Even Red Can Be Sad

10/31/2017

India / 2015 / Hindi

Directed by Amit Dutta

Still From 'Even Red Can Be Sad'While it’s a cliche that 20th Century art tries to express the chaos of life in the 20th Century, if anything, it could be the unnoticed, utilitarian architecture that fulfills that duty more than any other form. In Even Red Can Be Sad, Amit Dutta’s documentary about a modernist  painter named Ram Kumar, buildings bear the essence, the shape of life, serving as silent guides through a collage of decades and lives. Again and again – and quite deliberately – it isn’t art but architecture that captures the focus of the film.

Let’s start with Dutta himself, since he seems at times to loom larger on the film than his subject, who scurries about in the corners of frames. The director’s work seems so often to pivot from the spindly houses of Himalayan India, their narrow staircases and rickety wrap-around balconies, sometimes off-kilter environments that hold within them whole worlds. In contrast to the concrete block constructions that are to be found literally everywhere in the subcontinent, folk houses are at once slipshod and pleasingly finished-seeming, and as lumpy as a shape molded in a single human hand. Kumar has one of these houses, which, the film recounts, he built in the woods. Now it seems damp and abandoned, but Dutta finds it and files it away anyway. A local man standing outside of it explains that there are four types of construction: packed mud, packed mud with wooden beams, wooden houses and, nowadays, reinforced concrete.

This film isn’t so much a portrait of Kumar (although a portrait does wick to the surface – barely) but a fragmented psychogeography, where the painter is essentially a guide, both directly and as an energy. Now in his 90s, he seems to be living out his life in constant discovery mode, tracking through memories, thumbing through books, so deep in thought that he doesn’t seem to notice the telephone ringing in a distant room (or perhaps, because of his advanced age, can’t hear it).

We see less of his work and him working on it than the environment and what it suggests. One painting we do see in full is in an anachronistic, muralist style, with three rural worker figures looking up at the sky, agog, mouths opened for rain. Somewhere in one of the countless mounds of paint on the canvas is a coiled squiggle that looks like a buried signature but is probably just a coiled squiggle. Dutta follows the connections that emerge from beneath the brush strokes, intuitively, but the film isn’t merely observational; it’s discursive, free-associative, at times elliptical; it talks.

The film is a sketch, a flurry of ideas, catalyzed by visiting the painter’s studio. In a sense it’s another “artist and [his] city” film, like Robert Gardner’s Mark Tobey portrait, or Manoel de Oliveira’s ode to Oporto via the watercolors of António Cruz. In Kumar’s studio and in galleries, finished paintings lean at us from odd angles, get intensified in long shadows against raking museum light. They’re far from static, two-dimensional, or straightforward. They resist leveling, and thus objecthood. The film’s more contemplative moments happen with the artist himself, hunched ninety degrees, as he stands in front of a canvas. He’s not relaxing, not ever; painting is a constant action, sometimes latent, sometimes subdued. He walks over to it carefully, almost warily, and adds a daub before retreating back to look the whole thing over again.

evenredcanbesad6At a certain point Dutta begins to back-paddle from the isolation of Kumar’s studio, the oppressive buzz of the neon filament, his house in the woods. Piney, clammy Shimla appears in the 6 A.M. sun, the city where Kumar was born, its rambling, viceregal houses stacked unevenly along ridges, its monkey-haunted streets running into one another and snaking to hidden levels. At night it is a vertical ocean of lighted windows, threaded together by the illuminated roads. By day it appears as what it is: a collage. Kumar seems to take his time considering how to make it cohere on canvas, but to not lose sight of its innate air of chaos. There are no continuous lines; everything is made of shavings and thick layers.

When Kumar recalls the way that he walked to school through the Shimla of his youth, he recreates it in ink lines on a page, a map, essentially, of a place from the past. Not an expansive place with interconnected streets, it’s essentially a rhizome town (one still hesitates to call it a city, although it’s a state capital), with steep little sub-roads branching off like the ever-smaller roots of a plant or the lines beside an old man’s eye.

