In a country where the industrialisation of the cinematic art form is considered by many as an inevitable consequence of the socio-economic conditions as well as the changing habits of the modern consumer, Indian filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak is trying his best to survive in a marginal space which he claims is independent of the logic of the market. Anyone familiar with his work will immediately agree because they will be the first to tell you that Avikunthak is not interested in the concerns of mainstream cinema. He isn’t even interested in telling stories, choosing to conceptualise the act of filmmaking in a completely different way.
In order to understand the complex and esoteric artistic sensibilities of Avikunthak, it is important to note that a lot of the questions his films ask are based on his fractured sense of identity. In our interview, he reveals that his parents moved to Kolkata in “the late ‘60s – early ‘70s” after being raised in families that were displaced due to the traumatic history of the partition. Avikunthak grew up in a Punjabi household in South Kolkata but had to converse with his friends in Bengali while his Catholic school enforced the colonial values of English elitism. This politicisation of language remained embedded in his mind, ultimately manifesting in his artistic projects.
Many of his films are shot in Kolkata, a city that has been interpreted in many ways by legendary filmmakers like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen. However, Avikunthak’s perception of Kolkata is unlike any other representation that I am familiar with. He manages to transform the entire city into a heterotopic space, forcing the viewer to confront questions of mortality and civilisational decadence. He tells me: “What you see in my films reflects that… being within Calcutta but still being an outsider.” Even the usage of Bengali in his works is surreal, signifying his obsession with cultural juxtapositions. “The linguistic register of Bengali in my films is highly archaic – almost non-real Bengali,” Avikunthak explains.
An associate professor of film studies at the University of Rhode Island, Avikunthak uses the surplus capital that he generates through his teaching position to make the kind of films he wants to make. Like a true academic, he tries to sketch a rough chart of the developments that took place in the history of cinema due to capitalism and the emergence of new technology when I ask a question about the distribution of his films. “My cinema is not dependent on that distributive ecology,” Avikunthak insists. “I make cinema with my own capital and I am not concerned about the return of that capital.” He also differentiates himself from other pioneers like Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Guru Dutt by stating that unlike them, he isn’t dependent on the government either. He is as independent as possible but he is quick to remind me that his independence only applies to the logic of market and that he “cannot escape capital.”
There has been a shift in the aesthetic frameworks of Avikunthak’s cinema, creating a sharp distinction between the anarchic quality of his earlier short films and features like Shadows Formless and the meditative reflections of later projects such as Katho Upanishad and The Churning of Kalki. While the latter films might lead many viewers to categorise his work under the umbrella term of Slow Cinema, Avikunthak denounces the genre as “a film festival market construct of the late ‘90s and the early 2000s.” He maintains that practitioners of Slow Cinema like Béla Tarr are primarily interested in visual narratives but he is more devoted to the foregrounding of the aural. “Aurality is extraordinarily important,” he adds.
Avikunthak tells me that he watched many Western masterpieces such as French New Wave gems by the likes of Jean-Luc Godard in his formative years, letting his subconscious absorb them. However, he cites the innovators of the New Wave in Indian filmmaking as his primary influences: “Ghatak, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop, Amitabh Chakraborty.” Although one can be reminded of the philosophical investigations of scholars like Wittgenstein, Heidegger and Derrida while watching his films, Avikunthak says: “I don’t think of myself as a philosopher.” He claims that all these philosophers definitely inspired him in his early years but he is also equally moved by the rich tradition of “Vedantic, Upanishadic work.”
He describes his films as acts of invocation, trying to invoke religious, cultural, historical and philosophical symbols in an “invocatory rather than explanatory” way. “Cinema is not about storytelling, it is also not the documentary mode where I am explaining something,” Avikunthak elaborates. “The fundamental question that is very important is ‘why do you want to make a film?’ For me, film is a certain philosophical thinking in an invocatory manner.” This invocation is paradoxical in many ways because there is also an overwhelming collective amnesia present in his works like The Churning of Kalki which is inspired by Samuel Beckett’s seminal play Waiting for Godot. He explains that these films are “non-historical, in the sense that I am deliberately not invoking a certain historical paradigmatic space… I am in conversation with a future yet to arrive which is located in the past.”
In almost all of his interviews, Avikunthak is asked whether his films are attempts to separate the vibrant history of Hinduism from the oppressive political regime of Hindutva that has and is currently terrorising India. “The term ‘Hinduism’ is a false homogenous category to signify a very varied, diverse heterogeneous tradition,” Avikunthak clarifies. “Hindutva, on the other hand is a clear and definite category with a definite historical, political and ideological genealogy… very specific ideological agenda. [Putting] them together in the same sentence, I would argue, is a problem.” Instead of relying on those terms, Avikunthak chooses to categorise his artistic vision as the “cinema of religiosity” deriving from tantric religiosity. “What I’m trying to do is to invoke a certain discourse of religiosity in my works,” he continues, “a certain interruption in the discursive hegemony that we are a part of now.”
There is an apocalyptic foreboding that underlines most of his work, something that he feels is a natural response to the Anthropocene. In the early ‘90s, Avikunthak was a political activist who was involved in the Narmada Bachao Andolan but he harbours “a certain sense of disenchantment” now which has been reinforced by his academic background in archaeology and cultural anthropology. He is familiar with the collapse of civilisations and uses his films to explore the “political and philosophical emptiness” of modernity. This disillusionment extends to his views about the current state of Indian cinema as well where “the logic of market is very profound.” He claims that the newer generation possesses a “deep rationality governed by the market. They all want to be famous, they all want to make money. For them, cinema is a means. It is not an end in itself.”
Having studied at Stanford, Avikunthak identifies the most significant problem that doesn’t just plague Indian film schools but many prestigious Indian educational institutions. He says that these places engage in the “training of technicians [who] are trained to solve problems. They are not trained to think.” When I suggest that many young aspiring filmmakers are also trying to think outside of the box by watching important cinematic landmarks that have been made increasingly accessible by the Internet, he sighs: “My cynicism arrives from a certain ecology we exist in.”
He assures the newer generation that the easy availability of filming equipment means that they no longer have to worry about how they are going to fulfil their artistic visions. Instead, the problem has become a much deeper one. Avikunthak puts it quite profoundly: “If you are a young filmmaker, the struggle is not about making it. It is about what to make.”