Ashish Avikunthak occupies a place in Indian cinema, so on the periphery of the market, calling it a niche would be an overstatement. An experimental director who also teaches at a US university, he is considered a practitioner in the tradition of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani – pioneers of Indian avant-garde cinema – and among his contemporaries to some extent Amit Duta and Tejal Shah. As different as they are from each other, the common thread that connects all these artists is that they are much more concerned with the form and structure of the film than with the story.
Avikunthak calls himself a “storyteller.” And his last job, Namanush Prime Minister Kotamala, is evidence of this. The film is designed as a dictionary with 64 words in them, divided into so many chapters. He has a set of characters who talk to each other about religion, sexual desire, the Ramayana and many other things. Some of the actors are naked for the most part. The film begins with a note: the world is ruled by artificial intelligence; but although inhumans have surpassed each department, one thing that still eludes them is love. Namanush Prime Minister Kotamala played this week at the Rotterdam Film Festival.
At the intersection of film and art, Avikuntak’s works have so far been performed in galleries and biennials around the world. They are made available to a wider audience for the first time, thanks to a retrospective of Mubi India, which will show 11 of his films.
His films are, to put it mildly, challenging to watch, as the Art Review puts it in its Future Greats 2014: “These are self-consciously difficult works shot in a self-consciously beautiful way.” They are academic, highly formal, and deeply religious. They are also verbose. The first Avikunthak movie I saw was Like the Upanishads (2011): a feature film played on a triptych screen cycle at Chatterjee & Lal, an art gallery in Mumbai in which Nachiket and Yama engage in metaphysical dialogue.
The second was Rati Chakravyukh (2013), in which a group of couples at a mass wedding sitting in a circle around a sacred fire talk and talk; it was a one-off film in which the camera circled the characters for over 105 minutes. Avikunthak gives priority to the oral over the visual. “The oral cavity is more primary,” he tells me over the phone, “The fetus in the mother’s womb can hear, even before the child sees.” In addition, Avikunthak works with ancient Indian texts that are an oral tradition. With deliberately stylized and artificial acting, he wants to push the viewer out of her comfort zone. “The film image in my films is beautiful and real, but the acting is the opposite,” he added. “It’s a counterpoint, like music.”
He continues to liken the way he makes his films to the “biological knowledge” of the fetus, which he begins to “feel” before he develops the ability to hear. That’s why he tries to make his films “tactile”. Avikunthak films, especially shorts made in the 90s and early 2000s, shot at 16 mm and 35 mm, are rich in texture. Which is not to say that his new film is not; but was shot digitally (for practical reasons), with added grains in the post-production. “We chose this particular type of grain from a website we had to pay for,” he says.
Avikuntak’s works spring from the deep wells of Indian philosophy, history and religion. The Kolkata-born film artist holds a master’s degree in archeology from the University of Pune and a master’s degree and a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Stanford University. But his interest in Indian philosophical thought dates back to high school; he began to follow the Gandhi way of life and dress in tubs. As a perennial performer without a break, Avikunthak is always in dhoti and kurta; he sports with a thick mustache and wears round-rimmed glasses. Kaul and Shahani also operated from an Indian frame, but Avikuntak found his rhythm in the more esoteric tantric tradition. “Tantra, I would say, is the pinnacle of Indian complex thought,” he says. He likens his films to “invoking mantras.”
This explains Kali’s central place in his works. Whether or not that is the case Felish of Calighat (1999) – in which her male worshipers celebrate through cross-dressing – or Apotkalin Trikalika (2016)–where the goddess is reinterpreted in the modern world – Avikuntak wants to invoke a freer, more open strain of Hinduism, a religion that has been kidnapped by right-wing groups. In his new film, people become godlike figures only because they are naked (shot carefully, with available light and unsaturated colors, and the actors are mostly static to make it erotic).
According to Avikunthak, the naked is a symbol of “divine purity”, which goes back to the earliest Buddhist and Jain art of gods and goddesses. Through its impenetrable dialogue, the film talks about women’s desire and offers ideas to many partners, homosexuality. Through his films, Avikunthak reclaimed Hinduism from conservatives. “Religion obviously has its oppressive streaks, such as caste and other forms. But it is important to bring to the fore the multi-voiced, liberated nature of Hinduism. Otherwise, Hindutwa with his anti-Islamic rhetoric will take it away from us. ”