I would stare intently at my mother’s wrinkle-ridden face.

Sentences like this from his writing appear on the screen, one at a time, like title cards. Put them together and, cumulatively, they could form three or four paragraphs of a short story. They could do, or not. The condition of disjointedness gives these moments of narrative a flexibility to stick to one another or float free, decontextualized as snap-recollections. Dutta is carefully curating what we see and hear from Kumar’s work (both the visual and the literary), but retains just enough of the voice, the spontaneity of it, to cover his tracks, as it were, which meander through the artist’s subconscious.

Largely, the painter is speaking for himself, albeit indirectly, through lines of his own short-story writing. Dutta does this a lot. There seems to be little translation going on, and more conducting of distinct voices like a switchboard operator. And even one voice will feel somehow aggregate, in the epic storytelling sense, not of one life at all, but of many. Other films of Dutta’s use regional languages and local writing systems (the titles and credits of 2017’s The Unknown Craftsman are in the mostly defunct Sharada script of Kashmir, where it was filmed). This adherence to the real and recorded voices that form the environment is equal to his depiction of natural specificity, the birds, the peculiar light, the sound of the wind.

Here Dutta is, as always, intimately involved in the sound design of his film. The method of having each shot, each idea, existing in its own sonic environment, while important to his current style, can also give the viewer a feeling of being inundated, frequently overwhelmed, by sound. That isn’t always a bad thing, and it never gets beyond controlled; distraction, preoccupation, magnification are all components of what he sets out to unlock. These elements often follow the editing, with the respective frenzy and languor of thoughts. At first it seems as though Dutta is trying to cover up 60-cycle hum in different ways, but then a variety of well-recorded constructions surface. Voices from the environment wash up and eddy about, looping a few times before disappearing.

With a more literal take on exploring artwork as a viewer, his short film The House of Paintings (2015) ignites and nearly anthropomorphizes a gallery of miniature paintings in Jammu, even delving into and animating some of the images themselves to illustrate  their possibilities or hidden meanings. While his methods are omnivorous, in the films comprised of contrasting short, quilted-together moments (Even Red Can Be Sad being the most illustrative of that type so far), the overriding feeling is of intense concentration, of highlighting the latent passages and routes permeating each image.

evenredcanbesad7Both this film and the earlier short use the icy string overtones of composer Catherine Lamb (whose pieces figure prominently in Gurvinder Singh’s excellent Alms for a Blind Horse from 2011), which call to mind snow whistling off from the peak of a glacier. Collaged, the violins add a further element to the glitchy barrage of sonic fragments (both wild and telescoped) and sudden passages of total silence. The results effectively position Dutta against atmosphere, against things like continuity and evocation. He is an acolyte of both Ram Kumar’s assemblages and of Mani Kaul’s deep examinations of cinematic space.

In Dutta’s earlier The Seventh Walk (2013), we see the painter Paramjit Singh contemplating the natural ancientness of the Kangra valley, while the nebulous notes of an alap drift and clang together. Dutta uses sculpted environmental sound to turn Singh’s painting, viewed close up, from abstraction back into nature. (The divisions between the two do not, ultimately, exist). At first, framing elements in his films – the phone’s ring, a stopwatch ticking, the proscenia of windows or terraces – seem to impose tension. But, no – their combined effect, straddling the flowiness of the images, results from Dutta’s very precise use of incongruities.

So many of his recent films seem to be explorations or even re-discoveries of the artistic and cultural legacies of the Himalayan foothills (he hails from Jammu), which haven’t been granted the same level of historical aura that the grand-scale palaces and temples of plains India have. It’s not that Dutta doesn’t also deal in historical aura; his recent film The Unknown Craftsman is almost a foundational narrative for it. The film depicts a pedantic architect on a lone surveying journey into the mountains. The man in it is mentally constructing a temple, miming the act of carving away on existing ancient friezes and, metaphorically, drawing us in a reverse direction from the smoothed-down oblivion of centuries.

