Experimental and Avant-garde films made in India
By Ashish Avikunthak
In June 2019, I was invited by Abhishek Nilamber - a young curator to show a retrospective of my films at Wolf Kino - one of the newest venue for art-house cinema exhibition in Berlin. This was my mid-career retrospective organized by Wolf-Kino, where over the course of six days between, June 7th to June 12th 2019, five feature films of mine were shown along with a talk on my practice on 9th June. This was the first time a retrospective of my feature-films are being presented in a European country, it was rare honor for me and for Indian cinema.
The Curator - Abhishek Nilamber
As a curator, Abhishek Nilamber, who is originally from Kerala, but has been a resident of Berlin for the past four years, works with projects and products which catalyzes democratization of knowledge. He is a curator and project manager at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin and creative consultant at Backyard Civilization, Kochi, India. Nilamber has been living and working in Berlin since May 2016.
I had met Abhishek Nilamber, when he came to Calcutta in early 2018 to interview me about independent filmmaking and distribution as part of a research project he was curating called “United Screens”. This research aimed to collect testimonials of individuals and associations involved with the contemporary alternate film scenes/industries active in postcolonial countries. “United Screens”, based its investigation on Third Cinema theory which proposed the decolonization of culture, through radical approaches to cinema production and distribution, and argued that the contemporary alternative cinemas, produced in post-colonial nations, might be the resurgence of third cinema propositions.
This curatorial research project was eventually exhibited in Savvy Contemporary, Berlin in July 2018, bringing together filmmakers, producers, formal and informal distributors, cinema critics, and film organizations and institutions into a cross-geopolitical conversation and dialogue about the state of today's: third cinema film culture and what it encompassed.
The Cinema Theater - Wolf-Kino
Wolf-Kino, Berlin is the newest independent art-house theatre in Berlin and shows top of the line international art-cinema from contemporary releases to classics. It is a collaborative cinema theatre in Berlin run by a collective of cinephiles led by Verena von Stackelberg, Kristofer Woods, Maia Santos and others. It is situated in the Neukölln boroughs of Berlin which has very rapidly transformed from a working-class district to a neighborhood inundated with vegan cafés and feisty cross-cultural stores, and delicious kebab shops.
According to the founder Verena von Stackelberg the building which now houses Wolf Kino was once a book binder shop, a laundrette, a bakery, a tobacco store, and a brothel. Before Wolf Kino started, it was a disused and crumbling space and now turned it into a cinema showing the best of international art-house cinema. The collective ran a crowdfunding camping in 2015 to transform the abandoned location into one of Berlin’s happening cinema spot. It started operations in 2017.
Today, Wolf-Kino has two screens with pristine exhibition conditions, with high-end 2K Christie’s projectors for screening DCP – gold standard of digital cinema projections – and high fidelity sound systems in their cinema theatre. I was informed by Kristofer Woods that the cinema theatre was designed, constructed and fitted by technicians who work for the Berlinale.
The retrospective of my films was the second that Wolf-Kino organized since they opened in 2017. In summer of 2018, they had organized a retrospective of films by Peter Watkins – one of the foremost political documentary filmmaker from UK who has recurrently questioned the establishment in his astonishing works since the 1960s and confronted his audience with his docu-dramatic films.
All the films that will be shown in this retrospective have been produced in the last 8 years. Here is short description of each of the films that will be shown as part of retrospective.
- Katho Upanishad, 35mm, Color, Hindi, 80 minutes, 2011 - Teach me the path beyond death,” asks Nachiketa to Yama, the God of Death. ‘Katho Upanishad’ is a film that expounds on this basic quest of human existence. It is a film about a man's pursuit for nirvana. The film centers on the metaphysical dialogue between Nachiketa and Yama. It is an adaptation of a two and half thousand years old Sanskrit treatise of the same name, where Yama instructs Nachiketa about the path towards enlightenment. Structurally, the film is a triad with three chapters – the quest, the dialogue and the final liberation.
- Rati Chakravyuh, DCP, Color, Bengali 105 minutes, 2013 - On a lunar eclipse midnight, in a desolate temple, six young newlywed couples and a priestess meet after a mass wedding. They sit in a circle and talk. This is their last conversation – an exchange about life, death, beginning, end and everything in between. After a discussion that lasts more than an hour and a half, they commit mass suicide.
