information and wisdom they held within apparently simple surfaces. One needs an eye like B. N. Goswamy or Eberhard Fischer to unravel it. I read their books at the institute and later was fortunate enough to work with them. In 2009, I came back to Jammu to film Nainsukh. Nainsukh was an artist born in Guler, in the present Himachal Pradesh state, but he worked at Jasrota, Jammu. The project helped me explore my own homeland. I was struck by the beauty and richness of the Kangra valley.
Pahari paintings have become the last portals to a system of thinking now almost lost to us. In a graceful way, these paintings have condensed complex classical ideas into a folk system. When you study Pahari paintings, you’re introduced to Indian aesthetic theories in the simplest and most effortless way. What also attracts me is the applied wisdom of a tradition: from making one’s own paper to grinding one’s own pigments, the entire process is full of stories and legends extolling standards of excellence, even within an intimate tradition that accommodates various levels of skill. Even if they are interpreting a text like the Gita Govinda, which is from Orissa and Bengal, they make it their own by bringing in the local landscape, flora, and fauna. Meanwhile, I still believe that in India, we have not been enterprising enough in finding our own language in cinema. The birth of Indian cinema is intimately associated with the ethos of Raja Ravi Varma and the Parsi theater, so looking at miniatures is also tracing another starting point, an alternate fountainhead.
SK You mentioned the influence classical Indian texts on aesthetics had on your work. Beyond the more literal uses of these texts, like in The Unknown Craftsman (2017), I’m curious to know more about what you’ve drawn from them. I was interested to hear you mention John Cage. Of course, Cage was drawing on Indian aesthetics, so I suppose it comes full circle?
AD Classical Indian texts, especially the more playful and obliquely philosophical ones like Yoga Vāsistha and Kathāsaritsāgara, have given me an alternate system of logic and cause and effect to work with. Their effortless warping of time and space and the Russian doll-like structure of story-inside-story are exciting ways of thinking about the world. Many of these texts invite themselves to be reinvented freely in every age and time.
It’s an interesting link you make with John Cage and Indian aesthetics. Along with Cage, let me add Christian Wolff, Philip Glass, Toru Takemitsu, Krzysztof Penderecki, and Roy Buchanan as a few other musicians that I have a deep liking for. Another is Pandit Pran Nath. His theories and insights into music have provided me with valuable entries into this world. His life itself is a wonderful story, worth making into a film.
SK With regard to Ramkhind, you mention breaking the fourth wall as a self-reflexive gesture, a way to reflect back to the camera and point to the constructedness of film. You make a similar gesture in Scenes from a Sketchbook (2016) by adding the sounds of a film editing machine and projector to the soundtrack. And in films like Chitrashala or Museum of the Imagination, museums are much more than blank repositories for the artworks being presented. In The Golden Bird (2011), you include rehearsals of a scene that features the audio recorder. Then there is Future of Cinema (2013), which is almost like Vertov in its use of the camera.
On one hand, gestures like these would seem to demystify the filmmaking process. On the other, your work is full of magic and ghosts and many mystifying moments.
AD I’ve always felt a strong tendency toward opposing modes: maximalism and minimalism, Eastern and Western, and so I can relate to your question about mystification and demystification. While practicing or performing a skill, there is a strong urge to show the process. Talking about Glenn Gould’s interpretation of Bach, a critic once said it was like taking apart a clock and putting it back together in a profoundly different way, and still making it tick. I like the idea of making cinema by disassembling and reassembling reality in such a way that discovers new arrangements to fit the elements, including the self.
On the other hand, I don’t consciously seek to mystify anything. I simply like to seek. The unknown that lurks in the known, the unseen within the seen this tension is very fascinating for me. Dhvani—which literally means sound—is the term in Indian aesthetics denoting suggestivity or resonance, somewhat similar in function to “epiphany.” The idea of the highest dhvani in the Kashmiri aesthetic sense is, in fact, the suggestivity of the gross form toward the subtlest of ideas. In a way, it’s the excess obtained from the sum of the parts. One can never determine that excess in a fixed way; it’s ghostly by default. That’s one reason I believe in keeping the subconscious clean. Otherwise it limits sublimation.
In Future of Cinema, I superimposed fish onto the camera toward the end; for me, that is an inexplicable element, but I’m afraid the moment I spell it out, it becomes didactic. At the same time, I hope it becomes something else.
SK Almost all of your films pool around nature, culture, and art. Could you speak to this framework?
AD I believe we’re currently divided between two worldviews in painful conflict with each other: the homocentric versus the cosmocentric, for the lack of better words. The former view, which places man at the center of the universe, seems to be a natural position for most modern cultures, whatever their motivations, ranging from compassionate humanism to consumer individualism or even religious dogma. But I somehow cannot see human beings as anything but part of a universe that is undoubtedly much bigger and more undetermined. My work ensues from this position, so I’m unable to separate culture as something apart from nature or different in its significance. At the same time, the vital “transformation of nature in art,” to use Coomaraswamy’s phrase, is liberating for me; it’s the most useful bridge that can connect humans to their true nature and their outer world. I recall a criticism of Fritz Lang addressing man in general, but not man in particular; it might actually be a compliment. At the same time, I greatly admire Alain Resnais, in whose work I see a convergence of the most particular and the most universal, when the microcosm of human experience is extrapolated into the impersonality of the universal, even as he artfully sustains the melodrama of being human.
