Mani Kaul: Beyond the surface

Long before Cannes became the stomping ground of red carpet gowns, Mani Kaul had quietly made a mark. Even if his cinema was abstruse. He, in fact, seemed to revel in that. I admit that there have been moments during his films when I had wanted for something to shake, but he could not care less about audience expectations. He would freeze the frame on a chimney and, being ‘aficionados’ who had just been rendered ‘Breathless’ by Godard, one had to give due respect to our own avant garde, so one stared wide-eyed hoping not to miss a thing in a blink and were rewarded with smoke rising finally.

It was like a landscape painting in 3-D. Much of Kaul’s scenes seemed like still images. He was not a story teller, though his two wonderful works remain classical music biographies – Dhrupad and Siddheshwari. When you ventured into a Kaul film, you were supposed to know about the subject and then approach his cinema. It took me a while to understand quite a bit, except as brilliant visuals.

It was different with Uski Roti, a simple story about a woman who carries food for her truck driver husband to stop on the road and collect it. There was the sub-plot of a mistress and her own sister and even the idea of waiting on a road. But I recall a “proud heathen” friend once saying, “Woh roti kitni deir tak pakk rahi thi?” (How long does the roti take to cook?)

Indeed, the wait on the road was nothing as compared to the wait to get there. It was process. Had he been a mainstream director, it might be said that he was tantalising. In his case, he just wanted to see each frame as a vignette. For those of us who like interpreting, it could be fun, although occasionally tiresome.

I have read a few tributes and he is referred to as the “god” of cinema. This was the problem. Put a person on a pedestal or in a shrine and make offerings, but how many of these new wave filmmakers followed their god? I guess he had to die on 'ashaadh ka ek din' (a rainy day and the title of one of his films) so that people got their convenient headlines and quotes about cinema verite.

His guru was Ritwick Ghatak. Now, I found Ghatak accessible. Kaul not so much. Watching a Kaul film was like visiting a modern art museum, even if he spoke about real things. This was realistic cinema that was abstract.

His greatest contribution, besides the films on music, was the use of literature. He did that quite extensively and in Satah Se Uthta Aadmi (Arising From The Surface) he used the Hindi writer Muktibodh’s work. At a time when we are discussing issues of people’s involvement in the democratic process, some of the scenes are subtly political. The following extract has potently captured quite a bit of it – panning the panorama and then using the person, the transposition of a fight with the manner in which the observer just walks round as though circling a pyre or making mental notes without getting involved. Questioning the idealist - what have you done? The fog in the distance then completely takes over.

It is all about fogginess – of people, of ideas, of how we see and then watch the disappearance. Fade out…

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