Think of a film that exemplifies the following phrase: ‘each frame is a painting’.
Thought about it? Take 10 more seconds…
Chances are that, by now, the intense love drama Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) will have popped into the heads of many readers. While there is no denying that Celine Sciamma’s masterpiece is one of the greatest modern-day accomplishments in cinematography, lighting and colour grading, it is the visual artistry of Amit Dutta’s biopic Nainsukh (2010) that literally enlivens some of the greatest miniature paintings in each frame. A decade since its release, Nainsukh remains an obscure work of art hardly seen outside of film festivals and art museum screenings, while Portrait of a Lady on Fire has gained a cult status (deservedly so) in less than a year of its release.
The reasons for this ‘injustice’ to almost all of Amit Dutta’s films are many. Firstly, his films have never been released in theatres nor have they ever been streamed online on any platform. It is only recently that MUBI India acquired the exclusive rights to stream his films. They have been running a retrospective of his films for some months now, and that is how I happened to discover the experimental cinema of India’s foremost avant-garde filmmaker. Secondly, our cultural lacuna in appreciating and promoting indigenous art forms is responsible for the step-motherly attitude towards them. Thirdly, experimental cinema continues to be overlooked even by most cinephiles and film scholars. And, by marrying Indian traditional art with cinematic experiments, Amit Dutta has been practicing a discipline that has always had very few takers. His predecessors and former bastions of Indian experimental cinema, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, have had to endure the same fate in their career.
Like his mentor Kaul, Dutta has found more acclaim in foreign terrains than in India. Nainsukh was rated among the top ten films of the 67th Venice International Film Festival by Film Comment magazine, and eminent art historian Dr. Milo C. Beach remarked, “Nainsukh will do more for public interest in Indian painting than all the many scholarly essays.” Dutta’s 2007 short film Kramasha was included by renowned film critic Jonathan Rosenbaum in his list of 1000 best films of all time, calling it “a dazzling, virtuoso piece of mise en scène in 35-millimetre, full of uncanny imagery about the way the narrator imagines the past of his village and his family”. Dutta’s filmography and his thoughts on cinema have recently become the subject of detailed study in internationally acclaimed Indian film critic Srikanth Srinivasan’s book Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta. It is the first book-length study on the experimental filmmaker and a must-read for anyone interested in Indian arts and cinema in general.
In Dutta’s cinematic world, the focus is more on form than the subject. He is more interested in the technique of storytelling than the story. That’s precisely why he likes to experiment with different aspects of filmmaking and create a new language with each film. Riveting sound design and a minimalist approach in narrative (influenced by Robert Bresson) define Dutta’s work. In fact, it was Bresson’s Mouchette (1967) that triggered in him the desire to study filmmaking. The editing in the final scene of the film had impressed him much more than its emotional content. Since his early days as a student at FTII, he has been attempting to subvert the grammar of cinema, and offer something unique and challenging. He defies any attempt to categorize him into any bracket, by constantly discarding his own grammar and thereby discovering a fresh voice.
Dutta’s trysts with Indian art history and its artists had begun long before Nainsukh. In 2001, while a student at the film institute in Pune, he accompanied an anthropology professor and his students on their fieldwork to the village of Ramkhind in Maharashtra. This resulted in an ethnographic documentary titled Ramkhind: A Warli Village, which observes the Warli painters and their folk art over several days. The same year, a news story about the suicide of a resident Indian tribal artist, Jangarh Singh Shyam, in the Mithila Musuem of Japan, affected Dutta deeply. After years of research, in 2008, enabled by a seed grant from the India Foundation for the Arts, Dutta went to Jangarh’s Gond village of Patangarh in Madhya Pradesh with a digital video recorder and captured over a hundred hours of footage. He pruned and condensed this vast material down to a 24-minute documentary without voiceover, titled Jangarh: Film One.
Finally, it is with Nainsukh that Dutta invents a new film aesthetic by offering a unique perspective on storytelling through miniature art. The life of the titular eighteenth-century Pahari painter from Guler in Himachal Pradesh, comes alive on screen through a series of miniature paintings, mostly created during his time as a court painter to Balwant Singh, the ruler of the neighbouring state of Jasrota. To make the film, Dutta explored the Kangra Valley nested in Himachal Pradesh with Swiss art historian and ethnologist Dr Eberhard Fischer (also the producer of Nainsukh), who introduced him to all the sites Nainsukh had lived and worked in. The bulk of the research for the film is sourced from the writing of Indian art historian B.N. Goswamy, considered to be an authority on miniature Pahari paintings of the Kangra Valley.
Goswamy and Dutta have continued to collaborate since then, with Dutta exploring the vast ocean of Indian miniature art by diving into the decades-old archives of Goswamy’s research. These learnings form the basis of Dutta’s subsequent short films on miniature paintings and their history, such as Museum of Imagination (2012), Field-Trip (2013) and Chitrashala (2015). In 2013, Amit Dutta experimented with Pahari paintings that depicted the tormented love between the young Lord Krishna and Radha, and infused them with exquisite sounds that reflected the essence of the 12th-century epic poem Gita Govinda. The same year he made a 72 minute silent film, Saatvin Sair, on the art of painter Paramjit Singh. It is a surreal confluence of art and nature’s poetic beauty, filmed in the forests of Kangra Valley.
Ever since Nainsukh, Dutta has made the Kangra Valley his permanent abode and has been making films at an enviable pace despite the financial constraints. Contrary to what one might expect from an established filmmaker, he prefers to lead a life of meditative privacy in the hills and work as an anonymous craftsman. In his recent self-financed and digitally shot films, he has donned the role of writer, director, cinematographer, editor and sound designer.
So, for a filmmaker who refuses to play the film festival game, or cater to a defined sensibility, what audience is he looking for in the future? By his own admission, Dutta is a supporter of personal viewing at home, which he considers to be a very intense and intimate experience similar to that of reading a book in isolation.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.