Requiem For A Vision

Nazar (1989), a Mani Kaul feature, was adapted from a short story by Dostoevsky. COURTESY OSIAN’S ARCHIVE AND LIBRARY COLLECTION
Elections 2024
01 August, 2011

FOR THOSE WHO HAD BEEN CLOSE to Mani Kaul (1944-2011), it is difficult to make him the subject—of a newspaper article, an obituary, a talk. His visions, for they are overwhelmingly various, have infused our work as writers, cinematographers, directors, musicians, actors; they have infused our ways of seeing. I worked with Kaul on his feature film Nazar (The Gaze, 1989), for which I wrote the screenplay. Perhaps it was chance that this was the film through which my friendship and learning with him began, because it is above all his gaze that was profound. If it was chance, it is the kind of chance or accident that Kaul believed in. He welcomed it in the work, in the making of a script, the gesture of an actor and in the many random things that could occur when he was shooting. As a film director, his singular ablity was to include the unexpected.  As a result, he was utterly calm when actually shooting a film, because he was never executing something he had already planned. Only the gaze never faltered.

Nazar was based on a masterful story by Dostoevsky, ‘The Meek One’. We adapted a screenplay from it in which each event was true to the original, but was opened up and stretched by Kaul’s own sense of time. As we read and reread the story, he came up with a deeply original idea. Everything that in the story was interior monologue should in our screenplay be turned into dialogue. Cinematically this was a masterstroke. It immediately exposed the subterranean movements which would otherwise have been hidden, and gave a heightened inwardness to everything on screen. He asked me to write a screenplay to reflect the way we both had understood it in this case, and I wrote it as a series of very short prose texts, an evocation, in his words, “of the ebb and flow in the film, a poetic ensemble of words that is at once visual and internal”. I felt then, when I was much younger, as I do now: that I gave little but received so much.

Mani Kaul in an archival image from 2001. HT PHOTO

When Nazar released, it was, of course, by and large rejected, ignored. Much has been made of the “slowness” of his films, and Nazar was no exception. Perhaps now that he is gone it can be said that those who feel this way are unable to enter into his sense of time, his rhythm. This, in itself, could still be a matter of taste. But what’s more is that those who feel this way have always been unable to engage with him, differ with him, in cinematic terms. Those who have criticised him have not brought to the criticism a critical mind. “A film should not replicate the rhythms of daily life,” he would say, “it should create its own rhythms.” He believed that to be out of step with an ordinary pace was crucial to our seeing into things. Watching a performance by Kelucharan Mohapatra with Kaul at Delhi’s India International Centre, he took me through the dancing in meticulous detail. “Look,” he said, “he never puts his foot down on the sam, but a little after.”

Kaul’s extraordinary vision encompassed music, painting, dance, the study of ancient Sanskrit texts. He was for many years a student of the great rudra veena player, Ustad Zia Moiuddin Dagar. He achieved enough mastery of the tradition to become later on a teacher in his own right. Bahauddin Dagar, the son of Ustad Zia Moiuddin, said to me the other day: “No one knows yet how much he gave to our music.” He painted and sculpted as well. And while watching Kelucharan, he said to me: “I would have loved to have been a dancer you know.” What is significant in all of this is it was not simply about an interest in all the arts, or a misty sense of being moved or inspired by them. His creative intellect was so prodigious that all these art forms were refracted through his own philosophy and practice, finding expression in his cinema and his wide ranging insights.

He would always say to me when reading my work: “You know, I’m quite illiterate.” Yet, his own responses and suggestions became one of the central supports in my writing, and he was himself to become a source of great sustenance in my own writing life. He believed in those of us, much younger than him, who were trying to chart our own paths, he knew the arduousness of the task—he had come that way himself—and his strength was given with the knowledge of what he himself had come through, and what he knew, perhaps better than us, we too would have to face.

The papers are filled with descriptions of Kaul as an iconoclast, as fearless. The deeper truth behind these labels is in what he once said to me. “One goes in a certain direction because that is the only direction one can go in. You cannot ask why. Perhaps you can ask for the source of the cause, if there is one.” This is key to understanding an artist like him, for he was not opposing anything through his work, he was not trying to stand for anything. He was, simply put, one of the most original minds of our time—original in that he came from his own source. Kaul said of Satyajit Ray, who was one of his harshest critics, “Ray opened up reality, a truth of a certain kind, which was not an escape, or an illusion. Cinema in India moved forward from that truth.” Kaul despised the middle of the road art cinema because he thought it was morally and aesthetically false. He preferred Bollywood because it had no pretensions, and did not produce a should or a prescription in its attitude towards the world, which middle of the road cinema did. His brilliance lay in having found the pulse of his own aesthetic, and his ethics lay in never having compromised it. “An artist is a strange, individual birth,” he said.

Kaul at the shooting of his documentary Siddheswari (1989). {{name}}

In his lifetime it gradually became more and more difficult for him to raise funds for his work. The general response to his great body of films—from Uski Roti to Naukar Ki Kameez and including more then 11 feature-length works as well as many shorter ones—has kept his films from being restored and preserved. It is the continuing irony of our culture that only after his death is there so much discussion about him and his work. I don’t recall a single retrospective of his films in the last 20 years, or books, or even thoughtful investigations into his cinema, except the poet Udayan Vajpeyi’s Abhed Akash. This travesty is balanced by only one thing. That those who worked with him, and learnt from him, carry inside them and in their work fragments of his visions and, most of all, the sense of daring that he embodied. He seeded work not only in all aspects of cinema, but also in literature, in music.

