Aug 21, 2011

Mani Kaul & Cinema

“Cinema is a means of entertainment”. Correct, but not entirely. Its function, both as an entity of consumption and as a medium of expression is not limited to just ‘entertainment’. Dig a bit deeper, look beyond and you will realise that more than just being entertainment, it is an art form. In fact Italian film theoretician Ricciotto Canudo has even called cinema the ‘seventh art’, the other six being:  Music, Painting, Sculpting, Architecture, Poetry and Dance. 

This was the first art form (TV, mobile, internet etc came in later) that brought together all the other art forms under one umbrella and used them in varying degrees and forms to give cinema its own, very distinct identity. However, most filmmakers follow the time-tested, well established rules to churn out ‘regular cinema’, which is fine, and probably necessary to satisfy the masses and the pockets.

But there are a few practitioners of the medium who treat it as a tool through which visuals and sounds can be juxtaposed literally and laterally against time and space to communicate an idea in a different way altogether. They tend to find out newer possibilities and explore varied ways in which they can relate their vision and sensibilities with the medium and achieve their objective with relevance!

Rabindranath (Mani) Kaul was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan in the year 1942. One of his uncles, Mahesh Kaul also happened to be a film director and actor. Later, he joined the Film and Television Institute, Pune as an acting student, but later on moved to the direction course. At the institute he had the privilege to study under the master filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak, who helped the young Mani refine his understanding of both the technical and creative aspects of the medium. He graduated in the year 1966.  

Right from the beginning, with his very first feature film Uski Roti (1969), Mani Kaul made his intentions loud and clear. He felt a compelling need to treat film primarily as a medium to explore form – not purely in a visual sense but as a distinctive ‘language’. Clearly, he was on a different tangent and probably that explains his interest in directors like Bresson.

The iconic French filmmaker Robert Bresson, also referred to as the Patron Saint of cinema, was known for 'austerity' in his films. He never showed anything that was unnecessary, indeed he went further, and often left the viewer to infer what was happening outside the frame. Hence the shot of hands, feet, door handles and other parts of objects where any other filmmaker would have shown the whole. 

According to Sight and Sound, "A key ingredient of Bresson's methods is his view of actors, his "models". In his films, actors were chosen not for their ability but for their appearance. He trained them to remove all traces of theatricality and to speak with a fast monotonic delivery. All movements of actors were strictly controlled by the director, when they walk they have to take a precise number of steps, and eye movements become extremely important - the lowering of the eyes towards the ground is almost a Bresson trademark. The result of this approach is that the viewer becomes involved not with a character's appearance but almost with the core of his being, his soul."

Such ideas had a marked influence on Mani Kaul. His films bear a distinct look in terms of visuals, expressions, acting, sound, music and camera movements. They can very well be termed as the pall bearers of an idea, a theory that found few and infrequent resonances from the audiences but which at the same time were distinct and resolutely pure enough to be recognised and explored as works of art.

Uski Roti was one the pioneering films of its time that helped launch the New Wave of Indian cinema. The audiences were caught unawares as they didn’t know how to react to this new kind of cinema which was so different from what they had been subject to till then. Undeterred by the reactions, both negative and positive, Mani Kaul carried on with his ‘brand’ of cinema with films like: Asad ka ek din (1971), Duvidha (1974), Ghasiram Kotwal (1976), Dhrupad (1982), Mati Manas (1984), Siddheshwari (1989), Nazar (1989), Idiot (1991) and Naukar ki Kameez (1997). In his body of work, be it feature films, documentaries or TV series, the standard definitions of fiction and non-fiction used to overlap and interplay. The fine line didn’t have sharp edges.

Through his films he adapted the works of writers like Mohan Rakesh, Vijay Tendulkar, the great Dostoevsky, musical genres like Dhrupad (of which he was singer as well) and cultural aspects especially in Mati Manas where he has explored the evolution of pottery in the sub-continent.

According to his long time friend, Dilip Padgaonkar, “If the stories that Mani told did not follow in a strict chronological order, if his characters did not act, if his stunning visuals left even the sentiment of awe suspended in mid-air, it was because he wanted his spectators to think of the medium differently. He wanted them to rise above the tiresome debate over form and content to discover that form in itself was a narrative experience – and not only in a plastic sense. The exploration of form, he cautioned time and again, should not be construed in terms of style – another bogey that, in his eyes, had stunted the evolution of film.”

Any person, who is honest in life, true to his purpose and creative in pursuit, has a bit of a teacher in him. And similar, I believe was the case with Mani Kaul. HE taught music in The Netherlands, mentored students at his alma-mater FTII. Later he joined as the creative director at the Film House of Osian's Connoisseurs of Art.

He tried, created and practiced his own language in the realm of cinema, with his sensibilities and understanding of the medium and the world. This, to my mind, is a single enough reason to explore his works as they open a new window to a different take on creation and recreation. 


  1. Knowing about such a great renascence director is indeed a pleasure and brilliantly put in words... Though Mani Kaul was not an iconic in the popular movie buffs world, but m sure he was a great magician with his directorial skills, especially what is described by you in terms of "Bresson's method".... will surely try to watch some of his creations in coming days!!!

    Thanks for enlightening us with the story bro!!