Mani Kaul to the end remained the iconoclastic, uncompromising, individualistic creator he had been from the start. It was variously said of him that he was deeply influenced by Bresson, Tarkovsky, Ritwik Ghatak. Influences yes, to some extent, but what he created was a singular idiom which was neither imitative nor imitable. “Cinema for me is a plastic, not a performing art,” he said. “It should be direct sculpting in time”. These were notions of cinema that awed people but didn’t bring in audiences. Audiences remained flummoxed, critics spoke of him with reverence.
The reaction to his first film Uski Roti in 1970 was one of shock. That shock remained unchanged to the end — even with Idiot, which had Shah Rukh Khan in his first film role. It was made as a four- part series for Doordarshan and edited down to three hours for theatrical release, but was too far ahead of its time for audiences to be able to grasp. “A new thought — that is the purpose of my films,” he said. “If the film is to show you something that is already known, not only by the filmmaker but also by the audience, where will it lead us?” Television for him was anathema. “The world we are exposed to on television is killing the capacity of wanting to understand. It feeds you… as if you have no capacity for chewing … What food is to the stomach, thought is to the mind.” What would he have to say about the world today and the information overload that leaves no time for boredom, boredom out of which imagination takes wing?
He won awards and accolades, he became an iconic figure nationally and internationally, but the possibility of making films remained restricted. The Film Finance Corporation, as it was then known, was the saviour for the graduates of the film institute — he was one of the first Film and Television Institute of India graduates — but with no chain of smaller theatres to exhibit the films they made, funds slowly began to dry up. He made some of the most memorable films in the history of Indian cinema — after Uski Roti came Ashad Ka Ek Din, Satteh Se Uthata Admi, Duvidha, Idiot, and much later, his last film, Naukar ki Kameez. In between came the documentaries — Dhrupad, Siddheshwari, Mati Manas…. He did not believe in structure, narrative, characterisation — even for feature films. For him each shot was treated as a whole, complete in itself. The shelving of plot and drama took him into a highly original form of documentary. In his view, the line between fiction and documentary was non-existent. In Dhrupad, for instance, he shows the similarity between music and architecture in the organisation of volume and space.
With a wonderfully self-deprecating sense of humour, he reveled in the good things of life, but could be — and was — extremely ascetic in the way he lived. Painter and musician in addition to filmmaker, he was happy singing his beloved ‘dhrupad’, or painting his abstract canvases or teaching enraptured students about cinema, about life and — more and more in recent times — music. His most avid audience was of young people not yet corrupted by market forces. Many years ago he came to give a lecture at the Film Appreciation course we held in Delhi. Four hours later, he was still talking, still exchanging ideas, responding to his young audience’s thirst for understanding the unique ideas being thrown at them by this charismatic figure.
But deep down he was a loner. Cinema demands collective effort, and all who worked with him became his chelas for life. But music and painting are solitary acts and the very fact that he found joy and fulfillment in both shows the essential quality of Mani Kaul the individual artist, immersed in the thoughts and images and sounds and that arose within him and for which he found the highest forms of artistic expression.
The irony is that now, 15 years after the making of Naukar ki Kameez, he was about to start shooting a feature an Indian-Italian co-production Under Her Spell, about Rossellini in India based on Dileep Padgaonkar’s book. This was not the time for Mani Kaul to go.
( Aruna Vasudev is founder of Cinemaya, the Asian film quarterly )
The views expressed by the author are personal