AMRIT GANGAR is a Mumbai-based author, film theoretician, historian and curator. He has authored and co-authored several publications in English and Gujarati, and has also lectured at several colleges and institutions in India and abroad. To his curatorial credit, are a number of retrospective programs for the Mumbai International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Animation Films (MIFF), as also festivals and gallery shows in Europe and elsewhere. Over the years, he has also been invited to be on festival juries. As the Founder Director of Datakino, he has helped set up a comprehensive database for the Films Division’s collection of over 9, 000 documentaries and short films, produced between 1948 and 1993. For his contribution to the Indian film society movement, the International Federation of Film Clubs honored him in 1989, in Berlin. The Indian Navy honored him for his rescuing and restoring the invaluable documentary called India’s Struggle for National Shipping directed by Paul Zils. Since his first presentation of Cinema of Prayoga, a new concept that he has developed, at the Experimenta in Mumbai in 2005, it has been curatorially discussed at a number of venues across the world, including the Tate Modern, Centre Pompidou, Yale University, Chelsea College of Art & Design, University of the Arts, London, et al. He has worked as a creative and production consultant to several international film and installation productions and has also made a few digital documentaries and compilation films. Between 2004-2004, he was Director of Osian’s Cinema Archive. Here are excerpts from an interview that Shai Heredia, Director, Experimenta had with Amrit Gangar in Mumbai.
AMRIT GANGAR IN CONVERSATION WITH SHAI HEREDIA (MAY 2005)
SHAI: Cinema of Prayog – is this a term you created and what does it mean?
AMRIT: I thought the English word ‘experimental’ that is generally used in the film vocabulary especially in the West and accepted by the rest of the world is either not adequate or doesn’t represent the essence of a particular filmmaking praxis. So I thought our own Sanskrit word ‘prayoga’ could be a better alternative. The compound word prayog is made up of pra + yoga (pronounced yog), where ‘pra’ as a prefix to verbs would mean ‘forward’, ‘onward’ or ‘before’ and with adjectives it would mean ‘very’ ‘excessively’ and with nouns, whether derived from verbs or not, it is used in several senses. Among other means, ‘yog’ means a ‘deep and abstract meditation’. In a dramatic sense, ‘prayog’ also means ‘representation’. Essentially, when I use the phrase ‘the cinema of prayog’, it carries its creator’s own state, own temperament. It has the quality of being intuitive and congenial, capable to achieve a certain bhāvasandhi, a unity of emotions in its characteristic manner. In a way, ‘experimental’ becomes problematic because the artist or the maker knows what he is doing and why. Yes, though everything is pre-planned, there is an element of chance; there is a joy of an unexpected discovery of a relationship between images. But in a capital-intensive medium such as cinema, the risk-taking element plays a crucial role. So I was thinking that experimental should be substituted by a word which is much more profound, much more inclusive of various aspects of this kind of filmmaking.
SHAI: So what do you think qualifies as ‘experimental’ film in India?
AMRIT: Actually this whole area, this whole domain is happening by the younger generation, who are not in the mainstream, or in the domineering realms of finance and marketing. They are taking the risk of making personal films. Immediately, I can cite an example of Ashish Avikunthak in our context. He has been doing some very intensive work, which is dear to him, and not driven by any other forces. Like even in the so-called New Wave for example it happened, but there were monetary anxieties, making co-lateral deposits and paying back loans with interest, though comparatively it was more liberal state sponsored funding through the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) and later the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC).
SHAI: So within the contemporary context today young individuals have put in their own finances. But in post-independent India, the state run Films Division (FD) and NFDC promoted this kind of experimentation with film. This was inspired by the socialist structure, and was based on the Russian model wasn’t it?
AMRIT: The whole thing came about through the Nehruvian vision and a Nehruvian kind of socialism. As independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru was impressed by the Soviet ‘prayoga’ with capital and culture. In a way, that model worked to an extent. So eventually, in our Federal Union, which is huge and heterogeneous, one centralized national body such as the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) came into being. The first waves were good, the first vibes, the whole national responsibility of risk taking in the cultural domain came about. And the sixties and the seventies were the time when all these institutions, Film Finance Corporations, the Film Institute, and the National Film Archives were set up. Those times were highly artistically inclined, all over the world. In terms of creativity, the temporal factor was significant. Those were revolutionary times, during which many revolutions had ripened, matured; results were being felt by people and artists, a lot of debate was going on. But most often those debates were afflicted with rhetoric, because of monetary involvement. But as a whole, the idea of state sponsoring was interesting and healthy and one could think of it only in a socialist framework. The films that you showed at Experimenta 2005 were all fully or partly state sponsored.
