The Unorthodox Avant-Garde: Amartya Bhattacharyya
Jun 19, 2017 | Sejal Singh
“Great theatre is about challenging how we think and encouraging us to fantasize about a world we aspire to.” – Willem Dafoe
These words of Willem Dafoe, a Hollywood artist deeply revered worldwide, hold true for theatre and cinema alike. With the gross commercialization of Indian cinema, Hindi films have now been reduced to something that does not even come remotely close to being called ‘Art’ most of the times. However, independent cinema continues to thrive in our country, which is a unique amalgamation of ancient culture and technological reforms. Among the most talented independent filmmakers of India, a name that one cannot afford to be unacquainted with is that of Amartya Bhattacharyya.
Born in Kolkata, Amartya is an independent filmmaker and surreal poet based in the city of Bhubaneswar. Having carved a niche for himself in the international cinema scene, Amartya has indeed proved that cinema is universal – something beyond flags and borders and passports.
Having been showered with numerous accolades for his dark, psychoanalytical films, Amartya was awarded the Rajat Kamal for Best Cinematography in a non-feature film at 63rd National Film Awards by the President of India for his fantasy documentary, Benaras – The Unexplored Attachments.
A guest speaker at Roots, 2k17, Amartya delivered a talk on independent cinema at NIT Rourkela on 1st of April, 2017. Team MM engaged in a conversation with this talented filmmaker, as he shared his experience with independent cinema, how he evolved as an artist and upcoming projects.
Just like the rest of us, Amartya’s childhood played a significant role in shaping him as a filmmaker, by providing him ample opportunities to discover his innate passion towards theatrics and cinema. The first few opportunities came in the form of annual days, which Amartya’s school would conduct every year. As a result, Amartya got into the habit of performing on-stage at a very tender age itself. “My first ever performance was in a dance drama, wherein I was to play the role of a female character, as my voice was very feminine”, he reminisces. “Just like it is now”, he adds with a gleeful chuckle.
Amartya then went on to play myriad female roles in a multitude of stage plays in the years that followed. He believes that he always possessed a knack for acting, which evolved into his passion, somewhere down the line. His other hobbies included painting – a form of art that he mastered in school, all thanks to his fantastic teacher, who encouraged him to grow as an artist.
After school came college. Inspired by the likes of Rupam Islam, Amartya found himself taking the poetic leap. College life quickly came to a close, and Amartya joined the IT industry. It was here that he realized that the departure of theatre had created a vacuum of sorts in his life, a void that he desperately wanted to fill. “I would still actively write poetry and paint, but they evidently weren’t enough.”
In a bid to find a remedy for his artistic pining, he became a part of a film club run by a group of his colleagues. “We went on to make some horrible short films”, he remembers nostalgically. “And then, I gradually evolved into an independent filmmaker, and began doing some work on my own.”
Baba Mukosh, Amartya’s first independent work, garnered a fantastic response from engineering colleges based in Bhubaneswar. He also received appreciation for his art being “uninfluenced” from people involved in quality, serious cinema. The positive reviews boosted his spirits largely, and he was encouraged to further in his filmmaking pursuits. Thus, the filmmaker Amartya Bhattacharyya, as we know him today, was born.
Benaras: The Unexplored Attachments
“Benaras was accidentally made”, says Amartya when asked about his national award-winning non-feature film. According to him, the only aim of his trip to his favorite city, Varanasi, was to spend 3 days in absolute bliss, and not to shoot a film. “Capturing video was very tedious, as I had to carry around my tripod for it.” Amartya thus gave up after half a day worth’s work and stuck to doing stills afterward. However, the videos he had captured in the short period of time were enough to create a non-feature film, which was something he realized only after he came back to his room the same evening and was sitting idle.
With Capital I having been due to release for quite some time and with no other work at hand, Amartya began fighting his boredom by stitching a film out of his shots. “I can safely say that it is a homely experiment that I did in my bedroom”, he concludes with a grin.
The film came out and people were all praises, much to the surprise of Amartya. “The intention was never to make it into what it became; it just accidentally happened!”
Amartya considers Capital I to be the first in more than aspects. Capital I isn’t just the first independent movie of Odisha, but also the first queer film that has come out of the state. Capital I, an abstract psycho-drama – as Amartya calls it – takes the viewers into the concept of existentialism and deals with topics like homosexuality, which still remains a taboo in India. In his own words:
I have always believed that a character is not merely someone who stands in flesh and blood; it is the mind of the character that depicts them. Through Capital I, I wanted to venture into the journey of the mind, the journey of the psychic self rather than the physical self. Capital I was an experiment of the same nature.
A surreal film made on a shoe-string budget, Capital I went on to garner rave reviews from critics all over the world, despite its limited exposure. “I believe it’s a very niche film, one of its kind”, Amartya adds, in regard of Capital I.
Being a Clever Wordsmith
Amartya’s love for penmanship dates back to his college days, when under the heavy influence of star songwriters like Kurt Cobain, James Morrison, and Rupam Islam, he began writing to express. However, all his poetic entries to Bengali magazines would get rejected, leaving him dismal. However, his dismay turned into rage when he came to know that his poems were unable to find a place in those magazines, not because they were of inferior quality, but because he was an unknown name.
I distinctly remember a receptionist at a reputed Bangla magazine say it to my face that I should not send them any entries, as they will not publish them. “We don’t entertain people like you”, is what she told me. I asked her, “Why don’t you give me a chance to establish myself as a writer?” She sneered in response, and said that she will get back to me the day I become famous enough. It hurt a lot back then, and it hurts to this date. Not because I lost an opportunity for myself, but because a corrupted system like this does everything in its power to suffocate fresh talent before it gets to rise.
