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Ashish Avikunthak

Ashish Avikunthak (born 11 February 1972) is an Indian avant-garde filmmaker[1][2] and an anthropologist who is an Associate Professor of Film at University of Rhode Island.[3]

Ashish Avikunthak
Ashish Avikunthak

OccupationDirector, Screenwriter, Professor


Avikunthak graduated from University of Mumbai in 1991 with a BA in Social Work, MA in Archaeology from Deccan College Post-Graduate and Research Institute in 1996, and a PhD in Cultural Anthropology from Stanford University in 2007. He taught at Yale University before joining University of Rhode Island in 2010.[4][5][6]

Short filmsEdit

Avikunthak began his filmmaking career with short films made between 1995 and 2010. He created a body of work that explored ideas of ceremonial rituals, banality and the inter-relationships between selves and the concepts of ‘community’ and ‘politicality’ by challenging conventional forms of representations.[7][8]

His first film “Et Cetera” was a tetralogy consisting of four one-shot films made on 16mm, between 1995-97 - Renunciation, Soliloquy, Circumcision and, The Walk .[9] Each of these films explores the dialectic between screen/film time and real time to examine actions as ritual.

His next 16mm film, “Kalighat Fetish” won the best documentary award at the Tampere Film Festival in 2001,[10] which dealt with rituals of animal sacrifice and cross-dressing in the context of Kalighat Kali Temple in Kolkata. Neepa Acharya of University of Delaware writing about the film says: “Ashish’s style of filmmaking constitutes an exploration of the postcolonial self through representations of the everyday in India. Kalighat Fetish discovers a representation of the banal within ritual acts of transgression, morbidity and sacrifice. Representation usurps reality within Kalighat Fetish.”[11]

In 2002, Avikunthak adapted Samuel Becket’s enigmatic dramaticule “Come and Go” into a 16mm short film in Hindi called “Antaral” (End Note).[12] In a complex analysis of the film in relationship to the play Arka Chattaopadhya writes: “Ashish Avikunthak’s adaptation introduces a fascinating element of play into the Beckettian structure of this displacement and illumines significant nuances about its potential continuation. The film facilitates a clearer understanding of the play’s form-content dialogue; prompts us to question the content of the murmurs in terms of number without supplying for its missing content and most importantly, makes us rethink the question of punctuation in Beckett’s structure…Avikunthak’s deconstructive play unmakes Beckett’s structure on the one hand, then on the other, the precision of the Beckettian structure responds to this element of play by implicating Avikunthak’s structure in the braiding principle central to its own operation.” [13]

His 2010 film, “Vakratunda Swaha” premiered at the International Film Festival Rotterdam was featured at the Taipei Biennial 2012[14] and was long listed for The Skoda Prize.[15] In this film, shot on 16mm, art critic Subhi Jiwani, underscores Avikunthak’s training as an archaeologist: “He periodically returns to his personal footage archive and often, images shot at one event show up in different films. He treats his footage with the reverence an archeologist might have for his excavation site and culling out images for one film is no reason for the footage to be banished from the editing table. Symbols, acts and preoccupations also appear across his body of films giving us the impression that he is moving along the edge of the infinity symbol (∞), always returning to its centre (its beginning and its end) before branching out again into the new.” [16]

Avikunthak’s only documentary film called “Rummaging For Pasts: Excavating Sicily, Digging Bombay,” is video diary of international archaeological excavation at Monte Polizzo in Sicily shot in summer 2000.[17] In its review the journal American Anthropologist states: “The format resembles a documentary, but the unexpected combinations of images, sounds, and information are disorienting and lay bare the processes by which we assemble meaning. For a Euro-American viewer unfamiliar with Indian culture, the juxtapositions of archaeological and Indian footage evoke the unbridgeable chasm that separates the material remains of the present from a complicated, lively, but ultimately un-knowable past.”[18]

About the themes and motifs of Avikunthak’s short films, critic and historian Amrit Gangar explains: “Avikunthak’s cinematography retains its power of provocation – for delving deeper into far off associations, mythical, metaphysical, metaphorical and mundane at the same time”.[19]

Maurizio Calbi of University of Salerno, Italy writing about Avikunthak’s practice of this period notes that in his films, “(a) ritual quasi-mythical quality of everyday life emerge(s); of letting the ‘ordinary’ continually re-mark itself in its singularity as ‘extra-ordinary.’” [20] This comment is made in the context of Avikunthak’s film “Dancing Othello” made in 2002, which is a commentary on theatricality of Shakespeare and Kathakali.

