Amit Dutta has referred to his work as “research-based cinema.” Especially in his films that explore Indian art history—which we are highlighting in our streaming film program Amit Dutta’s Cinematic Museum—they are attempts to merge cinema aesthetics with traditional Indian artistic ideas. Paintings may come alive using actors and sets, as they do in Nainsukh, his portrait of the famed eighteenth-century Pahari painter; or they may stir to life in animated form after a museum closes, as they do in Chitrashala (House of Paintings); or Dutta may use texts from ancient Hindi design manuals, known as Shilpa Shastras, to conjure the story of a fictional eighth-century architect, filmed in the ruins of an actual eighth-century temple, as he does in The Unknown Craftsman.
We’ll be streaming a dozen of Dutta’s films, ranging from shorts to features. If you’re looking for a place to start, you could follow the advice of Srikanth Srinivasan, who, in his book Modernism by Other Means: The Films of Amit Dutta, asserts that Scenes from a Sketchbook “is arguably Dutta’s most accessible, most transparent work to date. It . . . serves as an ideal entry point into his oeuvre.” One of several Dutta films that considers Nainsukh and his family (Pahari court painters for generations), Scenes from a Sketchbook looks at how Nainsukh often left preparatory outlines and changes visible in his drawings, allowing, as Srinivasan puts it, “the viewer [to] get a glimpse into the trajectory of his thought.” And so, Dutta includes “cinematographic ‘underdrawings’. . . unsatisfactory sounds, false starts, and extra takes,” thus letting us watch his process evolve.
One of my interests is narrative-based art’s evolution into cinema—the way, for instance, the visual storytelling techniques of Japanese Edo period screen paintings and manga found their way into the movies in the forms of dissolves, close-ups, and more. This also drew me to Dutta’s work. Pahari paintings are frequently painted in a series that illustrates famous stories, such as the Gita Govinda series Dutta explores in the film of the same name. As such, he sees them not only as “the last portals to a system of thinking now almost lost to us,” as he says in an interview with BOMB Magazine, but as an “alternate fountainhead” for Indian cinema, which, from its origins, he believes is too reliant on popular theater and European academic art.
In the same interview, Dutta says, “I like the idea of making cinema by disassembling and reassembling reality in such a way that discovers new arrangements.” His work should appeal to our film patrons who like to see directors experiment with narrative form. It should also appeal to the many devotees of our world-class collection of Indian art and miss visiting it in person. For them, curator of South and Southeast Asian art Debra Diamond has curated a small online exhibition of works from our collection that relate directly to some of Dutta’s films.
I hope that, like me, you will find in Dutta’s films both new insights into Indian art and a unique way of thinking about what cinema can be.