Amartya, however, was fortunate enough to come across Gargi Publishers, who valued his work for its quality and put tremendous faith in him by publishing both his works. Twice every year, literary compilations are published by the Publishing House, wherein works of many renowned, as well as budding writers, are featured.
Another weekly Bangla magazine called Onno Hath featured Amartya’s work every alternate week, thus giving the wordsmith in him the exposure that he deserved.
His Source of Inspiration
When asked where he derives inspiration for his novel cinema from, Amartya calls his “personal exploration” his chief source of ideas. “You can call it personal research of sorts, but it sure isn’t your textbook external research.”
A taboo subject he tackled beautifully in his film, Amartya does not feel there is anything even remotely unnatural about homosexuality. He substantiates his viewpoint with examples of a Japanese breed of monkeys and many other animals, which indulge in acts of homosexual nature.
People who say homosexuality is not natural are not informed enough. And if it is natural, then where is the problem? I am not glorifying homosexuality. Even in my work, I have portrayed homosexuality just like any other sexuality. It exists as an option. We do not have to glorify or demean it, and we do not need to think that those who have embraced homosexuality have done an act of bravado. The only point I’m trying to make here is, who are we to discriminate anyone on the basis of their sexual orientation?
Amartya has posed the very same question in a very subtle manner in Capital I, by portraying a homosexual relationship as a relationship at par with any other relationship between opposites, as we see around us.
Feature versus Non-Feature Films
As a filmmaker who has crafted both feature as well as non-feature films, Amartya does not believe that there is much of a difference between the two. The only major difference, in his view, is the span. While a film with a run-time of over 72 minutes is certified as a feature film in India, the ones with a shorter run-time fall into the category of non-feature films. “In both the cases, I’m expressing myself.”
Amartya, however, prefers a feature film for a story where he wants to spread out the subplots, and play around with the characters and their alter egos. “You arrive at a conclusion, or at least hint towards it.” This same conclusion, in his opinion, is unnecessary in a non-feature film, which is very open-ended and streamlined by nature. “They do not venture into a lot of subplots because of the span restrictions.”
His Upcoming Projects
Amartya’s second feature film, Khyanika: The Lost Idea is all set for its world premier, and he is hopeful that it will be received with open arms, just like his previous works. He, however, does not know when the Indian audience will get to see the movie.
Amartya is also currently working on a Bangla feature film, which is close to its completion. While talking about his plans for upcoming films, he says:
There are numerous plans in the pipeline in terms of upcoming projects, but if I talk about the ideation part of it, I may not be able to complete those films in this lifetime.
Opinion on Indian Film Industry
For a person involved in filmmaking as actively as Amartya is, it is impossible to not hold an opinion on the Indian Film Industry, better known as Bollywood, which continues to surprise the international audience, for reasons both good and bad.
Amartya, however, remains uninterested in the industry, just like many other noteworthy independent filmmakers. Speaking of his experience with the movies that have come out of Bollywood, he says:
Apart from one or two hand-picked films, I do not find them of any relevance, artistic or otherwise. If you say I’m too arrogant to say that, I’ll say maybe I’m just too illiterate to understand their standards. Therefore I find it ridiculous and rubbish. And for the very same reason, I cannot say that they are progressing. I will not say that they are regressing as well. All I’ll say is, they’re becoming more and more pretentious.
Amartya believes that the problem with Indian cinema is not that they are creating rubbish, but that they are not selling it to the world for what it truly is.
When you outrightly do something rubbish, by showing it to the whole world that it’s rubbish, you’re not doing something bad. But when you add a little something to it and try to repackage the old wine in a new bottle and sell it in the market as if you’re doing something very intellectual and artistically rich, that is when the issue of pretention rises. It misguides the generation, and forces people to believe in something that actually doesn’t exist. That is the danger that I see in the commercial Hindi movie industry.
What Makes a Good Film-maker?
Amartya considers the ability to think to be the one quality that every filmmaker must possess without fail. “If you’re not a thinker, what will you ever do?” He sees no point in replicating things that have already been done.
You have to find your own thought and perception, and if you don’t think that it differs from the rest of the world, then there is no point being an artist. You cannot be a conformist and an artist at the same time.
He also relies on knowledge to lead the way for any filmmaker. Much contrary to the general perception that art is the work of anyone who knows how to hold and operate a camera, and sound knowledge of editing software, Amartya believes that you must have sound knowledge of a variety of subjects such as mathematics, quantum physics, mechanics, sociology, and most importantly philosophy and psychology to make a capable filmmaker.
You cannot be an uneducated filmmaker.
Thirdly, a filmmaker must always be fearless. If one is always concerned that something or the other will fail, the fear of failure will never allow him to experiment. And if one does not experiment, there is no necessity of him. “If you do not come up with something new, then who are you?”
Lastly, Amartya emphasizes on the importance of seclusion. “You cannot live amidst a material world and dream to be a filmmaker. Find solace in your solitude.” He encourages filmmakers to learn to enjoy and celebrate their solitude, as art does not come from external factors.
You have to cultivate and nurture the artist within, which is present inside each and every one of us, waiting to be freed.
To The Aspiring Filmmakers of NITR
Look at your inner self. And when you look at your inner self, you’ll find a nature. There’s a nature outside you, in high mountains and lush greenery around us, and there is one within. Relate these two, understand the link between them. The moment you do that, you become an art lover. You will understand that the material world is of no use. Technological reforms bombarding us with non-sensical information in the name of knowledge is not a relevant concept for an artist. These things are eating up the space inside our brain. Our brain was never meant to be a hard disk; it was always meant to be the processor. And you have to use it like one.
Picture Courtesy: Midday