Mani Kaul began his career as a bespectacled 27-year-old graduate from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in 1969 with Uski Roti, arguably one of the most cerebral debuts in the history of cinema. It is a placid, minimalist and profoundly composed film, making it Indian cinema's most rigorous experiment with the representation of moving images.
Uski Roti gave birth to a cinematic expression that invoked the structural elements of cinema to collapse the dichotomy of time and space. It not only challenged the obscene spectacle of commercial cinema but also was a scathing critique of Satyajit Ray's neo-realist idiom.
Based on a short story by Mohan Rakesh, it became the radical cinematic text of the Indian New Wave. Soon Kaul made Asad ka Ek Din (1971), followed by Duvidha (1973), both of which dexterously pushed the bounds of representation and were an erudite articulation of cinema's infinite possibilities of making meaning.
Born in a middle-class family in Jodhpur in 1942, he went to the FTII when Ritwik Ghatak was the vice principal (1966-67). Greatly influenced by the non-conformist epistemology of Ghatak that challenged the celebratory exuberance of a partitioned nation, Mani Kaul delved into the world of traditional Indian philosophy, thought and practice.
His later films – Satah Se Uthata Admi (1981), Dhrupad (1984), Mati Manas (1988), Siddeshwari (1989) and others -- emerged from this painstaking engagement with pre-modern Sanskritic epistemic universe and his disciplined training in dhrupad under Ustad Zia Mohiyuddin Dagar.
Mani Kaul's cinema is spectacularly complex and enormously intuitive and therefore requires a disciplined and rigorous practice of viewing. Kaul's films demand an exemplary audience, one that is as meticulously attentive to the moment in the frame as the scrupulous impulse of the director who made that moment.
It is very easy to affect an audience with jocular emotional histrionics and vulgar poignancy – the staple diet of Indian cinema. Instead, Mani Kaul had perfected the art of deeply moving his audience cerebrally by meticulous philosophical exposition.
His films effortlessly employed temporality to create a deep spatial landscape in which human emotions oscillated with an incendiary provocation. This cinematic gesture was so subtle that if one were not attentive the meaning would be lost.
That happened with even the most astute of Indian filmmakers, Satyajit Ray, who after a rather gross misreading of Duvidha blurted: "Kaul's wayward, fragile aestheticism has led him to the sick-bed."
Mani Kaul was born with myopia and saw the world as a blurred haze until he was advised to wear spectacles. Yet as a filmmaker he was a master of lensing.
Kaul's demise marks an end of a fecund period in Indian film history, where inventive genius of aspiring filmmakers was patronised by the state (however grudgingly).
With the opening up of the economy in 1991 state support for cinema was crushed. So in sharp contrast to the productivity of the first twenty years of his career, Kaul was only able to make one feature film in the last twenty years of his life.
The sadness of his death is exacerbated by the insipid state of a self-congratulatory Indian film industry, which spends crores producing a dimwitted circus but cannot spend few lakhs on cinema that transforms souls.
Mani Kaul's death also marks the distressing state of film archiving in our country. Kaul spend the last few years of his life trying to orchestrate support to preserve his films. He was greatly disenchanted with the National Film Archive of India run by apathetic bureaucrats rather than by film archivists.
In my last meeting with him he poignantly informed me that that negatives of his landmark films likeUski Roti and Duvidha were lost forever.
However, the legacy of Mani Kaul's cinematic metaphysics is not dead.
Contemporary filmmakers like Amit Dutta, Kabir Mohanty, Vipin Vijay, Arghya Baasu and myself, who have been brought together under the rubric of Cinema of Prayoga by the film critic Amrit Gangar, continue to keep it alive.
(Ashish Avikunthak is a filmmaker and teaches films at the University of Rhode Island)