SHAI: And today state funding for artistic endeavours of the kind in the sixties and seventies doesn’t really exist. As we are now developing towards a capitalist structure, with the focus on the individual with the development of individualized technology like digital video, its a reflection of the times that you now have more self funded films and individuals now making personal films. With digital every individual can make films entirely on his/her own.
AMRIT: Now the system limits artistic parameters. Its all market driven, or money driven or profit driven, where subjectivity doesn’t have much space. But in the Nehruvian time money was given to the artists by the state, and to a large extent you could do anything you like – and anything is a lot of responsibility. Around that time Mani Kaul made Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1970) and Ashad Ka Ek Din (A Monsoon Day, 1971), which was very interesting in a way because they all came from the state sponsored film institute; he had studied under Ritwik Ghatak who always talked about experimental film and experimentation. He wrote essays also on experimentation. But he also had constraints, and couldn’t realize many of his ideas. But still within those constraints, Pramod Pati was at Films Division, and Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani in the Film Finance Corporation. Films Division was established to propagate the idea, not only of the ruling party, but also the idea of education. Some of the simple animation films tried to spread civic sense, for instance. It was needed at that time; it is needed even now, but the private capitalist won’t be interested in such work. But now in a post-capitalist or a post-industrialist era, I don’t know whether we are creating those kinds of works with the so-called ‘freedom’ that everyone is talking about. Think of Tarkovsky, when he left the Soviet Union to go to the West – he was feeling very suffocated there by the capital, and he could not produce great works as he could in the Soviet Union despite all kinds of bureaucratic problems. So this is a kind of paradox, freedom has always been a paradox to us…
SHAI: But we don’t have a system any more, which is funding any kind of artists’ film, which is also a major problem.
AMRIT: Yes…but now it’s an open market.
SHAI: True. And this open market creates other parameters…
AMRIT: Has the space expanded or shrunk by the free capital is the question. Whether capital is free, because capital comes from the people finally, is the question. The government gave money from the people, including the poorest of the poor who contribute a lot through indirect taxes recovered by the state. I think its the poor who sustain this country by collectively paying huge amounts of indirect taxes. Take the example of filmmaker John Abraham from Kerala. He generated his own kind of risk taking burden. In order to pay the initial money for his film, he got money from the people – one rupee, two rupees, five rupees … he got a gunny bag full of coins and chips and approached the Kerala Film Development Corporation which was headed by Mr P. Govinda Pillai at that time. John put the gunny bag on his table and asked for the rest of the money to make Amma Ariyan (‘Report to Mother’ 1986). And he did it. I think he was a complete prayoga man.
Among the young and emerging artists, I can think of Amit Dutta who is at the Film Institute. He’s intensely subjective, in the sense that he creates his own imagery, drawing from our own story telling wealth. But all said and done, we still need to have the impeccable and deep rigour that artists such as Maya Deren and others in the West had practiced. It’s pretty tough. I remember seeing an animation film called Mona Lisa Descending a Staircase (1992) at BIFF (the Bombay International Film Festival for Documentary, Short & Animation Films, now know as MIFF), and the film was shown in its 1994 edition and won the Golden Conch. It had already won an Oscar in 1993). In just about seven minutes, the two-dimensional clay animation merged the work of 35 famous painters. Joan Gratz, the films producer/director told me that the film took over seven years to make. We need to have a lot of discipline and sacrifice of personal comfort; ‘the cinema of prayoga’ is a difficult game.
SHAI: Yes and this creates a context of artist filmmakers making their work totally outside the system. In India, filmmaking is basically about making a big feature film and there’s no space for smaller work – its all about the scale, the money put in and therefore the reach that you have on a mass audience. So automatically your artistic form is affected by this.
