The Uncompromising Vision of Mani Kaul, by Khalid Mohamed
ASHADH KA EK DIN
His second feature film ‘Ashadh Ka Ek Din’ (1971) – after ‘Uski Roti’ (1969) -- has completed 50 years. Adapted from the play by the eminent litterateur Mohan Rakesh about the triangular relationship between the Sankrit poet Kalidas, Mallika and Priyangumanjari, its lead players were Arun Khopkar, Rekha Sabnis and Om Shivpuri.
It found a limited release and audience at Bombay’s Royal Opera House. Being a fledgling cinephile, I found its tempo characteristically snail-paced. And the dramatugry if there was one, had to be related to as a formal exercise.
Difficult as I found it then, yet it was obvious that here was cinema which depended on its vaulting mise-en-scene, abetted by K.K. Mahajan’s unforgettable black-and-white visuals of rain-lashed landscapes. Within the stylised roomy interiors, the characters interplayed with the nava rasas inherent in every human being but rarely probed in cinema. In the process, Mani Kaul was rebutting the conventional convenience of cause-and-effect story explication. The viewer was drawn into applying his own perceptions and responses.
I came away from the film, feeling inadequate, immature in grasping its artistic majesty. On re-seeing it half a century later, Ashadh Ka Ek Din, stands out as a work of an artist creating his own canvas, which may not have been faithful to the original play, but had appropriated it in a cinematic language . Its inventive lexicon of techniques, and wordless punctuations compelled you to honour the arrival of alternate cinema, as did ‘Uski Roti’, which was as sensory and devoid of simplistic story-telling.
Quite clearly, Mani Kaul was the uncompromising outsider. He refused to genuflect to commercial diktats, sticking stubbornly to his individualistic – frequently non-linear form of rigorously, creative filmmaking. Down the decades, he was identified with what is variously termed as ‘art’, ‘new wave’ and ‘parallel’ cinema.
In a perceptive essay, critic Arindam Sen has written, “ The films of Mani Kaul… presented themselves as disruptive fissures. His films shunned away all popular tropes and served in their therapeutic capacity against the parlance of realism, a dominant discourse that breathed uneasily in the confinement of a peculiar appropriation by the young nation state as a de facto stylistic alternative to the melodramatic, spectacular, externalised theatrical excesses of the national popular cinema, anchored by, but not limited to the Bombay industry”.
“This state thesis of realism, which is more akin to be called naturalism for its fixation on resurrecting the illusion of social reality, was reflexively resistant towards any subjective reworking of space and time in relation to sound and image. It simply sought to flatten out the realms of the fantastic and magical to facilitate a seamless identification on the part of the huddled masses, demanding an empiricism that resists complicating the order of representation.”
To know Mani Kaul, who passed away at the age of 67 on July 6, 2011, after combating a terminal illness in New Delhi, was to know a mercurial, larger-than-life man. As a film director, he discussed the status of women (particularly in ‘Uski Roti’, ‘Duvidha’), crafted varied seductive documentaries (‘Arrival’, ‘Before my Eyes’, ‘A Desert of Thousand Lines’, ‘Dhrupad’, ‘Siddeshwari’), a free form essay – ‘Satah Se Uthata Aadmi’-- on the poetry and essays of Muktibodh, and went through a spell of interpreting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterworks. The Russian writer’s short story ‘A Gentle Creature’ inspired ‘Nazar’, was shot by Piyush Shah in low, textured green-black lighting.
Dostoevsky’s classic novel ‘The Idiot’ was grafted to an Indian milieu with ‘Ahmaq’, which incidentally featured Shah Rukh Khan in a key role. SRK has recalled the experience of working with Kaul fondly, albeit with the rider that he could never understand what the film was all about.
As a knee-high child Mani Kaul, nephew of B-town’s Mohan Kaul, saw the world through foggy eyes. His eyesight was weak, but he thought that’s the way landscapes and faces look: blurred. It was only when he was around 12 that he was asked to try on spectacles and saw life in focus. “After that, I refused to change my vision,” he would laugh, bemused. Although his cinema was ground-breaking and contemptuous of amassing profits, he did not take himself seriously. His booming laughter, and a saturnine smile a la Jack Nicholson, were his calling card.