Feature FilmsEdit

Nirakar ChhayaEdit

Avikunthak’s first feature film “Nirakar Chhaya” (Shadows Formless) had its world premiere at the Locarno Film Festival in 2007.[21] It is a Bengali language film that was adapted from Sethumadhavan's award winning Malayalam language novel “Pandavapuram”, translocated to Kolkata from Kerala.[22][23] Locarno Film Festival describes that the film: “tackles love and loneliness through three sensitive portraits. This modern fable, featuring desire, sensuality and eroticism, deals with problems in male-female relationships. The fine line between dream and reality, two worlds that are both complementary and in opposition, hypnotise the protagonists and insidiously affects their behavior”.[24]

Katho UpanishadEdit

His 2010 Hindi language film, “Katho Upanishad" was an adaptation that transformed 6th century BCE Sanskrit language philosophical treatise Katha Upanishad into a triptych of three one-shots, with the longest being a 58-minute single-shot.[25][26] In the catalog accompanying the screening of the film, Amrit Gangar noted that for Avikunthak: “Katho Upanishad was not just a narrative text; he wanted us to experience time, present becoming present, time acquiring a certain spontaneity, a certain experiential feel. According to him, the ¬first section of the fi¬lm is about the quest to know, the second about knowing (and hence epistemological) and the third about experience (and hence ontological).[27]

Rati ChakravyuhEdit

In 2013, Avikunthak made India’s first one-shot feature film – “Rati Chakravyuh.” The entire film was made in a single-shot measuring 102 minutes.[28] Made in Kolkata it is Bengali language film, in which six newlywed couples on their wedding night sit in a circle with a priestess in an ancient temple and have a protracted exchange before they commit mass suicide.[29] The film had its world premiere at the 2014 Shanghai Biennale.[30] Historian of cinema of India, Ashish Rajadhyaksha says that in this film: “an entire universe of stories is now opened out. As these stories come and go, what we get is nothing less than the very insides of tragedy, the form being dissected as though with scalpel and scissors. They are random, seldom with an end, moving in some kind of free-associative form in a sequence, which sequence itself will be revealed as a game.” [31]


In 2015, Avikunthak released “Kalkimanthakatha” that was shot on location in the Allahabad Kumbh Mela in 2013. In this feature film, Samuel Beckett’s celebrated play “Waiting for Godot” is transplanted from its European context to Bengali language and the Hindu pilgrimage site of the Kumbh Mela.[32] This film was stopped from a private screening in a Kolkata art gallery by the Central Board of Film Certification in 2017.[33][34] In a review published in Artforum, art critic Murtaza Vali, writes that: “through this film, Avikunthak orchestrates a somewhat unexpected encounter between opposing perspectives or bodies of knowledge—sacred/secular, modernity/tradition, philosophy/politics—the friction between them forcing each to open up to the wisdom of the other. And by using an uncompromisingly difficult avant-garde form and structure to explore Hindu thought and ritual practice, the film troubles ongoing attempts by fundamentalists to assert definitive orthodox interpretations onto a religion defined by its rich multiplicities.” [35]

Aapothkalin TrikalikaEdit

In 2017, Avikunthak’s film “Aapothkalin Trikalika” which he made a year before had its world première in Forum Expanded in Berlin International Film Festival.[36] A film centering on the divine intervention of Goddess Kali, this film is a political and religious commentary on the state of contemporary India, writing about which Swaym Bagaria notes “if you look at Avikunthak’s earlier films, you will notice an obsessive struggle with the theme of death. In Aapothkalin Trikalika, he seems to have taken this compulsion one notch higher, as Kali herself is afflicted with mortality. We should try and understand Avikunthak’s despair as his is not private; he despairs of Kali, and in her all our lives are implicated.”