SK Your films are assemblages of texts, people, artworks, narratives, and locations. Or, in a film like Jangharh Film One (2008)—an assemblage of encounters. The meaning of the work accrues in the gaps and spaces between these assembled elements. This gesture of assemblage is most at the surface in The Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009), which is comprised of three different stories.
AD Human language itself is an assemblage, so even in the most mundane language we run into abstractions and paradoxes. When ideas or images are assembled, and there is no fixed syntax, they can generate so many more probabilities of meaning, which human experience alone can limit. When two images or ideas collide, as a filmmaker I’m only intuitively aware of the meaning that arises. For different audiences, this collision evokes different things, and they become collaborators in my process. But the exciting thing is that as a filmmaker I can space the assemblage at a specific rhythm and create a personal syntax to direct the attention and associations of the viewers very subtly and evocatively. So when you say the meaning is in the gaps, it’s entirely true, in the same way Pandit Pran Nath says that the raga is in between the notes.
SK Experienced as a body of work, it becomes clear that your films are filled with men. Women are not front and center, but The Man’s Woman and Other Stories is an exception. Not only does it include women prominently, the film is about gender and patriarchy. By the end, it seems the only way out for women is to metaphorically or literally put an end to the chief agents of patriarchy, namely men.
AD I’m really happy with your reading of the film because, sometimes, depiction of misogyny is interpreted as an endorsement of it. The film reflects my own acute awareness of the alienation of men from women. I was brought up in North India, where there is a separation in social life right from the beginning. Because of this alienation, women attain a quality of mystery for most boys and men. When I was offered Saadat Hasan Manto’s story “A Hundred Watt Bulb” for adaptation, I chose the other two stories by Vinod Kumar Shukla, instinctively structuring them into this theme of increasing estrangement of man from woman. There was no final idea to be conveyed other than the general feeling of unease and inability for empathy.
SK Your soundtracks are beautiful and very particular. There is a complex atmospheric base, then sounds that punctuate and that are often nonliteral in their directionality. Something far away may sound close by—for example, the footsteps of someone walking in the distance are inexplicably audible. I became aware of these aspects while watching The Golden Bird. The film itself seems to critique the promise of technologies like airplane flight—sounds of a plane overhead are juxtaposed with those of a watermill, an older technology. I’m trying to imagine how you think about sound as its own narrative.
AD In The Golden Bird, the desire was to enter into science fiction without science—into myth that can translate into science fiction and science that can become myth. 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. Childhood is beautiful because the mystery hasn’t ended. Even the unexplored corner of the street could evoke thrilling fantasies. Adults have lost that sense of wonder—everything is mentally mapped. Can this lost sense be resurrected? Cinema is the only medium that can reignite the mystery, creating an unknown world through the juxtaposition of sound, word, and image. One can juxtapose the past as visual and the present as sound, fashioning another dimension of where one can contract and expand time, invert space, all through the design of sound. Here, cinema becomes capable of reclaiming mystery and beauty.
SK How do you work with actors? What are your feelings about bodies in cinema and their relation to landscape?
AD Frankly, I haven’t worked with actors as much as I’d like to. I’ve mostly used nonperformances, which really attract me, but at least once I would like to work with professional actors to create gripping dramatic scenarios. When I take the view that man is not at the center of the universe, but rather part of it, the field becomes as important as the figure. Every composition I make and every lens I use take this into account. It’s true whether I centrally compose a figure, like in the Indian tradition, or follow a minuscule figure in a large field, like in the paintings of Caspar David Friedrich. In miniature paintings, I’ve often noticed the importance of the insignificant, bestowed purely by the painter’s own idiosyncratic attention. Some main event is depicted prominently, but the painter has put an extraordinary amount of effort into a squirrel far away from the main action.
The way I look at acting, every human action is pure energy, neither good nor bad. The camera captures that energy, and as a filmmaker you mold it. There’s neither good acting nor bad acting for me.
SK Interesting. I’ve always thought of actors, performers, or bodies in film as ghosted. At least in comparison to their theater counterparts, it would seem that these bodies have given up their corporeal dimension to be transformed into light and sound. And ghosts do appear in several of your films, performed by bodies, as the subjects of your research and as “captured energy,” as you describe it, inside architecture and the soundtrack. Another ghostly dimension is one you alluded to earlier with regard to the “excess obtained from the sum of the parts.” Something along these lines has been operative in my work, too, but I came to this formulation of a ghostly excess through Eisenstein and montage.
AD At film school, Eisenstein is introduced like the alphabet. Nobody escapes his influence. But Tarkovsky’s complete inversion of the Eisensteinian principle of A+B=C was a revelation for me. Again, dhvani has become a more intimate way of experiencing this excess, probably because of the influence of my wife, Ayswarya Sankaranarayanan. She’s very interested in Indian aesthetics, and our discussions have given me many insights, bridging the way abstraction works in the best of both Eastern and Western traditions. But when we create, we hardly notice anything but the medium in front of us, wrestling with its limitations and our own to make a coherent whole. Whatever exceeds our expectations of the medium must be the direct function of our idealistic hopes—maybe we call it rasa, maybe dhvani, maybe ghosts, or even grace?
Shambhavi Kaul’s films have been shown at venues such as the Toronto International Film Festival, Berlinale, New York Film Festival, London Film Festival, International Film Festival Rotterdam, Edinburgh International Film Festival, International Short Film Festival Oberhausen, Experimenta India, and Shanghai Biennale. She is an assistant professor at Duke University in the department of art, art history, and visual studies.
My impulse was to write the last black play ever for myself. I really believed if I put it all into one play, people would leave me alone.