In person, he would captivate an ever-enlarging group of admirers with his salty, self-deprecating anecdotes, besides hosting impromptu Hindustani classical music soirees, at his home on Mumbai’s swishy Altamount Road. The apartment belonged to his wife, Lalitha, who doted on him as if he was their third child after Shambhavi and Ribu.
If his temper was provoked, there could be storm and thunder. Once, a Delhi Information and Broadcasting Ministry bureaucrat, over the phone, was bamboozling him to fly to an international film festival in Germany in economy class. Kaul reasoned that he wasn’t interested in going anyway. Yet the bureaucrat persisted. Crrrrrrash! The reluctant traveller pounded his fist into a glass-topped coffee table. End of phone call.
A graduate of the Pune Film Institute, circa 1969, he went on to become a cult figure on the campus. Students down the years have been intensely influenced by him. Others, obsessive about Bollywood cinema, have been dismissive about Kaul, sniggering, “But who sees his Uski Rotis?” The rest of the world did, practically every one of the 25 documentaries and features he made, were showcased and saluted at Berlin, Venice and Locarno.
Four Filmfare trophies for the Critics’ Best Film Award went to him for ‘Uski Roti’, ‘Ashadh ka Ek Din’, ‘Duvidha’ and ‘Idiot’, in addition to the Filmfare Best Documentary Award for ‘The Nomad Puppeteer’ and ‘Siddeshwari’. Plus, he was awarded at the National Awards four times over during a time when ‘intellectualism’ hadn’t been reduced to a pejorative term.
Ironically, he possessed an armful of awards but raising funds for his next project was an ongoing daunting task. Often, he would joke that he could belt out a “commercial crime thriller” featuring Sanjay Dutt, whose screen presence had appealed to him. In fact, Dutt had been approached for the central role of Prince Miskin in ‘The Idiot’. The actor had agreed tentatively but dilly-dallied for so long that Kaul’s patience, always on a short fuse, replaced him with the British-Pakistani actor Ayub Khan Din.
Unbeknownst to many, he painted abstract canvases, and had acted in Basu Chatterjee’s ‘Sara Akash’. Deeply influenced by Ritwik Ghatak, who helmed the Pune Film Institute during the mid- ‘60s, he had a healthy disrespect for middle-of-the-road cinema and would be trenchant in his views on Satyajit Ray and Shyam Benegal.
Kumar Shahani, a fellow traveller in filmmaking, was one of his closest friends.
Despite an ideological argument over which they came to blows at a cafe, the bond between Shahani and Kaul persisted. Both had a tough time securing finance from the National Film Development Corporation, for which they had directed the most-significant films in its treasury as it turned out, it was a losing battle with the NFDC changing its priorities to market-friendly cinema.
Shahani moved to New Delhi to teach. Kaul set anchor in Amsterdam, where he remarried, had two more children, before returning to Mumbai. His last film was ‘A Monkey’s Raincoat’ and his last job, was as the creative director of films at the Osian’s Art Fund.
The mercurial filmmaker shifted eventually to New Delhi, too. And he could be touchy. Once when he was omitted by oversight from an article on Beautiful Minds (read intellectual) in The Hindustan Times, he was upset and volunteered to write a rejoinder--- which turned out to be a rant against how the newspaper was a rag. Insufficiently argued, the rant couldn’t be published.
Yet he was okay with it and laughed, “I expected that. I was just teasing you.” A few weeks later, he had phoned me to inquire if M. F. Husain would allow him to shoot a documentary on his art and life. That was not to be.
With time, Mani Kaul became near reclusive, except when he chose to come out of his cocoon. Be that as it may, his pair of spectacles were always in place. His vision never altered.
Khalid Mohamed is a well known film critic, screenwriter and film director.