Amit Dutta is one of the most acclaimed filmmakers in the country, yet his name would ring few bells outside a restricted community of cinephiles. Many of his works, which range from shorts and animation to narrative features and documentaries, are in the MUBI Library till 18 November. It's a rare opportunity to engage with the work of this experimental filmmaker, which is not always easy to source. Those looking for a deeper dive into Dutta's oeuvre will find it in Srikanth Srinivasan's Modernism By Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta. This book, published by Lightcube and supported by a grant from The Raza Foundation, consists of close readings of all of Dutta's films. Srinivasan, a film critic from Bengaluru, spoke with Dutta for the book, and expertly teases out the knotty philosophical and artistic layers in the director's films. The following excerpt is from the chapter on Nainsukh (2010), perhaps the most well-known of Dutta's films, about the 18th century court painter Nainsukh of Guler and his patronage under Mian Zorawar Singh and Balwant Singh.
Part of what makes Nainsukh an unusual biographical film lies in the specific ways it positions itself between fiction and documentary. At first glance, the dramatic sparsity, sedate rhythm, and natural sound palette recall the deep realism of contemporary slow cinema. This impression is soon dispelled as the film reveals elements of stylization that go against the realist principle. Regular excursions into extra-filmic reality puncture the work’s fictional texture. A profile shot of Manaku is cut to a portrait of him, jolting us out of the contemporaneity of the story. As Nainsukh’s paintings are reconstructed by actors on screen, [B.N] Goswamy’s voice reads out inscriptions that accompany the original paintings. In one tableau enacting a bird fight, Balwant Singh releases a non-existent bird into the sky, as we hear its fluttering on the soundtrack. In other words, Dutta, like Nainsukh, is not recreating reality, but working off existing images.
The film foregrounds the artificiality of its construction in other ways as well. That the actor playing Nainsukh, Manish Soni, is himself an established miniature painter creates a dissonance atypical of fictional cinema. In an extended sequence, Dutta shuttles continuously between a procession of the king’s entourage through mustard fields and fragments of paintings depicting the same. The interruption is so drawn out and repetitious that any residual suspension of disbelief is shattered for good. Some of the outdoor shots contain lens flares, disclosing the presence of a camera amidst the 18th-century narrative. Most vitally, instead of building new sets or scouting for alternate locations, Dutta shoots his court scenes in the actual ruins of the Jasrota fort. This friction between the period setting of the story and the current, dilapidated state of the architecture produces a distancing effect, not unlike the open sets of Dogville (2003). The entire film, thus, unfolds like site-specific amateur theatre, or even an acting workshop for a bigger prestige picture. The spectator, in turn, is constantly aware of the synthetic nature of the enterprise and is held at the emotional distance necessary for disinterested appreciation.
Nainsukh marks the beginning of Dutta’s search for a new personal style, free of earlier cinematic influences and technical preoccupations. To be sure, the film does not mark a total rupture for Dutta, and it has a definite continuity with Man’s Woman and Other Stories. There is the same emphasis on elements of nature as in the previous film. Characters’ relation to their surroundings—natural and manmade—continues to be at the focal point. Like in Man’s Woman, the men in Nainsukh are dwarfed by the cavernous architecture they inhabit. Windows remain important sites where social transactions take place. Spaces are still described using repetition and opposition of actor movement. However, there is a more sustained approach to the division of space across shots. The sequence describing Zorawar Singh’s death, for example, is a self-contained aesthetic object displaying a unique dramatic progression and formal harmony. Clocking just under two minutes, it consists of eight shots portraying the death of Zorawar, the ascent of Balwant, and Nainsukh’s reconfigured allegiance. The economy of expression here is matched by several internal rhymes and counterpoints, providing the sequence a flourish worthy of its central position in the film’s timeline.
Nainsukh additionally features aspects fairly new to Dutta’s cinema; the focus on creative process, for instance. We see Nainsukh at work throughout the film, working on underdrawings, making sketches from nature, surrounding himself with mirrors to draw portraits. This fascination with process and with the patient physical labour involved in artmaking will become a staple of the filmmaker’s later work. Then there is the interaction between cinema and the other fine arts that the film initiates. The bulk of Dutta’s filmography envisions a cinema that is in harmony with its ancestral arts, and Nainsukh, in its confluence of music, dance, architecture, and painting, does just that. In some ways, it recalls Mani Kaul’s Siddheshwari (1989), another highly-stylized biography of an artist that seeks to set the fine arts in conversation. Both Kaul’s and Dutta’s films dispense with conventional realist exposition and, instead, look deeper into their respective subjects’ life and work for formal inspiration. They both find their shape through close attention to indigenous forms: Hindustani music and Pahari miniatures.
Engagement with Pahari miniature painting reinvigorates Dutta’s filmmaking in innumerable ways. For one, it provides him with a pool of knowledge vastly different from the one furnished by personal mythology in his earlier work. It renovates the scrapbook of imagery he draws inspiration from. The austerity of colour, contour, and field in Nainsukh’s paintings finds a correspondence with the minimalism of expression in the film. This formal sobriety is in direct contrast to the flamboyance of the filmmaker’s student projects. The absence of linear perspective, the impartial attention to figure and ground, the avoidance of shadows and dramatic lighting, and the use of opposed character movement are elements common both to miniature paintings and Nainsukh. The gliding camera in Dutta’s cinema is, moreover, comparable to the superposition of perspectives that characterize Pahari paintings. Numerous shots in Nainsukh contain a flat background over which actions take place, quite like in the miniatures. Triptych compositions and double framing abound in Dutta’s imagery, as they do in the pictures.
The most productive aspect of Dutta’s involvement in miniature painting, however, is the tension between flatness and depth it brings out. The filmmaker’s early work is rife with shots that underline the Z-axis. As in early 3-D movies, characters tend their hands towards the camera in transaction, inviting the audience, as it were, to respond in kind. The interest in paintings, on the other hand, seems to have brought to Dutta’s cinema an emphasis on two-dimensionality. In one scene in Nainsukh, the burning down of a fort is depicted by the burning of a drawing of the fort. All through, the filmmaker cuts between photographed and painted images, collapsing deep space onto the surface of a painting or exploding the picture plane into real spaces. Vast stretches of landscape are filmed in long shots without the horizon, lending them a two-dimensional quality. Characters often move laterally in front of buildings, with faces in profile, quite like in miniatures. Outdoor shots, photographed with telephoto lenses, appear flat, while interior shots, employing wide-angled ones, give the impression of great volume. In several sequences, paintings and photographic shots take turns leading each other. This pas de deux between two- and three-dimensionality of images is a constant in the filmmaker’s body of work, as is the one between movement and stillness.
Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta, by Srikanth Srinivasan, Lightcube, ebook ₹260 on shop.lightcube.in.