MANI KAUL IS OFTEN regarded as one of the foremost directors India has produced but he is also, in some ways, one of the best-kept secrets of Indian cinema. His films, though well received in the international film festival circuit, hardly saw a domestic theatrical release. When he died in 2011, there were moving obituaries from fellow filmmakers, students, artists, writers and film critics, attesting to the wide influence he has had on Indian aesthetic life. Yet, throughout his life, his films were also frequently critiqued by directors and reviewers as slow, obtuse or self-indulgent exercises that ignored the demands of the audience.
Another Mani Kaul emerges through his writings, though. There, he presents a sharp critique not just of commercial cinema but also of the “parallel cinema” movement. Initiated in the 1970s by politically committed directors such as Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, parallel cinema took to representing the dispossessed of the new nation state, such as Adivasis, oppressed-caste individuals, sex workers and factory labourers. In these films, Kaul writes,“ideas—sometimes even a progressive social idea—become like the legs of a slim or a fat heroine exposed for the consumption of the very class which the ideas themselves denounce.” Kaul did not question the urgency of these issues. Instead, he argued that such films only sought out new content, while retaining the basic formal elements of commercial cinema. Instead, Kaul’s focus was on transforming the cinematic form itself, to produce art that fundamentally differed not only from commercial films, but also from pre-cinematic forms such as literature and theatre.