Ashish Avikunthak, Kalkimanthankatha (The Churning of Kalki), 2015, digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 79 minutes.

Ashish Avikunthak, Kalkimanthankatha (The Churning of Kalki), 2015, digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 79 minutes.

Ashish Avikunthak

Ashish Avikunthak, Kalkimanthankatha (The Churning of Kalki), 2015, digital video, color and black-and-white, sound, 79 minutes.

Set in a location with few distinguishing qualities, in lieu vague, Samuel Beckett’s spare, minimal Waiting for Godot (1953) is in many ways an ideal transcultural text, easily adaptable to different geographical, cultural, and linguistic contexts. Using the play’s basic premise—two men wander an apparent wasteland interminably awaiting the arrival of a third character—as a starting point, Ashish Avikunthak’s seventy-nine-minute film Kalkimanthankatha (The Churning of Kalki), 2015, transforms Beckett’s absurdist postwar “tragicomedy” into a subtle postcolonial reflection on the idea of God as absence, drawing on ancient Indian philosophical and religious treatises that prescribe acceptance of inaction, uncertainty, impossibility, and emptiness.

The film was shot in Super 16 and digital video in Allahabad during the 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela, a huge Hindu pilgrimage in which the devout gather to bathe in a sacred river. Occurring every twelve years, it is thought to be the largest single gathering of humans on earth. You would not know this from Avikunthak’s film, though, which unfolds as a series of short duologues (most of which are shot in gray, grainy black-and-white, with the occasional sequence in muted, dusty color) that take place in largely uninhabited, desolate, almost mythic landscapes—misty windswept fields, deserted hilltops and riverbanks, ancient ruins, and, in an overt nod to Beckett, a clearing under a large tree. These settings are peripheral to the main action of the pilgrimage itself, aural traces of which enter through the occasional faint hum of chanting or sermonizing. Speaking in a stylized literary Bengali distant from everyday use, the men rarely look at one another, often gazing suggestively offscreen or scanning the horizon.

Avikunthak’s protagonists search for the mysterious messiah-like figure of Kalki, the tenth and final avatar of Vishnu, whose arrival, according to Hindu mythology, marks the end not of all time but of one temporal cycle, after which the succession of ages simply begins again. This a priori acknowledgment of the cyclical rather than linear structure of time seems to normalize the trope of uncertain and infinite repetition, which registers as absurd in Beckett’s play, and the frequent experiences of déjà vu that follow become intimations of possible reincarnations. Through their never-ending and seemingly futile quest, the men—who, much like Beckett’s protagonists, bicker with an almost marital intimacy—discuss and debate various esoteric philosophical quandaries: the relationship between blind and reasoned faith; the need for conviction in the face of doubt; the value of inaction; the wisdom of the unknowable and impossible; and infinite searching as an auspicious, affirmative process that builds and strengthens faith. A sublime musical interlude—a woman playing a tamboura under a tree, shot in crisp, vivid color—shatters the claustrophobia of inaction. The dialogue then shifts to conspiratorial talk of an impending war, peppered with readings of passages from Mao Tse-tung’s Little Red Book (1964). Unlike the meandering philosophical ruminations, these are terse, direct, and pragmatic, evoking the notorious history of India’s Naxalite movement—an armed Maoist insurgency that originated in the West Bengal village of Naxalbari. Kalki is eventually evoked in a sped-up sequence of the two men chanting the name while circumambulating a rotating camera.

Near the end, a recitation of the names of different avatars of Vishnu (from the more standard Rama and Krishna to Mohini, the only female one) seamlessly extends to include appelations of Communist thinkers and leaders from around the world (Vietnamese general Võ Nguyên Giáp; Bolshevik rebels Nikolai Bukharin, Leon Trotsky, and Lev Kamenev; Romanian Communist Nicolae Ceauçescu), aligning ideas of cosmic rebirth and political revolution. 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.

Murtaza Vali