Ashish Avikunthak's new film uses Kali to invoke a liberal form of Hinduism
Ashish Avikunthak’s work, which falls somewhere between film and art, has always dealt with religion in some form, be it Rati Chakravyuh, where couples at a Hindu mass wedding, seated around the holy fire, converse among themselves, or Vakratunda Swaha, which revolves around the immersion of a Ganesha idol on Mumbai’s Chowpatty beach. But never have his childhood influences of growing up near Kolkata’s famous Kali temple made their way into his work as explicitly as in Aapothkalin Trikalika (The Kali Of Emergency, 2016), selected for the Forum Expanded section of the Berlin Film Festival earlier this year.
The characters in this film walk the streets and dance on terraces wearing masks of the goddess and, more often than not, no clothes. The film-maker imagines, with an underpinning of farce, what would happen if the goddess became human and tried to make sense of the modern world. It turns out she’s just as much at a loss as the rest of us.
If the premise appears simple enough, the viewing of the film isn’t—Avikunthak describes it as “a filmic philosophical essay". If he shows us frontal nudity, he expects it to evoke a sense of innocence and divinity. When we see a chicken being butchered, and becoming whole again in reverse motion, he expects us to think of it as recycling a form of life.
“I’m trying to present a parallel idea of a diverse, sectarian form of Hinduism," he says, “the kind which is being sidelined by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) framework of Hindutva. They are pushing a very specific, Vaishnav-Jain form of Hinduism that talks about Ram and Bhagavad Gita. The other gods are missing."
Aapothkalin Trikalika was stitched together with visuals shot in grainy home-movie style, in stark monochrome and colour, in and around Kolkata, and parts of Europe and the US, over seven years.
Avikunthak says Kali’s original iconographic representations were in the nude; this started changing as a result of the imposition of Victorian morality. The film-maker, who likes to think of himself as a Shakto Hindu (devotees of Durga and Kali), sees the recent meat bans as an attempt to brush under the carpet a freer form of the religion. “Clearly, religion has become a bad word for the secular and a powerful form for the religious." Contemporary film-makers, he feels, should try and recover the idea of Hinduism from the Hindutva fold. “The film is a small attempt in that direction," he says.
Aapothkalin Trikalika will be shown at Mumbai’s Chatterjee & Lal Gallery from 27 June-22 July.