- The Churning of Kalki (Kalkimanthankatha), DCP, Color and B&W, Bengali, 79 minutes, 2015 - Following the footsteps of Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot", two actors from Calcutta go to the largest gathering of humans on earth - the Hindu festival of Maha Kumbh of Allahabad in 2013, which occurs once in 12 years, to search for Kalki - the Tenth and the final avatar of Lord Vishnu. The most mysterious of Vishnu's Avatar who has been on earth but has never been found. However, an outbreak of a monumental war occurs during their quest. They then prepare themselves by reading Chairman Mao-se-Tung's "Little Red Book".
- The Kali of Emergency (Aapothkalin Trikalika), DCP, Color and B&W, Bengali, 79 minutes, 2017 - During social and political turmoil what is the manifestation of divine intervention? How do the Gods and Goddess act in the volatility of the contemporary world? If they walk on earth as men and women, how they endure the chaos of modernity? Centering on the terrible and the majestic incarnations of Goddess Kali and her celestial avatars, this film is a metaphysical contemplation in times of perpetual emergencies.
- Dispassionate Love (Virndavani Vairagya) DCP, Color, Bengali, 91 minutes, 2018 - Recalling memories of a friend who committed suicide, three lovers slowly slide into an anguish labyrinth of desire, loss and longing. They entangle in a colliding maze of forsaken loves, failed expectations and imperfect anticipations. A disintegrating web arises in which love exists, but as dispassionate yearning. Here affection is an indifferent desire that burns the soul to death.
These films were shown once every evening at 7PM from June 7th to June 12th 2019 and were well attended due to the extensive network of cinephile audience that Wolf-Kino attracts regularly. Each screening was introduced by Abhishek Nilamber and Kristofer Woods. After each screening there was extensive Q&A often lasting for more than an hour, where I was asked incisive questions by the audience who had seen the film, over beer and drinks in the adjoining Wolf Kino bar and restaurant.
These post-screening conversations were the most fruitful part of my experience at Berlin – questions about the content, aesthetics, practice, ideologies, philosophies and theories were asked pertaining to my films, which led to animated discussions.
Cinema Prayoga: Theory against experimental from India
On 9th of June, I gave a talk to an audience about my filmic practice. The talk was entitled “Cinema Prayoga: Theory against experimental from India” – In this talk I provided a historical and philosophical context to the term Cinema of Prayoga that was first employed by film critic Armit Gangar in 2006 to describe experimental and avant-garde films made in India. My films have been classified within the productive possibility of this term by Amrit Gangar since the inception of this term. In the talk, I argued that the theoretical armature of Cinema of Prayoga provides an alternative theoretical framework to comprehend especially the idiosyncrasies of Indian cinematic modernity. I emphasized that a mere derivative appropriation or a credulous transference of western art historical theories, models and conceptual framework is not adequate to grasp, explain or theorize filmic archive that have been erroneously categorized in India as experimental or avant-garde.
Cinema of Prayoga emphasizes that a nuanced story of these films can be told if conceptual frameworks are employed from pre-modern/pre-colonial Indian theoretical and philosophical universe. Hitherto, these filmic works (Mani Kaul, Kuamr Shahani, Kamal Swaroop and others) have been assessed from the perspectives of western theoretical framework primarily because of the preponderance of the western technological provenance of the cinematic apparatus.
I suggested that Cinema of Prayoga is pointing at the necessity of introducing pre-modern/pre-colonial/ non-western Indian epistemological and ontological theories that are largely ignored by contemporary commentators of these filmic works in our comprehension of this body of films. I further contended that this is because these filmic works of idiosyncratic Indian cinematic modernity are in a conversation predominantly with Indian pre-modernity than with contemporary western modernity. These films, like mine are undoubtedly located in western modernity, but only so much as product of a modern technological apparatus.
They are I reiterate again, are in conversation with a pre-colonial and pre-modern India. Cinema of Prayoga is not seeking to substitute prevailing theoretical and historical models of Indian cinema, but provides a nuanced history of Indian cinematic modernity by introducing a body of pre-modern theoretical interlocutors that have been largely ignored by historians and commentators of Indian cinema. Cinema of Prayoga is not a comprehensive theory of all encompassing Indian cinematic modernity, but it specifically employs this terminology to comprehend the most misunderstood fraction of India cinematic modernity – imprecisely labelled experimental.
The talk followed an invigorating Q&A that lasted more than an hour in which I gave clarification to the many queries raised.