Dreams of Light: The Cinema of Amit Dutta


By Max Nelson

Six minutes into Nainsukh (2010), Amit Dutta’s dreamy, intoxicating tribute to the life and work of the brilliant 18th-century Indian miniaturist painter, two worlds collide. As Nainsukh and his father, also a painter, sit bent over their work in an open-air second-storey studio, the camera’s attention begins to wander, settling first on the family matriarch, then cutting to a succession of long shots of another man—Nainsukh’s brother—trekking home through valleys, hills and fields. When he arrives and comes upstairs, we perceive his entrance from Nainsukh’s eye level, though not, tellingly, through Nainsukh’s eyes: a brief close-up on the painter, this time from his brother’s perspective, finds him still lost in his work. After a beat, Nainsukh looks up, as (in a separate close-up) does his father. The camera, completing what has become an intricate triangle of gazes met and ignored, returns to the brother (now in profile), a stern-looking man with sharp eyebrows and a full beard. And then the collision happens: after taking such pains to sketch each family member’s position in three-dimensional space, Dutta suddenly flattens the frame, cutting to a portrait by Nainsukh, painted in exquisite, precise detail, of his brother’s profiled face.

Such moments, in which two mediums seem to be jostling for control of the film—or at least engaging in a kind of call and response—are Dutta’s stock in trade. Following The Man’s Woman and Other Stories (2009)—a film in the form of a short story anthology, each separate tale prefaced with a titled page of text—all his subsequent films have been adapted from works of visual art or works of art-historical scholarship. But “adapted” is not quite the right word. In Dutta’s films, artworks are rarely frozen, static things but ceaselessly evolving entities, constantly being made and remade, having their boundaries redrawn, and being conflated, in the eye of the beholder, with the world they represent.

Dutta has had a comparably shape-shifting career. Born in 1977 in Jammu, near India’s northernmost tip, he turned to filmmaking in his early 20s, after graduating college with a degree in economics. Dutta made his first feature, Ramkhind (2005), while he was still studying at the National Film and Television Institute, and it’s striking how many themes in his later, more formally rigorous films can be traced back to this ragged ethnographic study of a rural village haunted by spirits, demons, and ghosts. Shot on handheld digital video, Ramkhind is as loose and unbridled as Nainsukh is meticulous and poised. The smooth tracking shots and artfully arranged tableaux that characterize Dutta’s subsequent work are nowhere in evidence as the camera darts, weaves, and hops about, particularly during a small group’s lantern-lit march down a dusty path and a showstopping, ten-minute-long dance fuelled by drums, chants, and bells. Nonetheless, the project helped Dutta arrive at a set of habits that would soon become hallmarks of his style: his immersive sound design, his attention to minute environmental details, his willingness to linger in a space waiting for a disruption or a shift in the atmosphere, and his tendency to place works of art (here, a set of totemic papier-mâché statues) in a kind of symbiotic, mutually dependent relationship with the landscapes and places that enclose them.

Between the completion of Ramkhind and the premiere of The Man’s Woman and Other Stories at the 2009 Venice Film Festival, Dutta took one more stab at straight ethnography with Jangarh – Film One (2007), a documentary retracing the brief, tragic life of a young village artist whose vivid wall paintings catapulted him, ultimately catastrophically, into the urban art world. The same year, Dutta made another, very different portrait of rural Indian life with the 20-minute Kramasha, whose title translates as “To Be Continued”—apt, given that the film is a dense mosaic of childhood recollections, folk tales and dreams, pieced together shard by shard by a wandering author figure. Strolling past waterfalls, temples, forests, and gardens, the narrator summons up memories of his mother (and, superimposed onto those, memories of her memories), tells a pair of mythic stories, and produces (or seems to produce) a constant stream of indelible images: a miraculous childbirth; a crumpled flower magically re-arranging itself; a bloody footprint punctured by a stake; an enormous tree growing through the centre of an empty house. Never before or since has Dutta made use of such a wide range of stylistic devices in a single film. Early on, the camera tends to move in smooth, horizontal tracking shots, like an eye scanning across a page; later it lunges forward, hurriedly retreats, or even ascends to observe the action from vertiginous, godlike angles. While the story searches for its unifying thread, the movie is searching—inconclusively, but thrillingly—for a form.

Perhaps because it attempts to pack three independent stories (all concerning the collision between urban and rural values in modern India) into an 80-minute feature, The Man’s Woman never fully reaches the ecstatic heights of Kramasha. Still, it indicates that Dutta, even as a novice to long-form storytelling, was adept at injecting spaces for reflection into his narratives, giving his characters room to let their minds wander and their thoughts drift. In the first story, Dutta lingers in a tiny rural apartment, picking up every buzz of the ceiling light and every chirp of the cicadas outside; midway through the third, he stretches out a young man’s slow, cautious nocturnal descent into a cavernous factory in which, he soon discovers, he’s not alone.