AMRIT: You are contextualising in terms of time, the largeness. We have imbibed this cultural, traditional mindset that entertainment has to be 3-hour long. When there were shorter plays, people wanted money back, because they’d paid for 3 hours. That is a problem, which is engrained. Even when the cinema used close ups for the first time, people in the West wanted the money back because they wanted to see the full body of the actor, not just the face you know. So these are also complex cultural problems, which I think Maya Deren, also had to face in a way. When you are making a work of art, the cinema of prayoga that is committed to your own svabhāva (nature), you may or may not go into that domain of scale. It could be 2 hrs or 3 hrs or 10 mins or even 1 minute. Even one frame but even that could be a big risk! I consider the scale in terms of your intensity of your feeling. How do you define this scale equation? I think comparatively the artist has to struggle less in the realm of painting. I think the scale is in the process. And what remains finally? What works do we remember in the ‘prayoga’ …we always remember Maya Deren and a few others, but you don’t talk about many, many other filmmakers in this context.
SHAI: Who would you say were the key Indian filmmakers who have been experimenting with the narrative form.
AMRIT: In the Osian’s Cinefan this year, I organized about twenty conferences what we called the IBM2 (Infrastructure for Building Minds & Markets). I had 2 topics, one was on the so-called Indian New Wave, and other was whether inventive cinema exists in India. Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Saeed Mirza and others participated in the first one. Mani Kaul made a very interesting comment; he said when you make a digital film, you always think that it is a poor man’s medium. The medium is not important; a camera might be big or small. You spend the same amount of time, even for making a digital film for example. So this mindset has to change, that any digital filmmaker is a poor man because he doesn’t have the money. Therefore, this is not the apparatus; I think that should decide the scale. The same scale you know whether you show it on the digital camera screen because its suits my purpose and it won’t work on the big screen. But it has the same scale I would say, the same ratio that on this small little frame that I’m showing. Like the other day Kabir Mohanty showed me some of his work and he said this you can only enjoy on the LCD screen. When I saw his work on the DV camera’s tiny LCD screen, I really felt that I couldn’t imagine his work on a big screen or if I could, perhaps the scale would shrink with the size of the screen. I am sure ten per cent of one billion of our population is enough for sustaining the artistic risk-taking domain; it is I think for larger social health and vitality.
At the above seminar, Mani also said that the digital medium is temporal, it’s fragments of time, and it’s not spatial. The last master of space was Tarkovsky they say. We have not resolved this dichotomy and are still fighting on the domains of digital versus celluloid argumentation because we are thinking that they are combating media.
SHAI: but there are many young people making digital films…
AMRIT: I think the mindset; their way of looking at it is the same. Even when you are shooting on a small camera you are thinking of shooting on a film, on celluloid generally.
SHAI: The thing is everybody sees one medium as replacing the other, which doesn’t necessarily have to be so. Personally I might aesthetically connect more to film and not digital. But the fact is they both generate different creative parameters. I think a big problem is that people have to stop trying to make video look like film. That’s just never going to happen… and never really works…
AMRIT: Yes, that is the problem. It has happened in a very miniscule level in India. The whole body of work I think is very difficult to get …
SHAI: I also find that a lot of young DV filmmakers are big TV watchers, so some of them already have a syntax influenced by television. You can recognize quite easily where they are coming from, and they are honest to their context.
AMRIT: Yes it is also creating new narrative forms in a way.
Now coming back to your question, what is experimentation or why it has happened in India and among the filmmakers we have already referred to Pramod Pati among others. In the context of experimentation, As I told you, I use the phrase Cinema of Prayog, its not the same as the West using experimental cinema, because the filmmaker, the artist is in full control of the work he is doing. So he is not experimenting in that sense like a scientist in a laboratory. He knows what kind of relationship between images, thoughts, and time between the images, but on the way he does encounters a chance element. Perhaps that is why they call it experimental, or for me even a Bollywood producer or filmmaker is experimental as he is experimenting with the public for example.
SHAI: Well I feel it’s experimental in thought… like a B movie as well is experimental… and of course it’s about translating it filmically and creating a new syntax etc. etc. But for me experimental films that are strong and are aesthetically developed are ones where there is a fresh filmic thought process, and when someone is actually pushing the limits in terms of their frame of thought.
