To attempt the simplest possible synopsis of Amit Dutta’s new film The Unknown Craftsman, let’s call it a rumination on first principles for spirit-attuned architecture. Fair enough, also, to say it enlarges the scope of Dutta’s work, if we allow the even more simplifying synopses of his previous features, 2010’s Nainsukh and 2013’s The Seventh Walk, as experimental biopics of Indian painters—famed practitioners, respectively, of 18th-century figuration and contemporary abstraction. Of course this all is grossly reductive, but it gets us closer to the big picture of Dutta’s specialty, the art of creative deliberation.
Having surveyed the alluring series of Dutta films on view at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley last month, let’s also go ahead and describe the lot of them as dreamlike—not in the red-flag sense of willful inscrutability, but rather for their affinity with the concentrated ambiance of subconscious thought. Such an affinity seems like a necessary precondition for any so-called experimental film taking up the timeworn cinematic challenge of simulacra, that rudimentary question of how (and why) to represent, say, a landscape, be it a myth-rich forest in the Kangra Valley or a renowned painting thereof, let alone some enchanted imaginary space in which, as one narrator in The Unknown Craftsman puts it, “the cosmos could dwell in the temple.” Coming across neither as superior to his subjects nor debilitatingly awed by them, Dutta maintains a scrupulous curiosity.
His earlier work sits comfortably within the highest class of inventively literal art films—Greenaway’s Rembrandt projects, Jarman’s Caravaggio, Kurosawa’s Dreams, among so many others—but that extra something he brings to the table is the refreshment of decidedly non-European aesthetics. Dutta's prerogative has been to build intricate visual correlatives not just between motion pictures and painted pictures generally, but between these particular motion pictures and the languid microtonal rudra veena music simmering within their soundtracks. It probably goes without saying, then, that dramatization as such does not apply. Or at least that most expositional queries will be resolved obliquely at best. In one sequence in The Seventh Walk, we see an artist pacing next to his easel: Is he thwarted, uninspired? Or is this just some purposely neutral ritual, a simple warm-up? With no obvious answer forthcoming, it may at least be argued that the kindred figure of the pilgrim-architect in The Unknown Craftsman has elaborated this one open-ended gesture into an entire film.
Helpfully, the syntax of Dutta’s movie language is direct and precise, privileging clarification to the point of incandescence. Camera moves often emphasize wonderment: We’re reminded to marvel, for instance, at how the parallax in a simple forward dolly draws attention to a chosen detail, or decisively reconfigures onscreen space. Editing schemes evoke, and evince, mental avidity, oscillating between studiousness and free association. (Another way to describe Dutta’s films is as documentaries on states of mind.) From film to film, Dutta revisits an ensemble of sounds—thunder claps, birdsong, close-range recordings of hand tools at work, pages being turned—and enriches them through rhythmic repositioning. This all has a way of leading us to the optimistic epiphany that postmodernism and folklore might at last discover, or rediscover, a common idiom.
And as the images seem to erupt from each other, so do the films. The Unknown Craftsman develops Dutta’s longstanding idea that inasmuch as the deepest questions have answers at all, one way toward those answers must be through a direct experience of the natural landscape. Or, as the narrator puts it, “The forms of nature arise in the hearts of those who are moved by the creative impulse.” Whether or not this tells us how to cultivate inspiration will be up to each viewer to decide. But certainly it affirms the value of Dutta’s ongoing project—to divine, by way of research, intuition, and experimentation, the purest universal source of creative expression.