Profile – A Split Existence

It is inevitable. The first thing you notice is the mustache — a black, glossy, wild shower of facial hair. Situated inches above that dynamic mass is a simple pair of circular golden glasses. You remember the eyes behind these glasses. And, of course, the mustache.

This animated man is Ashish Avikunthak, known to his students by his legal name, Ashish Chadha. As a Yale professor, he teaches classes in the Anthropology department, such as “Science, State, and Technology in India,” but he also teaches a number of courses in Film Studies. Therein lies his duality: Avikunthak is both a Stanford-educated anthropologist and an active experimental filmmaker.

Both fields have been a part of Avikunthak’s life for as long as he can remember. Growing up in Kolkata, India, Avikunthak explains, young people do four things: they get into politics, fall in love, write poetry, and watch films. From these early memories, Avikunthak views his interest in cinema as sprouting out of the dynamic, diverse culture of his childhood.

Cinema, he believes, is an articulation of culture, and Avikunthak says he is so steeped in South Asian culture that filmmaking seems like a natural progression of his anthropological work. Still, he insists that the two are not truly reconciled with each other. “They are two separate tracks,” he claims, and he does not plan on merging them in the future.

When Avikunthak went to work on his master’s degree in archaewology, his school was in Pune, the same city as the preeminent Film and Television Institute of India. Though never a student there himself, all of his friends worked at the school. He would “study in the morning and in the evening go see films.” Avikunthak would hang out at the shoots, watch the production of his friends’ films, and immerse himself in the process of filming. He enthusiastically recalls his time shadowing the lives of film students. But, he is quick to reiterate, he was not a student himself. When it comes to films, Avikunthak is “completely self-taught.”

While still in India, Avikunthak continued his work with the Warli tribes in West India, near Mumbai, and finished his second short film in 1999. He then moved to the United States to work on his doctorate in cultural anthropology at Stanford. He stayed in Palo Alto for seven years and has split his time between India and the U.S. ever since. Despite geographical separation from his inspirational landscape, however, Avikunthak continued work on his movies, which are set entirely in India.

It is as if he leads two different lives: one in India and one in the U.S. All of his films are filled with Indian imagery and references, yet the majority of his year is spent in exile from his cultural and geographic muse. Nevertheless, he has embraced this dual existence.

This perseverance has paid off in the years since he first came here: his first full-length film, Shadows Formless, opened at Switzerland’s Locarno Film Festival, one of the top festivals in Europe. His short features — including Dancing Othello, Kalighat Fetish, and End Note — have been featured at festivals around the world.

His films delve into a very personal, post-colonial world. Like many middle-class Indian families, Avikunthak’s parents sent him to an English-speaking school where he learned to write in English even before he learned to write in his native Hindi. At his Catholic school, which “mirrored those in England,” the teachers would go so far as to fine students the equivalent of a dollar for speaking any language besides English.

“It was a split existence,” Avikunthak explains. Early on, he studied the Western canon, but Kolkata, the cultural hub of India, provided a parallel informal education as well. With awe, he watched dancers and singers who trained ten years or more in their respective fields, and this fascination has arisen in his work. For instance, his short Dancing Othello combines the city’s culture — the dancing, the tradition, and the vibrancy — with the Western story of Othello.

Separately, Kathakali dance and Shakespearian tragedy would seem like their own microcosms. However, when the two are combined, “it subverts both of these traditions,” Avikunthak says. “The film itself becomes a farce.”

Dancing Othello, however, is not Avikunthak’s favorite of his shorter works. End Note is the work closest to his heart, and when he speaks of it, his eyes brighten. They dart about as he grows excited, speaking of the film’s ties to his childhood, family, and literary inspirations. Based on a Samuel Beckett play — to Avikunthak, Beckett “is virtually a god” — this film takes its cues from the theater of the absurd. It features three women who share an important childhood secret that is never disclosed to the audience. It is a film for his daughter, and it reveals part of his past as well.

End Note is “an intense, personal piece.” Avikunthak’s emotional attachments to this film are many, but the physical space is most telling. Avikunthak filmed it in the house where he grew up, and the leading actresses are his mother, sister, and cousin — not professionals.

Avikunthak’s characteristic intensity reappears in Shadows Formless. In the opening minutes, eerie music welcomes the black and white frame of a girl whose hair is being brushed. The simple, daily act of brushing the girl’s hair becomes so mesmerizing that her dialogue — a heart-wrenching story of abuse — is almost muted by the seemingly ordinary act. “The banal is spectacular,” says Avikunthak. “It becomes the meat of my narrative.”

Avikunthak thus upends the audience’s preconceptions of both subject matter and form. He revels in demonstrating how everyday acts can acquire significance when highlighted by the camera. In a film industry wracked with overt violence and bloodshed, it still surprises him that such everyday acts can upset people so fully.

In Shadows Formless, there is a scene in which multiple chickens are slaughtered, and its presence in the film has caused uproar with audiences. It is a scene steeped in death, yet killing chickens is an ordinary task. Still, the violence in this scene caused the Indian government to censor the movie and prohibit its sale in India.

The censorship board requested the scene’s removal, but Avikunthak says that he will not follow their orders. To remove the scene, he thinks, would be to take away a vital part of the story’s artistic cohesion. Chopping pervades the movie: bananas, coconuts, cucumbers, and other fruits and vegetables are cut without complaint. The chicken, he views, is a natural progression of everyday cutting. In context, the censorship “is without any logic.”

Avikunthak sadly concedes that because of the censorship, the film will only be available to a special audience. However, he makes a film “because it is necessary to be made,” and not because of its presumed appeal. His films, he says, are for people everywhere.

Differing from the commercial status quo, Avikunthak’s films offer a narrative structure, but “the emphasis is on the cinematic possibility instead of the narrative possibility.” Just as he has included images the Indian censorship board wanted removed, he feels that his films are successful if the images can tell their own story.

Avikunthak’s films must be set in India, but he will continue to teach at Yale. His films are direct products of his Indian roots, and cannot be separated from their place. India has the turmoil and tension to catch Avikunthak’s animated eyes, while the U.S. offers stability and academic employment. If he is to continue achieving at his high standard, it seems Avikunthak must keep living two distinct lives.

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