‘I want to use cinema to explore that which escapes you’

A conversation with Amit Dutta, the most famous Indian filmmaker you may have never heard of.

Written by Shubhra Gupta | Updated: April 6, 2014 12:27:21 am
Amit Dutta Amit Dutta

A tap on the shoulder while I’m engrossed in watching Nainsukh on a swaying train makes me turn. It is an art historian and teacher who recognises the frames, and engages me in a brief, intense conversation about the film and the filmmaker.

She talks of the great delicacy and the meticulous attention to detail in it, and leaves me marvelling at the coincidence. I take it as a sign. What are the odds of two strangers bumping into each other and chatting about an Indian filmmaker whose work is mostly known and admired out of India? The train is taking me to Kathgodam, from where I will be transported to Sonapani, a lovely homestead in the Uttarakhand hills. There waits a stunning view of the Himalayan range and the promise of a meeting with Amit Dutta, the most famous Indian filmmaker you may have never heard of.

I have spent the journey brushing up on Dutta’s works (Kra Ma Sha, The Museum Of Imagination, Aadmi Aur Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyaan), which have a growing fan following, and which regularly get programmed at film festivals outside the country. Marco Mueller, the artistic director of the Rome Film Festival, is an admirer, and showed Dutta’s dreamy, drenched-in-music The Seventh Walk (Saatvin Sair) as the closing film during the last edition (November 2013). So is Paolo Bertolin, who is the regional correspondent for the Venice Film Festival and programme advisor to the Doha festival. Bertolin believes that “Dutta is a truly unique artist, and his rich body of work displays a great deal of creativity and originality, and [is] at the same time rigorous and uncompromising, which obviously makes it niche, yet for those who can connect with it, it is a truly mesmerising experience in images and sound”.

For someone like me who has been fed on a weekly diet of Bollywood and Hollywood, it requires the wearing of a radically different hat to be able to enjoy Dutta’s work. You find yourself sloughing off years-old scales, and you realise just how conditioned you have become to, in Bertolin’s words, “easy sells”. Dutta is no easy sell. He slows down, he stops, he lingers. He observes. You enter his universe, immerse yourself fully, and emerge on the other side, blinking.
Nainsukh (2010), a study of Pahadi miniature paintings and the relationship of the 18th century Kangra artist with his art and the viewer, is as riveting as it has been before, despite the rattling and the clacking that needs me to hold on to the laptop with one hand, and anchor the earphones with the other. Dutta’s constant referencing of literature (he is a voracious reader of Hindi sahitya, and is almost done writing his first book in Hindi) and painting makes his films a very particular pleasure. Several of his films are, in fact, like paintings, each frame inviting your eye to linger and to create your own meaning. And uncover the myths that he is working with.

Part of the myths that have sprung up around the 37-year-old filmmaker, (he was born and grew up in Jammu), who doesn’t travel, doesn’t like going to film festivals, doesn’t like interacting with the media, is also that he likes his films to be seen in a completely controlled environment. What would he think, I wonder, of my watching, which is being done in a noisy compartment, with doors opening and closing, and people passing by in a continuous stream? Is it sacrilegious? Will he frown and not speak?

I needn’t have worried. A single person viewing a film on a laptop is the greatest intimacy, he says. That is the future of the movies. Over the next couple of days, we (a bunch of people who have gathered to see Dutta present his films, and participate in the discussions after) are led through a very special experience. He shows a clutch of his films: The Seventh Walk, Ramkhind, Sonchidi and Jangarh: Film One (some of which even he hasn’t seen in a while), and listens intently when a cineaste or a film enthusiast, or a teacher, comments. And then responds, with as much intentness.

Dutta doesn’t like the term “experimental” to define his work. “I’m not sure if it sounds pretentious, but I would like to call myself a margi (a man who looks for a way forward),” he says. Which, of course, it does. But the danger of damaging self-regard is not something that Dutta fears because, very simply, he doesn’t think his body of work is the last word. His is a work in progress. He may have started off experimenting, but now he has moved forward, in a more formal, organised manner. His work is still disruptive, but it is also contemplative and deeply meditative. It takes the viewer and the maker on a continuous journey forward, “a quest for the unknown”, which he believes cinema has the capacity for.

