Amit Dutta is often described as the best Indian film-maker you haven’t heard of. His films, which fall under the broad umbrella of experimental cinema, have been shown in leading museums and festivals across the world. Retrospectives of his work have taken place at the International Short Film Festival in Oberhausen, Germany; Cinéma du Réel, Centre Pompidou, Paris; and the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, California. His relative obscurity outside art film circles is partly due to the difficulty in finding his works, which is why the ongoing retrospective on MUBI is such an event. Then there’s the work itself: formally constructed, minimalist, allusive. But Dutta’s shorts, features and documentaries also offer unique pleasures, with their subtle cinematic disruptions and tiny miracles of sound and movement.
Dutta’s latest film, Wittgenstein Plays Chess With Marcel Duchamp, Or How Not To Do Philosophy (on MUBI), is a 17-minute animation that adapts an essay of the same name by Steven B. Gerrard. The essay examines how Wittgenstein and Duchamp, both keen chess players, used the game to question language and perception. The film has a winking style of animation—by the director’s wife, Ayswarya S. Dutta—that involves the juxtaposition of cutout figures, objects and backgrounds. It’s a sprightly investigation into the nature of surface appearances and how we perceive meaning, packed with allusions to art, linguistics, philosophy and chess.
Dutta, 42, who lives in Palampur in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra Valley, wanted to be a chess player before he decided to be a director. He was part of his college chess team in Jammu. Later, he started playing correspondence chess and won silver in the All India Correspondence Championship in 2017. He collects rare chess books, owns a Dubrovnik chess set and composes chess puzzles for children in his free time. Last year, a freewheeling conversation between him and International Chess Master Venkatachalam Saravanan, accompanied by a game of correspondence chess, was published in BOMB magazine. On email, Mint asked Dutta about the making of the film. Edited excerpts:
How did you come across Gerrard's essay, and why did you decide to adapt it?
One of my friends, Jaideep Unudurti, is a wonderful chess player/journalist and science-fiction author. We play chess once in a while. One day, while playing and chatting, he mentioned this article. The moment I read it, it immediately sparked a desire to make something around it. Having moved away from the path of competitive chess, the aesthetics of the game was becoming increasingly attractive and intriguing for me. And the way the essay had connected this aspect with chess players of the calibre of Duchamp and Wittgenstein and their main disciplines was extremely exciting.
After reading the essay, I wrote to Gerrard (who teaches philosophy at Williams College, US), explained the project to him and asked for his permission. He was really kind and readily gave me permission. It took us close to two years to finish the film, all this while he was interested in the project. Once the film was finished, I was nervous showing it to him—to my delight, he was really happy with it and wrote back one of the most wonderful emails I have ever received.
From what angle were you approaching this material—as a chess player, as someone interested in Duchamp/Wittgenstein’s work?
Chess was my point of entry because I wanted to be a chess player when I was young. But, at the same time, I am equally drawn to the interdisciplinary woven-ness of the arts. That was what attracted me to this essay. It provided so many interlinked doorways and windows to ideas and aesthetics behind the facade of a simple chess puzzle. It exactly fits the description of the aphoristic Vishnudharmottara story, where a student seeking to learn image-making is prompted to study painting for a better understanding, and for knowing painting better, he is sent to learn dance and music and poetry and prosody and so on.
You had said in an interview that, starting with ‘Nainsukh’ (his 2010 film), you wanted to make research-based cinema. Was ‘Wittgenstein’ born out of a similar impulse?
Definitely. I find cinema to be a very good tool for anveshan, to discover, for the archaeology of knowledge. At the same time, research is only the external aspect; no research is exciting unless it supports an inner exploration and a feeling of wonder.
Why did you opt for this style of animation?
It developed slowly, of course, with my wife and partner in this film, Ayswarya. We tried various styles and this seemed most resonant with the theme of the essay, where we mostly juxtapose as opposed to creating. So the sum proliferates into much more than the parts.
It felt like the animation has a touch of Karel Zeman and Terry Gilliam, and if we go back further, George Méliès. Were these or any other artists on your and Ayswarya’s minds?
I did not have any style in mind except that I wanted a very rough, hand-made treatment; eventually, I went ahead with Ayswarya’s instincts. Our main inspiration was the art of the Dadas and surrealists themselves. The animators I really like are Hans Richter, Viking Eggeling and Robert Breer. There is a reference to Hans Richter’s work in the film as well. The artwork we have used as motion collages is all connected with the essay; and they have trespassed genres even within their times. They provided the main inspiration for the look and feel. It is an extravagantly derivative work, any influence was welcomed without qualms.
There’s a density of information and reference that makes it difficult to take in everything in one go. For instance, in one frame you have a melted clock, Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Trebuchet’, Max Ernst’s ‘The Hat Makes The Man’, and Duchamp playing chess. Is the hope that people will return to the film and notice more each time?
Ayswarya has a deep interest in art history and philosophy. She was very excited about finding innumerable details that fitted so well with the themes and ideas of the essay. She is also an illustrator, and I asked her to draw certain portions, so that added an element of exposition also. I also believe that an image must not exhaust itself quickly. Just the way we were returning to the themes and discovering more and more the web of ideas that motivated those turn of the century artists and thinkers, and the brilliant way in which Gerrard has opened up those hyperlinks, we wish the viewer can enjoy and expand those threads too. This is an entirely open-source, digital film.
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