AMRIT: To me the greatest example would be Ghatak, he tried to comprehend or contextualize archetypes for example in his films. He took a lot of references from our traditions for example in Komal Gandhar (1961), the kind of motifs he uses. I think we need novel ways of showing films to people who already have a huge reservoir of image-knowledge from the epics Mahābhārat and Rāmāyan that they know by heart.
SHAI: Ghatak was a master. His form of experimentation was really very developed.
AMRIT: But his pain was partition. You know you cannnot detach life or your own experiences from whatever you are doing. When he used marriage songs in Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-capped Star, 1960), for example, he very passionately wanted to make his point about a union, about unity. He was pained by Bengal’s partition. Ghatak didn’t have to go anywhere to find his cinematographic imagery and vocabulary; it is there all around us. D.D. Kosambi would call it ‘history at the doorstep’.
SHAI: Tell me more about Mani Kaul’s work.
AMRIT: I deeply enjoy Mani’s work; because he deals with time and you can feel it. When I saw Siddheswari (1989) I had a strange feeling of pain. There are images that cause a certain pain, very middle-class, the class I belong to. I called it dukh ke prakaar, as in Hindustani music we have malhar ke prakaar. I think here lays the artistic power. You can feel ‘time’ in Mani’s work. Earlier on you could see and feel it in his Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973), in fact in all his work.
SHAI: Even within his work at Films Division… like ‘Dhrupad’.
AMRIT: Exactly, Dhrupad (1982) was another example even in the Films Division. Coming back to this, maybe you can have his work within the context of the state and experiment. We are still using the word experiment or prayog.
SHAI: And what about Kumar Shahani? What about his work?
AMRIT: Well he is working on a different plane. His sensibility is more Marxian and he is constantly struggling to develop an idiom, including using songs in his films, in Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972) he employed colours to deepen his narrative (done so consciously and for the first time in the history of Indian cinema). When I heard him in the IBM2 seminar, I found him so rich and deep. He was talking about capital and freedom and I feel so bad that I couldn’t record it. It is fantastic the way both Mani and Kumar spoke that day, standing firm on their beliefs.
SHAI: How did they both manage to make the films they made? Were they entirely government funded?
AMRIT: Most were government funded; the Film Finance Corporation, which later became the National Film Development Corporation and the Films Division, the Madhya Pradesh Film Development Corporation, etc. also did some significant work. I don’t think Mani ever got private funding and he never made a commercial or an ad film.
SHAI: musicality and randomness…Sanjiv Shah and hybridity…let’s talk about that…
AMRIT: In India the space for exploration is undefined. On the other hand in the West, its very defined. Western classical music, for example, is on the bar, scale, everything is there you just have to read and play. Here it’s open-ended, unexplored, undefined, you go wherever you wish to within a certain definition of a raag but then you have the liberty to explore.
SHAI: And therefore you create, and create narratives around the music as well…
AMRIT: Yes, therefore Mani Kaul is an important cinematographic artist, important for me because he thinks in terms of music and time. And Ghatak thought epical. He thought of the great traditions that we have inherited. For example, he goes to Bangladesh and the imagery he creates of fishermen’s community. It is so close to life and still is so profound. And he has no inhibitions about using songs; he wanted to reach as many people as possible. Therefore he shifted from literature to theatre to cinema. He was very clear in his mind but unfortunately it didn’t work for him. I would think Jukti Takko Aar Gapo (Reason, Debate and a Story, 1974) is one of the greatest films though technically it is not a very sophisticated film. I am thinking of the imperfect cinema that happened in Latin America for example. That imperfect cinema also happened here. John Abraham was a prime example of imperfect cinema. So experimental is also accused of being imperfect, at times.
SHAI: Lets talks about Amit Dutta’s work now…
AMRIT: He’s dealing with this kind of Ghatakian thought process of image making and also coming out of memory, it is also Mani Kaulian and Kamal Swaroopian. And that makes an interesting combination. He uses all kinds of traditional motifs from literature to anything. But I think it’s interesting the way he creates his universe of cinema. You know, I would like to venture to divide the Indian history of cinema into phases: post Ray and Ghatak or Mrinal Sen, we have Mani Kaul, all institutionally financed films. After Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Nirad Mahapatra, Vishnu Mathur, Saeed Mirza, et al; young filmmakers that have not been shown properly or adequately, or made many films. I am thinking of Kamal Swaroop’s Om Dar B Dar (1988) and after that Paresh Kamdar’s Tunnu ki Tina (1994) and also Farida Mehta’s Kali Salwar (2001). I think one can gather a body of work, eight to ten films in this phase that remains least talked about or seen. Now another phase I am very curious about is post-Kamal Swaroop and Paresh Kamdar. Amit Dutta comes to my mind very strongly in this temporal context. I once told him that the kind of filmmaking practice that he was following could lead him to penury. But he was aware about the risk he was taking.
