The Museum of the Imaginary: A Portrait in Absentia was born out of several conversations the filmmaker recorded with Professor BN Goswamy, a leading art historian of India, covering all of his oeuvre. Interspersed with his speech were also silences. This film takes some of those moments of silence and weaves them into a web of ideas and images that fill the art historian’s mental landscape.
The Museum of the Imagination is the fifth episode of Amit Dutta’s filmsa selection of films programmed by Iman Issa as the tenth cycle of Artist cinemasa series of long-running online film programs curated by artists for e-flux Video & Film.
Amit Dutta’s Films takes place in six weekly episodes from March 7 to April 18, 2022 and features six Amit Dutta films accompanied by a six-part conversation between Amit Dutta and Iman Issa, released in text form. A new movie and part of the conversation comes out every Monday. Each film is shown for one week.
Amit Dutta in conversation with Iman Issa
Continuation of parts I, II, III and IV
I want to ask you about some of your film portraits if I can call them that, such as Museum of the Imaginary: A Portrait in Absentia (2012) on art historian BN Goswamy, If I go, where am I going? (2021) on the writer Krishna Baldev Vaid (1927-2020), Even red can be sad (2015) on the painter Ram Kumar (1924-2018). Do you think of them as portraits of the characters they represent (or in the case of Imaginary Museum, hardly represent)? Stylistically they’re all different, but I feel a continuity in what it means to base a film on a figure. What is captured is not exclusively centered on what the figure says or shows. And even in the most documentary of them like If I go, where am I going?, it seems that stylistic decisions such as the angle from which the character is filmed, the monochrome cuts in between, the increased use of sound, among other elements, shift the focus from a depiction of a character to a film creating a relationship with an elusive character. entity that one can barely comprehend except through the most subtle of fragments. I would say that in all these films a meaning can end up forming, but it doesn’t seem to be the meaning of a single figure but of an entity that is much more elusive but also extends to other figures equally blurry and narrative. Could you tell us a bit about your attraction to making films about these characters, and how you decide how to proceed with each film?
Your insights and observations are so compelling that I’m afraid to spoil them by adding anything. Nevertheless, I will try.
One of the reasons why I did portraits was that these characters marked me in a fundamental way at some point in my life. Krishna Baldev Vaid’s experimental prose and formal explorations have to some extent influenced my filmmaking techniques; you can say I was also introduced to Sameul Beckett and James Joyce through his Hindi works. Ram Kumar was also a short story writer and I used to read his stories before seeing his paintings. Professor BN Goswamy is special to me because his books introduced me to miniature paintings and art from my region.
Whenever I start to do portraiture, it’s mainly for an emotional reason, but it inevitably turns into a formal exploration. Why does this happen? Maybe it’s my nature; maybe because I try to make a sensitive portrait, not a sentimental one. Each person inherits a particular cosmos. They are the sun of their own universe. I am fascinated by this universe which says more about the person than they themselves might be aware of. Cinema has this magic. If you release it, it might bring you something your conscious mind could never find. Each time you do a formal investigation, the chances of this happening increase. When I say formal or experimental, I mean giving more freedom to the medium, acknowledging my limited understanding of the world, letting it surprise me, educate me.
How would you qualify a sensitive portrait as opposed to a sentimental portrait?
I had encountered this idea in an essay by Nabokov. I think these are the notes/essays he had prepared for his students, to teach in class. He says you have to distinguish between “sentimental” and “sensitive”. “A sentimentalist can be a perfect brute in his free time. A sensitive person is never a cruel person. Then he gives examples: “The sentimental Rousseau, who could cry over a progressive idea, distributed his numerous natural children in various hospices and hospices and never cared about them. A sentimental spinster can pamper her parrot and poison her niece. The sentimental politician can remember Mother’s Day and ruthlessly destroy a rival. Criticizing Dostoyevsky, he said that he “never really recovered from the influence that the European detective story and the romance novel had exerted on him. Sentimental influence involved the kind of conflict he loved – placing virtuous people in pathetic situations, then extracting the last ounce of pathos from those situations. I had read this essay at a very young age and these provocative statements from him made me think deeply about my practice, because it can easily be done in cinema, because this medium is naturally prone to sentimentality.
You also mentioned the notion of the liberation of cinema; I’m curious what this might entail?
By being free, I mean when the cinema is not burdened with achieving predetermined goals and we are free to improvise as we go, reacting and assimilating inspirations along the way. One of our professors used to distinguish between two types of cinema: destination cinema and wandering cinema. The cinema of meanders is a free cinema.
It’s interesting. In fact, I feel a sense of burden in your films, but I imagine that it is not dictated by an end destination but by requirements imposed by the material itself which is manipulated. And in a weird way, that sense of burden, or maybe better said commitment to that material, feels incredibly emancipating to watch. But maybe you are talking about another type of freedom? Perhaps from a space beyond a creator’s conscious intentions?
You are absolutely right when you say “space beyond a manufacturer’s conscious intentions”. For example, when I was talking to you on a video call or via email, sometimes your one line will stimulate a thought in my mind and I’ll forget the rest of the question, following the trail of that one thought. I might lose the big picture or the precise meaning or intent of the question. Frankly, I’m all for this meandering conversation. I think these kinds of conversations bring us closer to the truth. Although seen from a distance, it might seem that two madmen are conversing. There is a book by Gurdjieff called Meetings with remarkable men (1963). Peter Brook made a film based on this book. I would like to quote a wonderful passage from this book. I think this beautifully explains this phenomenon:
“This process, as was evident when I understood it later, was an extremely original means of developing the mind and perfecting the self. They called it kastousilia, a term derived, it seems to me, from the ancient Assyrian, and which my father evidently drew from some legend. This procedure was as follows: one of them would ask a question out of the blue, apparently quite out of place, and the other, without haste, would answer calmly and seriously with logical plausibility. …
These questions and answers were continued in a serious and calm tone, as if one of them asked the price of potatoes today and the other answered that the potato harvest was very bad this year. It was only later that I understood what rich thoughts lay behind such questions and answers. They very often carried on conversations in the same spirit, so that to a stranger it would have seemed that there were two bewildered old men there, who were only at liberty by mistake instead of being in a house. crazy. Many of those conversations that then seemed meaningless to me later took on deep meaning for me when I came across similar questions, and only then did I realize what immense significance these questions and answers had for these two former Men.”
[To be continued; stay tuned for the sixth and final part to be published April 11, 2022]
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