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Deepanjana Pal is books editor at DNA

Should ‘high art’ evolve with the times to stay in the race?

A still from Katho Upanishad

ast week, two young women, dressed in their boho-chic best, walked into Chatterjee & Lal gallery in Mumbai. A film was playing inside the darkened gallery. There was one bench, spectral white in the dim light, for viewers and it had one hunched figure on it. The two women sat down and watched the film. There was silence for a minute and then a phone alert chimed.

"It's Ravi," one of the women whispered. "He's sent me that Jackie Shroff video, you know the polio ad one where he goes nuts?"

"Omigod, that is a totally hilarious video!" her companion hissed. "Totally made my day!"

They giggled and then hushed themselves and returned to the film. After a minute, one of them said, "It was so brilliantly cut, no? Just the lines. Snap snap snap."

"I loved it," the other woman said. There were a few beats of quiet.

"It's a bit slow, na?"

"That's no Jackie Shroff." Smothering their laughter, they got up and left.

They were right. That wasn't Jackie Shroff. That was Suvrat Joshi, playing Nachiketa, in Ashish Avikunthak's film, Katho Upanishad. I know because I was the other person on the bench. The one that was doing her best to not hiss malevolently while the two discussed Shroff's mellifluous abuse.

While I liked Katho Upanishad, I expected a cleverer use of the narrative and richer imagery from Avikunthak. My short-term companions wanted the snap of Jackie Shroff bloopers.

few years ago, I probably would have snapped at them. Now I restrain myself because I hope against hope that people will find an experimental filmmaker's re-telling of an ancient Hindu tale about a boy in conversation with the god of death interesting. It would make me feel less of a misfit in my own society, but also because too often, it feels as though our ability to appreciate artistry and love of aesthetics is slackening. At the same time, I wonder about the art like Avikunthak's — shouldn't it be able to counter the cheap tug of Shroff's abusive language? Is "high art", whether it's a film or novel or piece of visual art, becoming complacent and not evolving to become more robust? Is it easier to dismiss commercial entertainers than to compete with them?

Avikunthak is an artist who doesn't care for an audience that isn't patient, attentive and intelligent enough to understand his references and imaginative enough to add to the web of allusions. There's a languorous quality to his films. Themes, ideas and images wind around creating patterns that are as delicate as smoke signals. I wouldn't describe Katho Upanishad as ponderous because, while it is slow and heavy, there's nothing awkward about Avikunthak's filmmaking.

In comparison to some of his earlier work, like Vakratunda Swaha or Dancing Othello, Katho Upanishad is straightforward. It's a retelling of the story of Nachiketa who is granted three boons by Yama, the Hindu god of death. Split into three channels, one shows Nachiketa roaming in a forest while another shows Joshi in modern clothing and walking on a divider in a city. Joshi walks towards the camera while the traffic is moving backwards. It's the middle channel that shows the Nachiketa-Yama dialogue unfold.

It begins with Nachiketa sleeping in a forest. Yama wakes him and then they begin talking. The film ends 82 minutes later, with first Yama and then Nachiketa walking into the distance. The other two screens continue showing their looped images of Joshi's unending amble.

While I liked Katho Upanishad, I expected a cleverer use of the narrative and richer imagery from Avikunthak. My short-term companions wanted the snap of Jackie Shroff bloopers. Should Avikunthak pay attention to any one of us? Whose opinions are of greater value if he did choose to listen to audience response? What would make his art better?

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