We speak over a day and a half, and the conversation includes the silence of the hills, and the chirruping of the birds, as we find a quiet spot in a meadow where you can hear the wind and nothing else — the elements of nature his cinema is immersed in. Dutta speaks about his famous reclusiveness, his chief concerns as a filmmaker, what brought him to filmmaking, and what has changed that he finds himself travelling from his lair in Jammu across the hills to this adda, his second in Sonapani, where he has agreed to break his isolation and interact with people. Edited excerpts from the interview:

When did you know you wanted to be a filmmaker?

I didn’t come to cinema from cinema. In my family, we watched Bollywood only once a year. I didn’t watch great films and decide I wanted to make films. I discovered a book on Satyajit Ray, which had a photograph of his study. I was very struck by his personality, and his beautiful but functional, not overly decorated study. I thought it was possible to live a normal, middle-class or upper-middle class life, and still be a profound filmmaker. That it was possible to make cinema as a personal activity.

In my growing years, my family never approved of filmmaking. They wanted me to do the usual medical or engineering degree. My mother was a teacher and I would borrow books from the library and read all the time. My father was an accountant. It was a normal middle-class family. They thought that there was something wrong with me, “ki itna padhega toh pagal ho jayega”. Ray made us realise that cinema would be a serious, respectable activity.

We read a lot of Hindi literature as children (he has a younger brother and sister), and the works of Amrit Lal Nagar was a big influence. He was also a screenwriter, and I read his diaries. I thought I would be a writer. I speak Dogri, I know Hindi, have learnt English, but I couldn’t think of a language I could write in as I had no command over any single one.

Somehow cinema seemed to fit in. At around the same time, Doordarshan showed world cinema and, unknowingly, we were exposed to masterworks. On Saturdays, they used to show FTII diploma films, and I was intrigued. Someone in school gifted me a book in Bangla (they thought I was a Bengali because of my surname) and it turned out to be a book of Ritwik Ghatak’s (who also went to the Film and Television Institute of India) letters. And I thought does this institute even exist? That became my ambition. To go to FTII. I started preparing for the entrance, took the test in 1999 and joined FTII in 2000.

And what did FTII teach you?

I found most teachers and students referring to “the industry”. “Aap aise mat kariye, aisa industry mein nahin hota hai.” But I had no interest in “the industry”. I got very disillusioned because the narrative form or the cinema of communication held no interest for me. It was not something I could be engaged in for all my life. It did not excite me.

And then I discovered Armenian Georgian filmmaker Sergei Paranjov and his wonderful film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. It opened up a whole new way of thinking. And then came the works of Robert Bresson, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Kamal Swaroop. Both Mani sir and Kamalji were very generous, very kind to me. They had come to teach a junior batch, but they got interested in my work. Alain Resnais was a big influence. I wanted to work in that direction, obviously trying to find my own voice.

How did you find your voice? What kind of films does Amit Dutta make? You are prolific, and you have made so many films despite financial constraints.

I have not arrived at the form yet. The prolific bit that you talk about is a habit I picked up from the institute days. If I am not making a film, I feel I’m not thinking, that I’m being lazy. My thoughts, not my films, are a work in progress. For me, making films is like thinking.

Earlier, I didn’t have much to say. I was learning technique at FTII, and the subjects I wanted to choose came later. I had only childhood and acquired memories to start with, those I used in my student films when I was 22. Slowly I started to learn, and that is what I want to make, a cinema of learning, something I can learn from.

Audiences don’t exist in my films. I’m aware of that. Other directors have a relationship with their audience. So I thought: mujhe mazaa kismein aa raha hai? It is the process that I find exhilarating. I also find it very exciting to use local knowledge systems, what is called the janpadya knowledge systems, to create imaginative — not didactic — worlds, and find my voice.

So what is the most important thing for you?

The most important thing I attempt and I haven’t achieved yet is to create a cinematic rhythm of sound, movement, ideas: pure, beautiful rhythm, like the works of Bresson and Balthazar. In Nainsukh I only wanted rhythm, I wanted to attempt to create what I saw in the paintings. All my formal work is an attempt in that direction.

