His filmic intervention is a practice that engages, experiments, transforms, and reconfigures cinematic representation, says Ashish Avikunthak, director of Nirakar Chhaya, a Bengali film based on Sethu’s novel.
You have mentioned about cinema of religiosity. Will you elaborate this in the context of Nirakar Chhaya?
In my films, I create an aesthetic idiom that I call mythic realism. This form of cinema is a filmic intersection of the mythological genre and the neo-realistic aesthetics. Earliest cinema in India was mythological and, for the first two decades, the spectacle of this genre dominated Indian cinema until it was displaced by melodramas and social dramas in the 1930s. Again with the rise of television in the 1980s, it was the mythological genre that dominated and captured the imagination of the nation - a time when I was growing up. My filmic intervention is a practice that engages, experiments, transforms, and reconfigures this genre of cinematic representation.
This programmatic idea is inflected by neo-realism, especially the way it got reconfigured in India by Ritwik Ghatak and later by the avant-garde filmmakers of the Indian New Wave - Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. Analogous to magical realism, mythical realism is a world where mythological times inhabit the every day, and simultaneously where everyday actions become a mythical ritual. I come from a middle class, religious Hindu family, where divine figures, religious symbols and mythic objects would infuse with my urban everyday world in Calcutta. It is this seamless interplay of realism, ritual and myth that I evoke in my work. My films displace the mythic from the domains of the heavenly to everyday banality of the quotidian. In Nirakar Chaaya, this mythic religiosity is present mostly as a subtext rather than an overt articulation.
This takes to another aspect, Time. According to Indian philosophy, it is Kaalchakra. How do you look at this? You once said that ‘more than embalming of time, I think of cinema as conjuring with time or as maya. With reference to Tarkovsky’s famous idea ‘Sculpting in Time’, will you please elaborate?
For me cinema is primarily about temporality. Early cinema was about temporality. The first cinematic representations were about time… the workers getting out of Lumiere Brother’s factory or the coming of the train. Cinema was about image, the moving-image. This movement was through times. The movement was so attractive that time moved into the background and the narrative of the movement came into the foreground. And then narrative colonized the possibility of the movement in time. I am interested in movement through temporality. In this process I do not discard narrative, because I cannot after more than 100 years of narrative colonisation over time in cinema. What I do is to subvert narrative. I do not discard narrative. I just radically shift its focus. You can even say that my films are post-narrative - conceptually analogous to the idea of post-colonial.
As in - in India we can never get outside the colonial because modernity was bestowed upon us through the colonial experience. In India the power of the cinema came through narrative - through Phalke via Life of Christ. So for me, my cinema is post-narrative, as in it is committed to narrative, but I want to bring time into the foreground. I want through my cinema a play with temporality. And then, the moment I utter that, it means within the framework of Indian metaphysics that I am talking about maya. Then my cinema becomes cinema of maya - a conscious, awareness of ‘conjuring with time’. And the concept of maya is integral to Kaalchakra.
You struggle to find money to produce your films. With new technology available cheaply, how do you see the future?
I don’t struggle to find money or raise money. I struggle to make films with my own money. It is an important distinction that I am making. When I started making films in 1995, I realized that there is no way to raise or find money to make my films. I make films on my own, with my own money. It is this mode of production of my cinematic practice. I do not see my films and videos as a commodity that circulates in the world of capital. I see them as autonomous pieces of work that can exist irrespective of circuits of capital. It is this idea of a cinematic work devoid of its dependence on circuits of capital and finances that drives my practice of art production.
I don’t work with a market in mind therefor I don’t look for money or search for money. I work more like an artist than a filmmaker. I started this practice the hard way in the 1990s, when filmmaking was very expensive. I did all kinds of work to make money, and most importantly live frugally and save money to make films. For instanceNirakar Chhaya was made by saving my Phd student stipend at Stanford University for seven years and living very frugally in the US - a life style that I still maintain. So for me this way of filmmaking is a political mode. It gives me full control over the filmmaking process, without any dependence on funds, institutions and market.
Today this mode of filmmaking is more possible than ever before as technology has become inexpensive and so have new forms of distribution through the internet. If it took me around five years to make my first film, today I can make a feature film a year. Now, the struggle is not about money but to get people to see my work.
In the age of globalisation, a standardisation is happening everywhere - in culture, beauty, taste, food, etc. What do you think about using local myths and traditions against cultural invasion.
I do not make films to fight globalisation, transforming beauty, taste or culture. As an anthropologist I am aware that they are in a constant process of flux. I am deeply aware of this change but do not see my films as an intervention in this world. My cinema is not a gesture or an act of protest in this transforming world. I do not use religion, myths or local tradition as an act of politics. For me my films emerge from a deeper core than being mere political, cultural or social gesture.
Somewhere in between, in the name of modernism, we started avoiding traditions in cinema. Left wing thinking widely spread the idea that usage of tradition is revivalism. But you use lot of traditional elements in your films - kathakali, Durga, Kali etc. Please elaborate.
This is a politically and historically loaded question. I think modernity is an idea that we in India are still trying to negotiate. It is till a work in progress. The history of India in the past two hundred years is a testament to that complex negotiation process. I think it is very simplistic both by the Left and the Right to stereotype tradition, religion, and culture within their ideological cocoons. My usage of religion and tradition come from a very different core. It is not political or ideological. It comes from a deeper framework that as I have tired to explain within the framework of cinema of religiosity.
Another way of looking at my films would be within the idea of Cinema of Prayoga. It is a term that has been coined by film critic Amrit Gangar.
Cinema of Prayoga is a radical conceptual framework, which originates from the polyphony of Indian culture and philosophy. It challenges the dominant film discourses by locating itself in the ancient pre-modern tradition of prayoga (innovation) and kaal (time in-continuum). Cinema of Prayoga is a bold alternative to understand Indian as well as Euro-American experimental filmmaking practice as an experience of thinking and feeling. It harnesses the Indian notions of time and space for an inclusive cinematography across cultural and national boundaries.
Cinema Prayoga is a radical attempt to steer away from the image, a cinematographic contradiction, towards an evocation of an aesthetic unity. Works ranging from the early works of Dadasaheb Phalke, Mani Kaul, Aravindan, Kamal Swaroop to the contemporary filmmakers such as Amit Dutta, Vipin Vijay, Argho Basu, Kabir Mohanty and mine have been included in the discourse.
by P K Surendran (A Malayalam film critic based in Mumbai)