Kaul was a stunning intelligence, but he was also as joyous, always filled with laughter, immersed in a kind of celebration and praise of things, a superb raconteur, a drinker, a good cook who loved to make a meal for his friends. In 1994 he had been commissioned to make a short erotic film, funded by a German producer. The film was called The Cloud Door. One day he was telling me how different directors all over the world had been commissioned to work on this project. He showed me the brochure, which was a huge paper heart on which were printed the names of the other directors. “I don’t really know any of these names,” I said hesitantly, thinking I had not been seeing enough world cinema of late. “Oh, I know,” he replied. “They are the Mani Kauls of their countries,” and burst into laughter. When certain filmmakers called him experimental, the sub-text being that he was difficult and esoteric, he would say, laughing, “My films are not experimental, because I know what I’m doing. They are experimental, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

There is no one thing to be said about the complex body of films that he has left behind. If I had to talk about one attribute at this moment—other times would surely yield different descriptions—I would talk of his cinema as having a centrifugal force. This force moved outward from the centre, creating a spaciousness in which the watcher could walk into the vastness of his or her own self. In Ashad Ka Ek Din, after having stayed indoors at all times, the camera suddenly moves outwards at the end to reveal the mountains; in Satah Se Uthata Admi he creates not the reality but the feeling of a dead small town, its flat, brown, dusty landscapes, and a set of stairs leading nowhere; and at the end of Dhrupad, the camera flies over tiled roofs and buildings and cars down below, rising and falling like the music, and in one stroke joining time past with time present. The distinction between fiction and non-fiction become meaningless in his work, and he himself did not believe there was one. “The problem is actually seeing, being there,” he said. “What else is there to do?” This opens up so much ground for even others to walk on, be it in cinema or literature. His work cannot be reduced to its material means, or its categories, like fiction and non-fiction; these are simply his matter, which he made his own through a rigorous involvement with the medium, giving cinema itself a new voice.

Naukar ki Kameez (1999) is the story of a low-level clerk in a government office. COURTESY OSIAN’S ARCHIVE AND LIBRARY COLLECTION

Recently, looking at the spate of writing on him, I found mention of what viewers see as his “habits”, the slow turning of an actor’s body, or the “lavish colours” in his frames. I would like to say here that the one thing he was not doing in his films was repeating elements easily or habitually. What seems like only a slow turn of the body will reveal, if watched with more attention, a relationship between that turning, the camera’s movement which is often not one with the turning, and the actor, the plant, the half open window, the bright blue of the curtain, the light that enters through it, in fact between each single thing in the frame. Kaul’s camera sought and found an equality between the human and the non-human. “In shooting, the interest is in an image, not in a character,” he said. The democracy of elements extended to everything he had as his tools, too many to enumerate. “There is no such thing as a correct exposure,” he said, “only a preferred exposure, and an emotional relationship with that exposure.”

When someone asked him where they could find his films, he once said: “It’s good you haven’t seen them, but heard about them, you know; as time goes by the negatives of most of my films, which are in very bad shape, are getting worse, and there are very few prints anyway that are still alright…so, as I get more and more known, fewer people see my work. There will be a time when there won’t be any work left, and I will be gone, and people will be saying, ‘Mani Kaul, Mani Kaul’,” and he would make a gesture with his hands following the words, as if it were a resonating call.

Mani Kaul’s The Cloud Door (1994) was a short erotic film funded by a German producer. COURTESY OSIAN’S ARCHIVE AND LIBRARY COLLECTION

Few filmmakers leave behind such a rich oral aura, and despite the great pain that his own self-deprecating remarks hid, he embodied the joy of the immediate, the improvisatory, the spontaneous meeting.  He is one filmmaker who could look our profound oral, classical tradition in the face, and he made cinema its newer breath of life.

Learning from him meant spending days with him, talking, listening to dhrupad, watching Pahari miniature paintings. This was the way he gave, passed down his knowledge, brought you to a point and left you to take it forward yourself. Walking with him some years ago in the Lodi Gardens in Delhi I asked him a question. I very often asked him questions that had been inside of me for a long time, and refused to go away. He said in reply: “What you ask me is not a question, so what I will give you is not an answer. It is not a question, only a certain unresolved modulation of your voice. And what I say will be a figure that develops from that.”

Working with Kaul and being with him were one and the same thing. Very often the months of preparation and discussion before the actual shooting of a film meant that the small group would move at the end of the day from an office space to his home on Bombay’s Altamount Road where he lived with his wife of many years (though they would later part), the film editor Lalitha Krishna and his two children Shambhavi and Ribhu. He loved working especially with younger people; he said they were not jaded like his contemporaries. So writers, cinematographers, sound designers would enter his spacious living room, sitting around a large, low wooden table over whiskey and rum, and the conversation would turn to Matisse, Meer Taqui Meer, Deleuze, a particular lens or food. We did come away intoxicated. Lalitha Krishna had not only edited many of his films, she had also worked on all aspects of the films and, most importantly, provided a partnership without which it would have been very hard for him to achieve as much as he did. The mechanics of 35 mm filmmaking is such that the support that is needed is as much material as it is metaphorical.

In his lifetime it had become more and more difficult for Mani Kaul to raise funds for his work. COURTESY OSIAN’S ARCHIVE AND LIBRARY COLLECTION

Modernity feels threatened by the absence of criticism. It is deeply suspicious of praise. It sees truth, if not as clearly negative, then at least as an attempt towards balance. It is not subtle because it does not realise that everything does not have to be expressed, that insight has nothing to do with balance. When speaking of such an original artist as Mani Kaul it will not matter how he may have fallen short—of himself, not anyone else—it will matter that the length and breadth of his vision will continue to be immeasurable.

The question I asked him in Lodi Gardens was this: I wanted to know what the difference was between creating—in film, literature, music—and living. Here is what he said: “The artist is always awake, he never forgets. The living man is often forgetful.”

The living man must also pass away.