Style, themes and influencesEdit

Avikunthak films employs Indian epistemology, insisting on a formal visual language. His films are rooted in Indian religion, philosophy, ritual and form.[37] He deals with different associations at the same time. Mythical, metaphysical, metaphorical and mundane elements are found in his work.[38] London based art critic Niru Ratnam writing about his films notes: “Avikunthak’s works insist on an Indian epistemology while utilising a rigorously formal visual language that is clearly aware of Western avant-garde practices such as those of Andrei Tarkovsky and Samuel Beckett. These are self-consciously difficult works that are filmed in a self-consciously beautiful way.”[39]

While he has made a number of digital works, Avikunthak steadfastly remains attached to the celluiod medium. Richard Suchenski, Director, Center for Moving Image Arts, Bard Collge in his overview of Avikunthak’s works writes: “His decision to work until very recently in the more expensive and labor-intensive medium of film is rooted not in an allegiance to vaunted theoretical concepts like indexicality or contingency, but in a sacred conception of work connected to the notion that an image is precious precisely because it is fragile, its beauty deepened by the fact that it could vanish at any moment.”[40]

Film historian Parag Amladi notes that “In much of Ashish Avikunthak’s work we find little or none of the armature of narrative which is such a staple of the cinema. But they are not documentaries of the political or even anthropological variety. They do not report or record or depict events. But they do encapsulate a great deal of anthropological thinking in the way they mobilize a range of theatrical devices like masks and performance and ritual. They are formal essays and stagings of the meanings of such procedures which have, for the most part in our culture, taken on a purely mechanical, instrumental and economic dimension.[41]

Arka Chattopadhyay, Assistant Professor in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar, India notes: “Avikunthak treats cinema as an aesthetic object in our digital age where popular and commercial cinema and its visual regime have become a force of mercantile capitalism and its global investments, makes his cinematic practice inherently political and dissident. In subverting cinema’s collusion with the market, Avikunthak returns to the theatrical origins of ritualistic ac on and reduces the narrative content of cinema to its bare bones.”[42]


In July 2017, a social-media outrage erupted when Avikunthak was debarred from entering the upmarket Quest Mall in Kolkata because he was wearing a dhoti.[43] He was eventually allowed after he spoke in English.[44][45] In a Facebook post that went viral he wrote: “"This is unambiguously a new low for this city. Private clubs have always created hierarchies and distinctions because of clothing. Now public spaces are also threatened and a culture of segregation based on class is being practiced unhindered. I write this with a sense of deep disgust."[46][47]


Short Films

  • Et cetera, 1997 [48]
  • Kalighat Athikatha (Kalighat Fetish), 1999 [49]
  • Brihnnlala Ki Khelkali (Dancing Othello), 2001 [50]
  • Antraal (End Note), 2005 [51]
  • Vakratunda Swaha, 2010 [52]

Feature Films

  • Nirakar Chhaya (Shadows Formless), 2007 [53]
  • Katho Upanishad, 2011 [54]
  • Rati Chakravyuh, 2013 [55]
  • Kalkimanthankatha (The Churning of Kalki), 2015 [56]
  • Aapothkalin Trikalika (The Kali of Emergency), 2016 [57]


Awards and RecognitionEdit

Best Documentary, Tampere International Film Festival, Finland (2001) [61]

Best Director, New York Indian Film Festival, New York (2008) [62]

Long List, The Skoda Prize for Indian Contemporary Art (2011) [63]

Future Greats 2014, ArtReview (2014)[64]


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  13. ^ Chattopadhyay, Arka (27 June 2016). "Exhausting the inexhaustible: reading the structure of Samuel Beckett's Come and Go through Ashish Avikunthak's Endnote". Textual Practice. 31 (2): 399–415. doi:10.1080/0950236X.2016.1187667.
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  16. ^ "A Performative Ontology for the Ritual by Subhi Jiwani / Chatterjee & Lal Catalog" (PDF). Chatterjee & Lal, Mumbai. 21 May 2010.
  17. ^ "Editorial". Stanford Journal of Archaeology. June 2001.
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  55. ^ "humanities underground » RATI CHAKRAVYUH: DISSOLVING NOTHINGNESS INTO NOTHINGNESS, शून्य में शून्य का विसर्जन चक्र".
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External linksEdit