Even Red Can Be Sad‘s glomming-together of Kumar’s art and writing and memories, as well as the plunging stairways and microclimates of Shimla, does something comparable to the postmodern historical films like 2010’s Nainsukh (about an 18th-Century painter from near Bilaspur, H.P.) and The Unknown Craftsman. What those films have in common is that they obviate history by communicating in multiple temporal registers at once, not merely out of any sequence but out of time altogether. The director’s synthesis of different eras is more assuredly explicit in Even Red Can Be Sad, but no less effective.

Dutta often utilizes elements gleaned from histories, and the sense of majesty that is often invoked with them, as a path to the modernist’s very refusal of it. His restlessly sundry films attempt to interact with the past in a way that is at once immediate and representative, but also fancifully envisioning its possibilities and reasoning, moistening its fallen dust to form wild pigments with which to splatter the trees and rocks of the landscape. Thus images that are timeless or archetypal give us a new means of seeing things. Their points of reference in artistic styles and histories that are obscure to most audiences give them yet broader ground for exploration of the imaginable.

Nainsukh lays out a taxonomy of processes, both plausible and implausible, and tests them to varying effect. Both the impossibly idealized aspects of that painter’s work and the personally idiosyncratic form the patchwork of Dutta’s imagery. In many ways, that is a central dichotomy of miniature painting as a whole – the prescribed and the religious nonetheless always bear a patina of eccentricity. And it is also one point of intersection between that earlier film and Even Red Can Be Sad. Like in Nainsukh we see the paintings as they emerge from moments, but then also the moments themselves as they are pieced together, constructs that serve a somehow more important visual ideal.

Kumar Shahani’s 1990 film Kasba (an adaptation of a Chekhov story called “In the Ravine”) borrows freely from that same Pahari formalism, opens up the dimensions of a flattened visual world in many directions – it is literally extended across the walls. Far from being in a fixed style, miniature painting was constantly in flux, pointed to briefly by Nainsukh’s brother’s misgivings about his painter family’s adherence to the “new” fads brought on by the changing tastes of the royal court. These 18th-Century characters talk about aesthetics in an existential way – they are artisans, after all. Dutta has talked about his fascination with Himachal Pradesh, a place he finds to have very advanced philosophies and artistic systems growing out amid relatively spare and simple material culture. In contemporary, ascetic painters like Paramjit Singh and Ram Kumar, we find him looking for that same combination of a spartan reality and a rich abstract world flowing out of it, an echo of Nainsukh.

evenredcanbesad8With Kasba (whose sensibility is inspired by Kangra Valley miniatures), as well as Kaul’s 1970 film Uski Roti (with compositions echoing those of Anita Sher-Gil) and Duvidha from 1974 (based in west Rajasthani folk imagery), there is an urge to subordinate cinema to the older art-forms of painting and literature, an urge which Dutta keeps alive but carries in his own directions. He has said that he seeks rather than experiments, riffing on art-forms, both classical and modern, in a way that favors the imaginative over the didactic. Cinema, an imported form, seems to rest on a peak that slopes, on one side, down to minimalism, and on the other to maximalism (East and West, as Dutta puts it). He has said that he thrives on the tension between the two, as well as that which occurs between mystification and explication – both of which dualities seem inherent to making films about art, but are rarely addressed so holistically.

Everything is processed, and Dutta finds inventive ways of continually showing us that. From around a corner appears a camera, or the bar used for lightweight dollying, or even the director himself, snapping pictures of locations before going home to sketch them out on a drafting table. Digital video seems, to him, like an internegative to the real interpretation which occurs later, with a pencil and paper. In rough lines a house becomes fleshed out – railings, the hanging clothes, satellite dishes jutting in all directions. Not only does he record Kumar in the process of recalling and creating, but he also captures himself in the process of observing and interpreting.

In one of the passages of his writing, Kumar speaks of a mist that emerges from the gaps in his consciousness to envelope him, recalling the morning fog of Shimla, rolling into the streets from between the houses, which Dutta captures beautifully in a swirling column of sunlight. That covering mist, seen or imagined, envisions the solitude of creation among the activity of life. The two, thus entwined, render one another in fine relief.

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