The Man’s Woman marked the conclusion (at least to date) of the project Dutta had begun in Kramasha—to find cinematic equivalents for literary forms—even as its immediate successor announced his committed engagement with the visual arts. Nainsukh stands at the centre of Dutta’s output to date: the three major shorts he has made since orbit it like satellites, each approaching the painter’s life and legacy from a slightly different angle, and his subsequent features have each built on its formal template in their own way. The details of Nainsukh’s biography are scattered and often vague. He was born around the year 1710 in the hill town of Guler, part of the Kangra district of northern India. His father, Pandit Seu, and his older brother Manaku were both accomplished painters, but during Nainsukh’s childhood the family found itself caught at an artistic crossroads, as the Pahari painting style native to Gular—of which Pandit Seu was a major practitioner—was being slowly transformed by the importation of a more naturalistic school associated with the Mughal empire. (Ironically, Pandit Seu himself helped introduce this stylistic shift.)

Unlike his brother, who maintained his essentially conservative style, Nainsukh came to draw freely and imaginatively from both traditions. The bulk of his major work was made in the service of an appreciative prince named Balwant Singh, who belonged to a royal family based in Jasrota (a principality included in Jammu, Dutta’s home state). The exquisite paintings he produced during that time give us a vivid picture of courtly life: its daily rhythms, major ceremonies, styles of architecture, and habits of dress. Nainsukh comes off in these works as a somewhat paradoxical figure: full of tenderness for his patrons yet willing to observe them with unfawning detachment; motivated equally by a respect for tradition and a drive to experiment, synthesize, and invent.

Like any biography, Nainsukh can only appraise its subject’s life and work at a remove, through the textual, oral, and physical evidence (whether scarce or abundant) that the life and work have left behind; and like most biographies, it is driven by a desire to move beyond the secondhand, to give viewers an immediate encounter with its subject, or at least the illusion thereof. Dutta’s strategy, as conceptually daring as it is pictorially striking, is to treat Nainsukh’s paintings not as representations or re-imaginings, but direct, unmediated, almost photographic records of the artist’s 18th-century milieu. Shot in Jammu and Kashmir, where the adult Nainsukh lived and worked, the film consists largely of live-action recreations of the artist’s major works, each tableau a stunning stand-alone creation in itself, carefully detailed, gorgeously lit, and paired with details from the corresponding paintings. Re-creating the paintings on the original sites of their composition becomes, for Dutta, a way of giving the past a kind of tangible presence, of blurring the line between the painter’s world and ours.

This vision of art as a kind of time machine takes on literal expression in Dutta’s next feature, Sonchidi (2011). In the film’s final third, two pilgrim-like travellers arrive at a massive, hollowed-out rock formation punctured by a window and a pair of doors; stepping inside, they find themselves in a labyrinthine palace bedecked with murals and wall paintings. (Dutta shot the interior scenes at a small hill palace in Arki, a town near the bottom of Himachal Pradesh—the same state, incidentally, where Nainsukh was born.) The more talkative and mystically inclined of the two becomes convinced that the place is a spaceship built by a “mad engineer” he knew long ago as a means of moving from one life to the next. This speculation cues one of the film’s most exhilarating passages: a montage of painted scenes from the temple’s walls depicting the history of the British presence in India that seems, with the help of some imaginative cutting and immersive soundtrack choices (cries, gunshots, bagpipes, and martial drums for images of battle; piano arpeggios and the clatter of horses’ hooves for those of peace), to come to life in real time. Like Kramasha, the pilgrimage in Sonchidi is as much a journey through time as it is through space, seamlessly transitioning between present and past: as the travellers wander through the mountainous landscape where they grew up, reminiscing about their shared childhood while setting down their thoughts with a portable sound recorder, their childhood incarnations keep intruding on the action, walking through the same buildings and along the same paths as their adult selves. But Sonchidi also picks up a subject central to Nainsukh: the role of art in recording and shaping history, be it national, local, or personal.

Following Sonchidi, Dutta’s films branch out in a slightly different direction. The Museum of Imagination (2012), subtitled “A Portrait in Absentia,” takes as its jumping-off point a series of interviews Dutta conducted with Indian art scholar B.N. Goswamy the previous year. “Interspersed with his talks were also some silences,” reads an introductory title card. “In this film we have put some of those moments of silence together,” along with “some sights and sounds that have been a part of his life.” Images of the Kangra Valley in Himachal Pradesh (where Dutta has shot all of his films since Nainsukh) alternate with details from paintings, sketches and statues, close-ups of ruins and sacred sites, deserted or near-deserted museums, pages from Goswamy’s many books, and occasional glimpses of painters at work, all accompanied by a thick collage of music and sound effects—watching this 20-minute film feels like flipping through a scrapbook, or, more appropriately, browsing through an exhibition catalogue. (It even ends with a bibliography.)

In Museum and its 2013 follow-up Field-Trip (which follows Goswamy on a return journey to the small village where some of Nainsukh’s descendants now live), Dutta pushes the palimpsestic project of Nainsukh even further, not only conflating works of art with the landscapes that inspired them, but also engaging with the subsequent scholarship on those works. Art and life are inseparable, interchangeable: paintings (of forests, rivers, and rearing war-horses) are scored with appropriate sound effects, or paired with live-action shots to which they seem to correspond (as Goswamy rises from his desk at one point, Dutta cuts to a shot of a painted figure walking away); at several points, over shots of the Kangra Valley, a hand is heard flipping through a book of paintings by artists from the region. Where, exactly, does the work of art exist in Dutta’s Museum? On paper, in the mind of its creator, in the collective imagination of its admirers, or in the reality from which it originally drew?