I don’t know whether our educational institutions are creating a good enough knowledge base for our children. In this country of one billion, we don’t even have a proper film studies department in any university or college (except perhaps Jadavpur University). It is all mass communication. So I really sympathise with the younger generation who so strongly want to plung into the ‘prayoga’ ocean.
SHAI: It’s really tragic to have so many young people interested in filmmaking but there’s no adequate intellectual guidance to actually develop that interest seriously. You have to do that part for your self or not at all.
AMRIT: What worries me is our losing contact with history. That’s a very big worry. The media has stopped talking about Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani; forget Kamal Swaroop or Paresh Kamdar or Fareeda Mehta. In one of the film appreciation courses at the FTII, a young girl stood up and aggressively questioned Adoor Gopalakrishnan about a scene in his film that was screened. Surprisingly she had no knowledge about any of his Gopalakrishnan’s work before. We have lost humility in the process. Now increasingly it’s all about film business management, mass media and communication. You don’t really have to get back to history, that’s a waste of time for them.
SHAI: It’s all about cable television these days…
AMRIT: And what great television programmes have we produced so far? Earlier on there was Buniyad maybe. Even television is a challenge. To produce good news programmes is a challenge always. We lack the spirit of ‘prayoga’. Even Gandhi called his autobiography ‘My Experiments with Truth’. He was doing that; it’s a constant struggle, a difficult one.
SHAI: The political economy of our very complex country is a very important factor in all of this.
AMRIT: It is also about management of wealth. We are spending money on a lot of wrong things. So it is not lack of wealth but how do we manage wealth. We certainly do not want the NFDC to die and it won’t if we make proper allocation of resources. Unfortunately allocations are made wrongly, or if made right not employed effectively. When Satyajit Ray began to make Pather Panchali (Song of the Road, 1955), he didn’t have enough money to complete it. But then he could get the resources from the Government of West Bengal under Dr B.C. Roy. This is yet another glorious example of state support or sponsorship as we were talking about earlier. But this is not to deny the achievements made by the artists in a capitalist country like the USA. So many new things are happening there, Underground Cinema, for example. India followed the Nehruvian path of a mixed-economy where both public and private sector would compete in achieving excellence for a larger good. But unfortunately we never implemented that political-economic philosophy in right earnest.
SHAI: Yes, and in our development as a nation, we are moving further and further away from this…
AMRIT: So we’ll have to go back. History is a big experiment; it has already experimented with two world wars. So history is a prime example of experimentation. We can’t afford to live a-historically in a vacuum. I am really worried about the young children. They have everything and they have been exposed to the audio-visual mainly through television. That’s the problem because it restricts their imagination; the conventional or populist cinema does that. I told you about the abstraction of the ‘word’ say in literature. Just utter the word ‘Seeta’ and she will manifest in your mind in all kinds of forms. G. Aravindan attempted to create a feeling of Seeta for us in his Kanchan Seeta (Golden Seeta, 1977) where you don’t have a physical Seeta. We feel her in a breeze, in wind, in grand Nature. I think it is one of our most significant films. Aravindan even cast his Rama from Chenchus tribals from Andhra Pradesh. Kanchan Seeta remains his most enigmatic film in a sense. He broke Ravi Varma kind of stereotypes or whatever stereotypes we have got from popular visual media. You felt the film’s temporality. During the IBM2 seminar, Mani Kaul made an important reflection. He said, once you get stuck with the visuals or whatever stereotypes that we have borrowed from popular visual media, you could end up in advertising. That was a very powerful statement, very strong, very thought provoking, and I believe, in a very positive sense, in the right context. Mani Kaul is one of our most profound filmosophers, who needs to be supported.
This interview was conducted as part of the Independent fellowship project ‘Excavating Indian experimental film’ supported by Sarai – Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in 2005.