If Jean Luc Godard was mashing genres as part of the New Wave cinema movement in 1960s France, Mani Kaul along with Kumar Shahani and John Abraham was doing that in India in the 1970s. Kaul’s meditative ‘high art,’ film-essays on the philosophy of aesthetics (Uski Roti, Ashad Ka Ek Din, Duvidha) were so many reels removed from the mainstream, that in his new role as Director General of the Osian film festival, it hurts a bit to have him invested in all kinds of popular cinema.
“I shouldn’t confine the industry to what I expect of cinema,” says Kaul with a smile. “Our films have a special idiom, they are half musicals, they don’t follow the Hollywood narration of stories. Our characters often drift somewhere else, say Holland, to do a dance among the tulips and come back again…In Hum Apke Hain Kaun, for 15 minutes, it was about the bridegroom’s shoe — the characterisation, the story, everything was forgotten. There was even a song about the shoe — I was delighted.”
The film-maker turned festival organiser says,“I may not make mainstream films, but I’m happy that we can tolerate moving away from the main story… We must recognise that we invented this non-linear form which prevented Hollywood for coming in.” But is Bollywood really free from Hollywood’s influence?
Meeta Vasisht, the actress of one of Kaul’s most well-regarded film, Siddheshwari, asks, “How far should we go to embrace the popular? If I could I would do 20 more Siddheshwaris…”
At the 11th Osian film festival, Kaul will be creating a platform for directors Vishal Bharadwaj, Anurag Kashyap and Imtiaz Ali, among others, under the branding ‘New Stream’. It’s an interesting concept and Kaul says he is in no hurry to judge individual works. “Vishal is excited to be on stage. The interaction between directors and actors will open up new ideas,” he adds. “I see something common between them when compared with the old mainstream of India. They are not afraid of the literal. Earlier you had to say things through metaphors, insinuations. They are closer to what India is now.”
The actor-director relationship has always been an important equation for Kaul and on prodding, he talks of Shah Rukh Khan (in Kaul’s filming of the Dostoevsky story, The Idiot, he played the lovesick Pavan Raghujan). “The actor on screen is not the clone of the director. The director has to give him details and not take over his intuitive movements … Shah Rukh is the only actor in my career who decoded for himself what I was trying to say while directing. He understood what I was doing.”
So when do we see the next Mani Kaul film? Soon enough, says Kaul who is taking “an unpaid leave after the festival is over and going off” to make it. He won’t say more. The timing , he says, is not right, but what he says next warms the heart. “There’s this line from Siddheshwari which I identify with. Siddheshwari is talking to her friend Koumidi. ‘Koumidi, humein nahi maloom kaun ga raha hai. (I don’t know who is actually singing)’ I’m struck by that line. An artist, if he is an artist, has to sing like that, paint like that, make a film like that. When I make a film, I will be compelled to make it my way. It’s not my choice.” Despite Mani Kaul’s belated regard for the mainstream, we can sure that film will not be another Jab We Met.