Cinema, above all, is about the images. What a filmmaker wants to convey in a film is done through the moving images. The other aspects — dialogue, music, and acting are just incidental, or are means to accentuate the moving images.
If this is true, then for me, Mani Kaul, who died on Wednesday, is a great filmmaker. That too, for a single image, the image of a bride travelling to her in-laws’ place on a bullock cart.
The film is Duvidha (1973), Two Minds. The bride is Raisa Padamsee (I have never heard of her since). Though it was a colour film, Kaul’s first colour film, I saw it on a small black & white TV set, telecast on Doordarshan one evening.
The scene is a bridal caravan returning after the wedding through the sultry, dusty roads of Rajasthan deserts. While the men walk, the bride sits on the canopied bullock cart, bedecked, her face half covered in ghunghat. We see a demure young woman, with large khol-lined eyes, a contrast to the bleak surroundings.
The caravan stops under a tree on the roadside. The voice-over narration tells us that a ghost resides on the tree. We learn that the ghost has noticed the bride. Now, the camera regards the bride with fascination, with curiosity, with open-eyed wonderment. We learn that the ghost has never seen such a beautiful woman in his life (or whatever a ghost’s existence is called) and the camera gives the proof of this — the demure face, those large eyes...) And, we instinctively believe the idea that the ghost has fallen in love with the bride.
You know what happens next, if you have seen Amol Palekar’s Paheli (2005), starring Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji, which was a bloated, Bollywoodised version of Duvidha.
But, with its slow intensity and moody close-ups Duvidha was something else. I don’t remember the entire film; I saw it when I was in high school. I remember the last sequence, when the ghost impersonating as the husband, and the real husband face the test — who can enter into a bottle? And, I remember the aforementioned scene, vividly, clearly.
Since then, you mention the words, wedding or bride, my mind’s eye sees that bride from Duvidha. That one sequence, that one scene exemplifies for me the idea of feminine beauty like no other image ever could.
I have no idea if the film was ever released on DVD. There are times I wanted to see the film again, and decided that I actually did not want to. I was not sure the image would hold the same resonance for me now, as it did so many years ago. That’s the reason I have resolutely avoided seeing Paheli, not that I missed anything.
Talking about Mani Kaul and Shah Rukh Khan, the latter acted in a Mani Kaul film during his TV days, in Kaul’s adaptation of the Idiot (1991), made for Doordarshan as a four-part mini series. This was something else, where the characters retained the original Dostoevsky’s Russian names and spoke in chaste Hindi. And no, I don’t remember the film for SRK, but for Mita Vasisth’s Nastasia. She was marvellous, as always.
About Mani Kaul (from the net)
“I made films because I wanted to make films. I didn’t do it with the intention of giving the audience a message. The act of making a film is a social act.”
Mani Kaul is undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who, along with Kumar Shahani, has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal.
He was born Rabindranath Kaul in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in 1942 into a family hailing from Kashmir. His uncle was the well-known actor-director Mahesh Kaul. Mani joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune initially as an acting student but then switched over to the direction course at the institute. He graduated from the FTII in 1966.
Mani’s first film Uski Roti (1969) was one of the key films of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the Indian New Wave. The film created shock waves when it was released as viewers did not know what quite to make of it due to its complete departure from all Indian Cinema earlier in terms of technique, form and narrative. The film is ‘adapted’ from a short story by renowned Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and is widely regarded as the first formal experiment in Indian Cinema. While the original story used conventional stereotypes for its characters and situations, the film creates an internal yet distanced kind of feel reminiscent of the the great French Filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The film was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) responsible for initiating the New Indian Cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Uski Roti. It was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with standard cinematic norms and equally defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia.
Kaul followed Uski Roti with Asad ka Ek Din (1971). This was based on a play by Mohan Rakesh. The film is set in a small hut in the hillside and features on three characters: Kalidasa (Arun Khopkar), Mallika (Rekha Sabnis) and their friend Vilom (Om Shivpuri). The characters’ lines, mostly monologues, were pre-recorded and played back during shooting, thus freeing the actors from theatrical conventions. A highlight of the film is KK Mahajan’s sensuously shot landscapes and languid camera movements.
Duvidha (1973), Kaul’s third film, was also his first in colour. Derived from Vijaydan Detha’s short story, the film tells of a merchant’s son (Ravi Menon) who returns home with his new bride (Raisa Padamsee) only to be sent away again of family business. A ghost witnesses the bride’s arrival and falls in love with her. He takes on the husband’s form and lives with her. She has his child and then, to complicate matters, the real husband reaches home. A shepherd finally traps the ghost in a bag. The film uses the classical styles of Kangra and Basohli miniature paintings for its colour schemes and framing and focuses on the wife’s life, developing the characters through parallel, historically uneven and even contradictory narratives. The film is a very finished and polished product and one of Kaul’s best known films, shown widely across Europe. Recently Amol Palekar did a less than satisfactory adaptation of the same story as Paheli (2005) starring Shah Rukh Khan and Rani Mukherji.
Mani Kaul, along with K Hariharan Saeed Akhtar Mirza as well as other filmmakers set up the Yukt Film Co-operative (Union of Kinematograph Technicians) in 1976. This led to a remarkable avant-garde experiment in collective filmmaking as the group made Ghasiram Kotwal (1976), one of the most celebrated plays in Indian Theatre. The play was staged by the Theatre Academy Pune in 1972 and its members participated in the film’s cast as well. The film, though commenting on Maratha and Indian history, has more contemporary ramifications as it explores metaphorically Indira Gandhi’s reign and the period of ‘Emergency.’
In Mani Kaul’s cinematic conception, fiction and documentary films have no clear demarcated dividing line. Films like Dhrupad (1982), Mati Manas (1984) and Siddheshwari (1989) have a rare cultural intensity where the two different genres have been successfully fused together. Dhrupad explores the origins of dhrupad through its evolution to the classical form to which it is known today. Mati Manas rises above the documentary form and traces the development of pottery down the ages in the sub-continent while Siddheshwari is based on the life of the great eponymous thumri singer of Varanasi.
With Nazar (1989) and Idiot (1991), Kaul turned his attention to the writings of Dostoevsky. The former is based on Dostoevsky’s story The Meek Creature and a major part of the film, which also has references to Bresson’s Une Femme Douce (1969) based on the same story, chronicles the young wife’s alienation in a disintegrating marriage as she first resists and then succumbs to the order of things in a world in which her place is determined regardless of her efforts to intervene. The film’s strength lies in the visual force which beautifully conveys the ambiance of claustrophobia and auto-destruction. Idiot was made as a four part TV series for Doordarshan running 223 minutes and edited down to 180 minutes feature length. Kaul commented on Idiot that “Whereas for years I dwelt on rarefied wholes where the line of the narrative often vanished into thin air, with Idiot I have plunged into an extreme saturation of events. Personally I find myself on the brink, exposed to a series of possible disintegrations. Ideas then cancel each other out and the form germinates. Content belongs to the future and that’s how it creeps into the present.”
Mani Kaul’s last feature to date has been Naukar ki Kameez, made in 1997 but released in 1999. The film looks social hierarchy within an Indian village in the 1960s and, in particular, how the structure affects a fairly low-paid clerk and his wife. To most viewers, it is easily his most accessible piece of work while to hardcore Mani fans, his most disappointing for precisely the same reason!
—Upperstall.com (from mubi.com// http://mubi.com/cast_members/35346)
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