In his latest feature, The Seventh Walk, Dutta pursues this question for the first time through the work of a living artist: Paramjit Singh, a 78-year-old New Delhi-based abstract painter whose shimmering, mirage-like canvases are, at least on the surface, miles apart from Nainsukh’s minutely detailed, sharply defined studies of courtly life. Accordingly, The Seventh Walk is Dutta’s most abstract film to date, which will also make it, at least for a subset of Western viewers, one of his more accessible. Where most of Dutta’s previous films operated within a distinctly Indian context, The Seventh Walk’s vaguer, less culturally specific kind of mysticism feels closer in spirit to the work of arthouse icons like Paradjanov, Sokurov, and Tarkovsky.

Even so, The Seventh Walk is quite likely Dutta’s most formally original film thus far, and in many ways his most accomplished. Aside from a fable-like interlude involving a pigtailed young girl, her hooded, wizened grandmother, and a pair of woven slippers, the film is largely given over to footage of the Kangra Valley and records of Singh’s artistic process. After a 15-minute prelude showing Singh on an afternoon walk through the forest, Dutta starts chipping away at the distinction between filmed and painted worlds. The slippered young girl is modelled after the subject of one of the painter’s portraits; late in the film, Dutta cuts to her painted counterpart from a shot of her poised stock-still on a bench like a seasoned portrait-sitter. In one passage, a stone hovers in midair amidst various landmarks in the valley, re-creating scenes from some of Singh’s earlier, Surrealist-inspired works. Throughout the film, the camera glides over forest floors, tree trunks, and fields of grass in smooth, brushstroke-like motions; in an especially medium-blurring moment, it tracks across a tangle of grass and weeds to the sound of Singh scratching away at a drawing.

Dutta has never before given such attention to the process of artmaking, and it’s likely that watching Singh at work has helped to expand his cinematic vocabulary. His camera is looser, freer, and more curious than it has been since Ramkhind, but with the subtler eye for the texture, shading, temperature, and distribution of light that he has acquired in the dozen years since. More radically, in the mesmerizing final ten minutes he takes the fusion of film and the artworks it depicts further than he ever has before: Singh’s finished paintings take over the film, first filmed straight on and then bent, refracted, and layered (in some cases by the superimposition of multiple paintings upon one another, in others by the application of kaleidoscopic visual filters to individual works) until they start to take on a kind of natural pulse.

Gita Govinda, Dutta’s latest, as yet unscreened short, returns us to Nainsukh territory by narrating the story of the 11th-century poet Jayadeva’s eponymous epic—which describes, on one level, the erotic love of Krishna for a beautiful gopi (female cowherd), and on another the soul’s desire for union with God—through a series of paintings by Nainsukh’s descendants. Here, the three-way relationship between the work of art, its setting, and the site of its creation becomes especially blurred, in part because Dutta no longer assumes, as he often did in Nainsukh and The Museum of Imagination, that each painting has a single corresponding setting. (There’s an art-historical basis for this choice: the poem was written in the flatlands of eastern India, but the painters, working seven centuries later, relocated the story to their home terrain in the Himalayan foothills.) While Gita Govinda shares certain tendencies with Dutta’s recent work—the careful layering of environmental sound and the technique of showing each picture piecemeal before revealing it in full—it finds Dutta treating the paintings for the first time as living, self-contained worlds unto themselves rather than analogues of existing landscapes. It is now the process of looking at the pictures, rather than the contrast between the paintings and their physical settings, that makes for the movie’s central drama: Dutta guides us from detail to detail with a newfound subtlety and patience, each shot gesturing gently towards another region of the painting and beckoning us to follow its lead.  

Dutta’s career, especially since Nainsukh, has had few models or precedents. With a handful of exceptions—Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966), Jacques Rivette’s La belle noiseuse (1991), Victor Erice’s El sol del membrillo (1992), David Gatten’s The Extravagant Shadows (2012), Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross (2011), the collected works of Greenaway and Sokurov, late Godard—painting and cinema have frequently made for uneasy bedfellows; there’s something about the freedom that  paintings grant the eye to hone in on any detail, in any order, that’s difficult to capture in a fixed, linear sequence of shots. Even the above-listed filmmakers rarely invested themselves as completely or consistently as Dutta does in the painted world: animating it, exploring it, sketching out its relation to life, tracing its origins, reflecting on its future. Over the past few years, Dutta has become a kind of emissary from one medium to another, or (as he might prefer to see himself) a landscape painter who happens to work with a camera rather than a brush. With each new entry in his cinematic museum, he seems to be striving for the same goal as Balzac’s artist in “The Unknown Masterpiece”: an effacement of the distinction between reality and representation, a work in which “the air is so real you can no longer distinguish it from the air around yourselves.”