Amit Dutta

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The Films of Amit Dutta: Week #3 Chitrashala
Amit Dutta

19 Minutes

Artist Cinemas

Repeating April 18–19

In Chitrashala, when a gallery of paintings becomes emptied of its spectators, the curtains rise within the paintings.

Chitrashala is the third installment of The Films of Amit Dutta, a selection of films programmed by Iman Issa as the tenth cycle of Artist Cinemas, a long-term, online series of film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.

The Films of Amit Dutta runs in six weekly episodes from March 7 through April 18, 2022, and features six films by Amit Dutta accompanied by a conversation in six parts between Amit Dutta and Iman Issa, published in text form. A new film and part of the conversation are released every Monday. Each film streams for the duration of one week.

Amit Dutta in Conversation with Iman Issa
Part III
[Read parts one through six here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

I want to ask you about the filming of some of your material. For example in Chitrashala (2015) and Museum of Imagination (2012), the filming of artworks in the museum is quite intriguing: Blurred sequences are common, as well as images where the reflection of the glass renders the paintings under it invisible. Moreover sometimes the camera seems to be more concerned with the walls and corners of the building, with spaces between and around the frames than with the artworks under them. The same can be said about the book images and texts you show in Museum of Imagination, where a question about what is being shown inevitably emerges. Can you speak a bit about what the filming of this material might entail for you?

There was a musician in India. His name was Prannath. He was quite an influence on me at the film school. Whatever I read about him or music of his I heard, he came across as a wonderful personality. I wanted to make a portrait of him. He lived in India in great poverty but later moved to America where he had a huge influence on American minimalist and experimental musicians like Terry Riley, Monte Young, etc. He said something very interesting once: “Raga is between the notes.” Similar is John Cage’s famous quote: “Silence is music, music is not silence.” The more you hide, the more it becomes beautiful—cinema. For me cinema is not a medium of communication but of mystery. So I try to move away from the subject, simultaneously keeping it in mind. The more you move away, keeping the essence in mind, a delicious kind of tension emerges. And in that tension resides the mystery of art. All these blurs, off-camera sounds, moving away, out-of-focus is that space which the great Prannath described as “in between the notes.”

That is interesting. To me a question actually emerged of what the subject being filmed is. Are you always clear on that?

I am never clear about the subject I am filming. I start the project with a faint inspiration and I explore it along the way. Even if I am provided with a clear subject for the film, it keeps changing. It has happened that I started the film for some other reason and the end result is a different film altogether. Does that happen in your work as well?

I also never know what the work will be before starting. Usually it starts with an itch, or a very vague sense of a form that I have to reach out to and try and clarify. Sometimes I think I know what my subject is though while working, but that rarely holds up over time, when I may realize that a work was unconsciously concerned with a completely different set of issues. The reason I’m asking you about your subject matter though is because I find it hard to locate in your films. Field-Trip (2013) for example might at first glance feel like a straightforward documentary about the work of the art historian B. N. Goswamy, but then on careful viewing, it appears as if the building and surrounding landscape of the institute are actually the main protagonists. It is also full of strange moments, like the sequence with the blurred text, which is intercut by the landscape footage of the institute, to be then followed by footage of B. N. Goswamy walking through the landscape and using one of the leaves to rub his hands. Somehow I imagined as if the whole lengthy preceding sequence was a precursor to this action of his, lasting a second and filmed from a distance. And then of course there is the narrating text in between the sequences, which brings me to another question of what role narrating text plays for you.

While growing up, I became friends with a sculptor. He would mostly make small sculptures. They mostly dealt with his childhood memories. Sometimes they would be so abstract that looking at them I could not make any sense of them. There was one, just an arrangement of a small piece of wood and white marble. It did not create any impression on me. But then he added a simple and poetic title—My House in Snow. Suddenly that sculpture jumped to life and I could see so many things in that otherwise bare and simple arrangement. I could not only see his house but his village, his childhood, and so many other things. There I understood the power of the words and their juxtaposition with images. Similarly, I have always used text in my films. If I use a concrete text, then it gives me the freedom to let my images go into the journey of the unknown. Text is that anchor that will hold it all together. Curiously in Field-Trip, it’s the other way around: The text is abstract and blurry and the images are concrete, like you said, “documentary-kind.” But I feel the internal logic is somewhat the same.

