Ashish Avikunthak occupies a space in Indian cinema so on the fringes of the market that calling it niche would be an overstatement. An experimental filmmaker who also teaches at an university in the US, he considers himself a practitioner in the tradition of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani–pioneers of Indian avant garde cinema–and among his contemporaries, to an extent, Amit Dutta and Tejal Shah. As different as they are from each other, the common thread that binds all these artists is that they are much more concerned with form and structure in film rather than narrative.
Avikunthak calls himself an "anti-storyteller". And his latest work, Namanush Premer Kothamala, is a testimony to that. The film is designed like a glossary, with 64 words in them, divided into as many chapters. It has a set of characters who converse among themselves about religion, sexual desire, the Ramayana among many other things. Some of the actors are nude for the most part. The film begins with a note: the world is ruled by artificial intelligence; but even though non-humans have overtaken in every department, one thing that still eludes them is love. Namanush Premer Kothamala played this week at the Rotterdam film festival.
Falling at the intersection of film and art, so far Avikunthak's works have played in galleries and biennales all over the world. They are being made available to a wider audience for the first time, thanks to a retrospective on Mubi India that will showcase 11 of his films.
His films are, mildly put, challenging to watch—this is how Art Review, that put him in their Future Greats 2014, described him: "These are self-consciously difficult works that are filmed in a self-consciously beautiful way." They are academic, highly formal, and deeply religious. They are also heavily verbose. The first Avikunthak film I saw was Katho Upanishad (2011): a feature length film that played on loop on a triptych screen at Chatterjee & Lal, an art gallery in Mumbai, in which Nachiket and Yama engage in a metaphysical dialogue.
The second one was Rati Chakravyuh (2013), in which a group of couples at a mass wedding, seated in a circle around the holy fire, talk and talk; it was a one-take film in which the camera circleed around the characters over 105 minutes. Avikunthak prioritises the oral over the visual. "The oral is more primordial," he tells me over the phone, "The foetus in the mother's womb can hear, even before the child can see." To add to that, Avikunthak works with ancient Indian texts, which are an oral tradition. With deliberately stylised and artificial acting, he wants to push the viewer out of her comfort zone. "The cinematic image in my films is beautiful and real, but the acting is the opposite of that," he adds. "It's contrapuntal, like music."
He continues to liken the way he crafts his films to the "biological cognisance" of the foetus, which starts "feeling" even before it develops the ability to hear. Therefore he tries to make his films "tactile". Avikunthak's films, especially the shorts made in the 90s and early 2000s, shot on 16mm and 35mm, are rich in texture. Which doesn't mean that his new film isn't; but it was shot in digital (for practical reasons), with grains added in post-production. "We chose this particular type of grain from a website, for which we had to pay," he says.
Avikunthak's works spring from the deep wells of Indian philosophy, history and religion. Born in Jabalpur and grown up in Kolkata, he is an MA in Archaeology from Pune University, and an MA & PhD in cultural anthropology from Stanford University. But his interest in Indian philosophical thought goes back to as early as high school; he started following a Gandhian way of life and dressing in khadi. Like a perennial performance artist without a break, Avikunthak is always in dhoti and kurta; he sports a bushy moustache and wears round-rimmed glasses. Kaul and Shahani, too, were operating from within an Indian framework, but Avikunthak has found his beat in the more esoteric tantric tradition. "Tantra, I would argue is the pinnacle of Indian sophisticated thought," he says. He likens his films to "an invocation of mantras".
That explains the centrality of Kali in his works. Whether it's Kalighat Fetish (1999)–in which her male devotees celebrate by crossdressing–or Apothkalin Trikalika (2016)—where the goddess is reimagined in a contemporary world–Avikunthak wants to invoke a freer, more open strain of Hinduism, a religion that is being hijacked by right-wing groups. In his new film, humans become god-like figures just by the virtue of being nude (shot carefully, with available light, and desaturated colours, with the actors largely static, so as to make it non-erotic).
According to Avikunthak, the nude is a symbol of "divine purity", one that goes back to the earliest Buddhist and Jain art of gods and goddesses. Through its impenetrable dialogue, the film talks about female desire, and suggests ideas of multiple partners, homosexuality. Through his films, Avikunthak is reclaiming Hinduism from the conservatives. "The religion, obviously, has its oppressive streaks like caste and other forms. But it is important to foreground the multi-vocality, liberated nature of Hinduism. Otherwise, Hindutva, with its anti-Islamic rhetoric, will take it away from us."