The rhythm that is in nature, like the pauses between two breaths?

Yes, exactly that.

When you say you are conscious that the audiences do not exist in your film, that absence, how does that work? How important is it for your film to be seen?

It is very important. As Tarkovsky says, a film is never complete unless it is seen. Only when a sahriday (of the same heart) sees it, is it fully realised. I don’t make films for myself, no. I do exactly what I like, but I make them for sahridays. If my films are introduced and put into context properly, why not?

Do you ever envisage a theatrical release of your films?

I am not very keen on this collective viewing experience. You only have that moment, the whole film you are building towards it, and then someone opens the door. It’s gone. It is very annoyingly disturbing. Theatres are not controlled conditions.

Watching a film on a laptop, on the other hand, is as controlled as you can make it. I’m getting very interested in that kind of viewing. This very intense, one-on-one viewing—that is my ideal viewer. It’s as personal as reading a book. You pick up a book and read and don’t attend a collective reading session.

I get very disturbed by the impatience of an audience.

You burrow into music, literature and painting, and your work is so deeply rooted in nature and poetry. Would you call yourself an ethnographer or a filmmaker?

All arts are inter-related. My primary work is filmmaking. I’m fascinated with cinema. It is the most recent art form and it has to go to other art forms to learn. It is still very underdeveloped. Filmmaking to me is a philosophical quest, for lack of a better word, a spiritual quest. I want to use it to explore that which escapes you.

Do you see other people’s films?

Every day I watch a film. I can’t go to sleep without watching one. I’ve just finished the complete works of Hitchcock. Watching inspires me a lot. Ray, Ghatak, Kaul, Resnais, Hiroshi Teshigahara, the early works of Prabhat Film Company, of which I have a large collection — these films I watch again and again.

After you started collaborating with your wife, Ayswarya Sankaranarayanan (whom he met when he was teaching briefly at NID just after FTII; she worked on the screenplay of Nainsukh, and then all their subsequent screenplays), has your work changed? How do the rhythms of people who live together impact their work?

My early work was wild and exuberant. After we have started working together, my work has become very heavily research- oriented. She is meticulous and a patient reader of texts, and brings the whole very imaginatively to me. I am impatient, I want to use what we call lightning in chess, which I’ve played all my life. Now I am much calmer.

Have you thrown tantrums on sets?

(Laughs) Many times. But now I have changed.

You don’t watch Bollywood films, but would you ever want to work with good actors like Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui?

Irrfan is a wonderful actor (I haven’t seen Nawazuddin) and trained actors are very fun, very exciting to work with. There are no profanes, no sacreds in this. No formulas. But it has to come from within.

This reclusiveness of yours, where does it come from?

Festivals are the only place I can be seen, and I’m grateful to festivals, especially Oberhausen (which practically put him on the global map) but the whole thing takes away my focus.

Then what brings you here? And this is your second time. Are things changing a little?

Gurpal (Singh, the man behind Bring Your Own Film Festival or BYOFF and a filmmaker and curator who has known Dutta since he was a student at FTII) has been asking me for many years, and I like him. And this is very informal. I’m really engaged. I am aware that artists do this reclusive number, but it is not even fashionable for me. If I could transport myself, I would maybe go to more places. But I live very far away, and it is not easy for me to reach places. But I am also aware that my isolation is getting to me. It is no longer nourishing me. I think anything that becomes too much needs to be broken. I like coming here because the gathering is small, and the conversations are enriching.

So maybe other people are not so bad? Coming out of your comforting cocoon can be hard…

Yes (laughs). And it is wonderful that a younger generation is connecting with my work, and wants to talk about it.

So what next?

I’m working on a narrative feature, but it will be my kind of narrative. For the first time, I want to communicate. I’ve broken the narrative so much, that doing this would be really challenging. It is loosely based on the first story of Aadmi Aur Aurat, and it brings all my concerns together — man’s relationship with nature, the idea of prosperity, what is real richness, what is beauty. I think cinema can lower anxiety. That is its real contribution.

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