The voice and the internal logic keeps changing: sometimes it’s me, sometimes it’s the text, which emerges out of the source itself. In that case, I juxtapose it with the images disinterestedly and observe attentively whatever comes out of it. Sometimes the narrating text is also the literal replacement of my own voice. It can also happened that I start out recording my voiceover and then I feel that it’s not working, that the rhythm of the film is getting destroyed by the sound of my voice, so I change it into intertitles.

But whatever I do, the purpose is to increase the potency of the image, its ability to provide multiple narratives and discourses, or simply become inexhaustible on sheer sensory terms.

In your book Many Questions to Myself (2018), you speak about cinema being a nascent art form “of surprising potentials” and wonder if we are witnessing the “premature ageing of a young art form.” This highly contrasts with the constant declarations one hears all the time about the death of cinema. It also rings true when watching your films, which serve to remind one that there are indeed still possibilities left to explore, and that it might be merely conventions more than anything else that have ended up limiting the horizon.

Maybe it’s dead, in one way, in a very limited sense, but in another sense it’s not explored at all. Maybe because of its dependence on money. Recently I was making a film on the water management systems of the hills where I live. Here the water is distributed by the locals voluntarily; they had invented this special system of canals and sustained it for many centuries. I wanted to understand the reasons for its continuation. While making the film, I realized that when money enters these traditional self-sustainable systems, it destroys them. For example, when these meandering mud canals were transformed into concrete ones, it seemed convenient and logical. But soon the water masters realized that mud canals were not only more beautiful with green banks and floral meadows, but also more efficient! They could be redirected at short notice and again sealed up; repairing leakages using simple grassy sods was much more efficient compared to the impossibility of detecting and sealing a leaking concrete channel, etc. I think cinema is also going through a similar crisis. One can’t make films without money, but if money comes in as a stake, it destroys its spirit. There is much to learn from these water masters. I asked one master why he continues this work even when no one is interested: Why put in his own money even when he is so poor? He said: “Let humans not appreciate it, but as long as I am alive I will do it. The sparrow and the mouse still drink this water and enjoy it—I will do it for them.”

I started thinking if we can ever make a filmmaking career without the idea of a “breakthrough.” The one question I asked myself when I came out of film school was: Would I continue my work, even if I am not shown in big galleries or film festivals? If I do not get any money ever, would I still do it? And I found the answer to be yes. Yes, I would still do it; like you need to breathe air or a flower has to bloom in season and it does not care if it’s seen or not. My filmmaking process is an informal school for me to enrich myself. I constantly learn and discover through it, which is reason enough to keep doing it. In that sense I do not believe any art can die, it is constantly reborn.

I also have the feeling watching your films that you would make them anyway. When we were speaking earlier you had mentioned to me that the majority of films are still organized after the Victorian novel tradition and that that may very well be exhausted, but that there are still many other ways to organize a film. Can you expand on that? Also on your decision to forego narrative as the structuring backbone?

I organized Nainsukh (2010) like a miniature painting. Its sense of time came from miniature painting. I organized Wittgenstein Plays Chess With Marcel Duchamp or How Not To Do Philosophy (2020) like a chess game. Mother, Who Will Weave Now (2022) is inspired by the weaving process… I have also experimented with the narrative form initially as well, and my first feature-length work was based on three short stories, but I was self-conscious of their origins as written words. While I appreciate “narrativity” in any aesthetic form, I wanted to see if cinema could be something more than mere storytelling, or entertainment.

[Read parts one through six here: I, II, III, IV, V, VI]

For more information, contact program@e-flux.com.

Film, Painting
Indian Subcontinent, History
Return to The Films of Amit Dutta
Return to Artist Cinemas

Amit Dutta is a filmmaker and writer. He graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 2004. Till now, he has made over forty films and published six books. His films range from literary adaptations to fiction, documentation, video-diary, animation, video essays, etc. He also writes regularly for children and a collection of his children’s stories was published in 2021. He has taught at the National Institute of Design (NID), Ahmedabad and at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune. He lives and works from the Kangra valley in Himachal Pradesh.


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