“I feel I have one relation with Bresson, another with Ghatak. But there is a wide difference between the two. It is strange that I have a relation with two persons so contrary in disposition. I am often trying to figure out how to strike a chord between the two. I have absorbed both of them.”
– Mani Kaul–
How can one mention Robert Bresson and Ritwik Ghatak in the same breath, let alone blend them into one single cinematic vision? While the films of the first are most often associated with constraint and rigor, those of the latter are generally identified with sensuousness and exuberance. While one aspired to free cinema from the influence of theatre, the other hinged his cinematic endeavors on his experience with the Indian People’s Theatre Association. Yet for all their differences and peculiarities, Bresson’s ascetic studies of penance and grace and Ghatak’s epic tales of displacement and dispossession seem to have at least one thing in common: a profound impatience with the conventions of dramatic plot structure. It is this impatience that has fuelled Mani Kaul’s ambition to pave his own path through the world of cinema, one that has guided him towards the study of other forms of art, notably of the Indian traditions of miniature painting and Dhrupad music. In these traditions, Mani Kaul (1944 – 2011) found something that he wished to transpose to cinema: an abjuration of the notion of convergence that is ubiquitous in the Renaissance period in western art in favor of a logic of dispersion and elaboration, as exemplified by the improvisation upon a single scale in Indian Raag music, able to transform a singular figure into a concert of flowing perceptions.
Perhaps this particular attention towards subtle shifts and unfolding movements can be traced back to Mani Kaul’s childhood. As a young boy growing up in the city of Udaipur in Rajasthan, Kaul was suffering from acute myopia, which for a long time he assumed as a normal mode of vision. When he finally saw the world through his first pair of glasses, he would time and again get up at the crack of dawn to see the city come alive before his eyes in a continuous play of light and colour. Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between the functional tools of the industrial age and the decorative forms from Indian tradition, Kaul made it apparent that he was interested in the possibilities of form over functionality. In his first feature film, Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1970), inspired by a short story by Mohan Rakesh and the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil, he pared down plot and dialogue to a bare minimum while emphasizing the experience of time and duration and blurring the distinction between the actual and the imagined. In one of Kaul’s subsequent feature films, Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973), an adaptation of a Rajasthani folk-tale, the colour schemes, the framing and the editing were directly inspired by the classical styles of Kangra and Basouli miniature paintings. With this radical departure from the prevalent cinematic norms, Kaul established himself as one of the protagonists of the so called “New Cinema Movement,” alongside notable colleagues such as Kumar Shahani, John Abraham and K.K. Mahajan, who had also studied with Ritwik Ghatak at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune.
The focus on process rather than product was also central to the work of the Yukt Film Cooperative that was set up by a group of FTII graduates and students in the mid-1970s, in response to the state of emergency that Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared across India. Kaul, by then a renowned filmmaker, collaborated on their interpretation of Ghashiram Kotwal (1977), based on a popular Marathi play of the same name, which draws out sharp parallels between that dark period of repression and the authoritarian Peshwa regime that ruled over western India on the eve of European colonization. Although the film might appear like a deviance in Kaul’s trajectory, its mixture of history and mythology, traditional folk forms and complex visual structures brings into focus some of the concerns that are central to his cinematic research. His study of Indian aesthetics, folk art and music would become more prevalent in subsequent poetic documentary features such as Dhrupad (1982), focused on the legendary Dagar family of musicians; Mati Manas (1984), about the ancient tradition of terracotta artisanry and the myths associated with it; and Siddheshwari (1989), an expansive portrait of thumri singer Siddheshwari Devi which amalgamates multiple temporalities, geographies and realities. By that time, Kaul had begun his studies of Dhrupad music with one of the members of the Dagar family, Ustad Zia Moiuddin, and derived a number of cinematic approaches from this musical idiom. As critic Shanta Gokhale has noted: “Classical Indian music is to Mani Kaul the purest artistic search … Just as a good musician has mastered the musical method of construction which saves his delineation of a raga from becoming formless, so a good filmmaker has a firm control over cinematic methods of construction and can therefore allow himself to improvise.”
Towards the end of the 1980s, Kaul found another gateway for his cinematic search in the literature of Dostoyevsky, of whom he adapted A Gentle Creature and The Idiot. Twenty years after Bresson adapted the former into Une femme douce (1969), Kaul made his own version with Nazar (The Gaze, 1989), whose concert of exchanged glances and delicate gestures unfolds like a musical performance sliding from one note to another. In search of even more open-ended working procedures, one of the experiments he attempted in Ahmaq (Idiot, 1992) and continued in subsequent films was to not let the cameraman look through the viewfinder while a shot is being taken. While fine-tuning the process of precise preparation combined with an embrace of the dissonant and the aleatory, Kaul ventured to let his compositions drift ever further away from linearity and unity, allowing for the expression of multiple flows. “A film should not replicate the rhythms of daily life,” he would say, “it should create its own rhythms.” Mani Kaul kept on pursuing his explorations until his untimely death in 2011, leaving behind a wealth of films and writings which unfortunately remain all too invisible to this day. This modest publication, compiled on the occasion of the program Soft Notes on A Sharp Scale — The Rambling Figures of Mani Kaul, produced as part of the Courtisane Festival 2018 (28 March – 1 April), aims to give some insight into the cinematic quest of this visionary filmmaker through a collection of essays and interviews that were written and published between 1974 and 2008. Assembled here for the first time, they offer us some glimpses of the reasoning behind Kaul’s unfading endeavours to “salvage experience.”
Stoffel Debuysere & Arindam Sen (Eds.)
Publication available in Courtisane bookshop