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Art-House Filmmaker Ashish Avikunthak On How Philosophy Influences His Work

“I don’t expect my films to be shown on a place like Netflix,” says the filmmaker

Tanushi Bhatnagar Aug 17, 2021

Filmmaker Ashish Avikunkthak. Photo: Courtesy of MUBI

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Content Warning: Mentions of suicide

‘An Idiom Unto Itself’ is how the streaming platform MUBI titles Ashish Avikunthak’s films. An assistant professor of film studies at the University of Rhode Island, Avikunthak is a student of archeology and anthropology and admittedly makes movies only for himself, away from the whims of the commercial realm. His work usually features in semi-public spheres like museums, art galleries, film festivals, and universities worldwide, but a portion of his 25-year-long portfolio is now available to the public.

Avikunthak’s artistic journey reflects his personal experiences, incorporating anthropological and archeological theories along with religious themes. Speaking on his preoccupation with theoretical and philosophical ideas, he explains, “Philosophy is such a vast discipline that there are many, many strands [to it]. So my earlier films (et cetera) are more [of] existential philosophy, and my later films, let’s say from Kalighata Othikotha, Kalkimanthan Katha and Vakratunda Swaha, are more preoccupied with Indian religiosity – with Hinduism as such [which is] still within a certain philosophical and theoretical thinking, rather than social or political.” 

Why the 49-year-old has not forayed into the mainstream is because of his distaste for the commercialization of cinema, a rather controversial and unpopular opinion in the land of Bollywood. “I don’t have much respect for commercial cinema. I’m not really interested in entertainment. I am interested in engaging… I found cinema as the most appropriate and probably the most exciting, for me, to engage with those (theoretical and philosophical) ideas. So commercial cinema never really attracted me, and it still doesn’t,” he says. Avikunthak reasons, “I think commercial cinema is highly compromised in all forms in this country. The market for cinema has its own logic, which is conservative. It produces a certain sense of nonchalance of the sort. The censorship regime in this country is so repressive and oppressive.”

Curious about his non-normative style of filmmaking, some might label him as an experimental filmmaker. Avikunthak believes that he is anything but. He claims, “People call me experimental. I don’t think of myself as experimental. The term ‘experimental’ means that you really don’t know what is happening… But I don’t think that I am experimenting with anything. I know exactly what I want in my cinema. What you see is exactly what I want.” 

Watch the trailer for ‘Kalkimanthan Katha’ below.

A part of the MUBI Retrospective, Performing Death (2001), is a juxtaposition of a slow-motion haphazardous walk through the ruins of Calcutta’s Park Street cemetery and Durga Puja celebrations through Dhunuchi dance. Avikunthak creates friction between the ideas of death and non-death through colonial and Indian cultures. He states, “[The film] is a way to trigger a certain sense of a contemplation on the nature of colonial heritage in Calcutta and contrasting it with a much deeper cultural and religious heritage. I am trying to kind of start a conversation between these two forms of heritage in this film… [A] destabilizing motion that is very purposefully done again to kind of exacerbate a certain sense of friction between these two forms of heritage.” 

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He returns to the topic of colonialism and post-colonialism in Brihannala ki Khelkali or Dancing Othello (2002) as he merges two 17th century art forms of Shakespeare’s Othello and Kathakali. Commenting on this marriage, he says, “What I’m trying to do in my films is think about the relationship between the colonial and our present circumstances. In Brihannala ki Khelkali, where you have two very ancient medieval forms, [I am] trying to see how they merge and in that merging, I’m trying to comment on the nature of our post-colonial situation.” He pointed out how the both of us speaking in English, despite our mother-tongues being Hindi, suggests how our colonial past affects our post-colonial present; a striking thought. 

Avikunthak’s archeological masterpiece Rummaging for Pasts: Excavating Sicily, Digging Bombay (2001) takes us to his personal experiences as an archeologist and lover of cinema. The short film is a unique combination of memories of humankind – one from ages past from an archaeological site in Sicily, another a set of more recent tape-recorded home movies that found their way to Bombay’s Chor Bazaar through discarded films. Avikunthak recalls his days as a student of cultural anthropology and archeology at Stanford University at an international excavation project, “What was very interesting was that I was the only person of color and the only person with a video camera. Everyone else was white. So there was a kind of a reversal of power in a certain sense. I got a chance to shoot a lot, to interview everybody, who were the main excavators, which is what you will see in the film.” The process for the other set of memories started way before he planned to create Rummaging for Pasts: Excavating Sicily, Digging Bombay. When camera technology was going through a massive change in the Eighties, he started collecting unneeded discarded reels of home videos. He adds, “In this film, I have created a kind of a fictional conversation with two kinds of archaeology.” 

In one of his newer films, Rati Chakravyuh (2013), he has created an ahistorical situation of a group of newlyweds in a night-long conversation or adda in one cut. Avikunthak claims that this film might be the first single-shot Indian feature film. It is a jarring watch that addresses the culture of mass suicides. He says, “The idea [of] suicide itself is such a problematic existential question not for the person who has committed suicide, but for the person who is for people like us who survived. What does it mean to live when there is somebody else who has decided to give up his or her life. That question becomes more profound for me when a group of people in a community decide to give up their life.”  

A still from Rati Chakravyuh

The struggle of independent filmmaking is ceaseless for Avikunthak. Making films for passion is difficult in an industry driven by quantity instead of quality, especially when almost every film is self-funded. He reveals, “All projects are challenging. When I started working on Et Cetera (1997), I actually did not have any money; I saved money over the years because during those years I was a student, I used to do odd jobs. And it (the struggle) continues to be even today. I try to live spartanly without splurging and try to save money and make my films… It’s a passion; it’s a certain kind of madness that I am interested in. So, I’m very happy to be part of this challenging endeavor.” 

A still from Soliloquy from Et Cetera

Exhibiting his work on a public digital platform is new for the versatile filmmaker. He says, “These are not films meant for the masses. These are not popular cinema, so they are not going to be liked by everybody. These are difficult films [which] invite the audience to be challenged to think outside the box. They are not spoon-feeding you the narrative. The Indian audience has been watching mostly pulp fiction, commercial cinema where everything is given to you within the narrative framework… I am really excited and even humbled that my films are shown on the same platform where some of the filmmakers I deeply respect and [am] inspired by, like (Jean-Luc) Godard, Mani Kaul and Satyajit Ray, are being shown. I think [for] my kind of films, MUBI is the right platform. I don’t expect my films to be shown on a place like Netflix.” 

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While Mubi only showcases his films until 2015, Avikunthak has made four more films since and is working on a few more. He is also writing a book on the anthropological investigation of archeologists in India. 

Watch his films here.

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