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.
To read Kaul’s essays and interviews now is to encounter the philosophical complexity that surrounded his idea of cinema, and much of his work as a director of feature films and documentaries. A long interview he gave to the Hindi poet Udayan Vajpeyi was published in 1991 as a book titled Abhed Aakash, and translated, in 2013, into English as Uncloven Space by Gurvinder Singh—one of Kaul’s students and a National-Award-winning filmmaker. Uncloven Space reveals Kaul as a visionary who imagined a new kind of Indian cinema—a cinema of the future that is perhaps only being born now.
Singh directed the 2015 Punjabi film Chauthi Koot, shot in Amritsar and Firozpur, which depicts Sikh militancy and its aftermath in 1980s Punjab. The film was not only screened at the Cannes Film Festival, but also widely released and praised in India, where it won the National Film Award for Best Feature Film in Punjabi. Instead of assembling violent and suggestive images to depict the Punjab of the time, as one would expect from a typical treatment of such a subject in Indian parallel cinema, the film moves stealthily through the everyday lives of a family in a Punjabi village, introducing us only tenuously to the violence that surrounds them.
Many critics of Singh’s film, despite finding it formally engaging and accessible, were at a loss to explain the reasons for his aesthetic choices, such as the lack of major historical contextualisation, or the slow pace at which the smallest events unfold. The “normal way of editing,” Singh said in a 2016 interview published online in The Caravan, “is that as soon as the information is grasped, you cut. But if you make people look at things longer, make them reflect on things after they have grasped the information, they suddenly become aware of the passing time.” In the interview, Singh remembered Kaul as an exorcist: the man who rid him of the ghost of image in cinema—or “image ka bhoot.” Cinema, Kaul insisted, is not a visual medium but a temporal one. Kaul’s views on time in cinema deeply influenced Singh, who admitted in the same interview that Kaul “altered my way of looking through the camera.”
Chauthi Koot illustrates the enormity of Kaul’s cinematic thinking. In the film, the camera lingers upon its characters for long stretches, as if waiting for them to play their roles, whether it is the two Hindu men trying to illegally board a train to Amritsar to save their lives, or Joginder’s family in the village, who are forced to give shelter and food to separatists who visit them at night. In several scenes, the camera spends a long time establishing an inherently silent relation between the family dog, Tommy, and its masters. If the film were merely an exercise in sensitising audiences to the trauma of Punjab in the 1980s, it would have done so in broader strokes and with much more information. But instead of aiming at such a totalising narrative, Singh persists with his ordinary characters, for whom the barking of their dog becomes the most urgent problem. Singh is less keen on framing a neat and emotionally evocative story as he is in conveying a cinematic account of how time moves in Joginder’s tense household and outside it.
Time in the film seems tangible and yet too hot to touch. The unfolding of time—rather than historical information or plot details—is what allows the film’s audience to really feel the trauma of its characters. Singh’s film is compelling because viewers see it in light of their own overwrought expectations of what should take place in a political film on 1984. Audiences expect bullets and bomb blasts, and the more time that passes with nothing happening, the more tense and nervous they become. By the end of it, viewers have felt something of what it was like for ordinary people to live through the insurgency in Punjab, in a constant sense of heightened alert.
Although the film was adapted from two Punjabi short stories by Waryam Singh Sandhu, it takes these literary works only as a starting point and does not reproduce the plots or narrative structures of the texts. Rather, in keeping with the kind of cinema that Kaul argues for in his 1983 essay “Towards a Cinematic Object,” the film breaks free of literary and theatrical conventions to find its own visual idiom. For the first 20 minutes of the film, which are shot in a train compartment, we watch seven passengers travelling illicitly in the guard room of a train to Amritsar. Four of them are Hindus, and are visibly tense as the camera moves from their faces to those of their Sikh co-passengers, and back. The scene is hardly supported by any dialogue or narrative progression, and the characters remain bare, not invested with any apparent motives except a desire for escape.
The filmmaker holds back from showing us the motivations of his characters in other scenes too, such as where Joginder beats his family’s dog, Tommy, with a shovel. The tension in the story is manifested not through expressive dialogue or momentous events, but through the time we spend watching Joginder and his family interacting in everyday life. In earlier scenes, Khalistan separatists—who fear that the dog’s incessant barking might give them away—as well as Punjab police officers—who get impatient with the barking and try to shoot it dead—have had problems with the pet. Ultimately when Joginder disables Tommy by breaking his backbone, we are not sure why he does it—for the separatists, the police or for the sake of his own sleep. To its credit, the film does not anchor itself in any particular narrative, showing all these perspectives with equal detachment.
Throughout the film, Singh refuses to mine the subject matter for either dramatic storytelling or agitprop formulations. His approach could not be more different from what Indian audiences have come to expect when such political subjects are dealt with in parallel cinema. Singh’s other films—some of which have not been commercially released—as well as the films of Amit Dutta—which have been widely acclaimed in international festivals but have had no public release in India—use a new formal idiom and echo the innovations in film theory that we find in Kaul’s writings. Understanding the dynamics of Chauthi Koot is thus key to understanding Kaul’s vision of the cinema to come.
Narrative is not essential for filmmaking, Kaul explains in Uncloven Space, but “I am not against ‘story.’” People normally think of story and narrative as the same thing, but for Kaul, they are distinct. Narrative, for him, was what dictated the meaning of the story, and was thus something to be done away with. Story is something he wanted to keep, except that he allowed the camera to take control of the process of storytelling. As we see in the compartment scene in Chauthi Koot, a story can be compelling without any narration, character development or plot per se. In the beating scene, the story is gripping and disturbing without dialogue, or elaborations on motivation. Seeing something, even in flashes, creates a story for cinema, Kaul argued. This necessarily means that a camera can move over a landscape, inside a house, or around characters and produce a story without any narrative to wed these frames to each other and create a common meaning. In doing this, Kaul was trying to theorise cinema as distinct from essentially narrative forms, such as literature, theatre, commercial film and even parallel cinema.
KAUL WAS BORN in 1944 in a Kashmiri Hindu family then living in Jodhpur. Film as Art, by the German theorist Rudolf Arnheim, was the one book on cinema in the city’s local library, and the only thing Kaul says he ever stole. In the long interview with Vajpeyi, he claimed to have been the first reader of that copy, since it had never been issued before. Kaul had been a passionate consumer of cinema all through his childhood. He regularly watched five films a week, often in a theatre owned by the family of a classmate, which he could enter free of cost. Through repeated free viewings, he says he memorised every frame of the 1961 dacoit drama Ganga Jamuna. Yet it was watching his first documentary that he remembers as being one of his most formative experiences: “When I saw a documentary at that time, I was greatly influenced by it. By its non-narration and how this film was made, without characters, without a story, without any psychological twist. The camera is observing a tree, observing people and the film is getting made.”
Kaul’s own films would “get made” almost entirely through slow and wide shots (his use of the 35mm lens is well known). They were not dictated from a storyboard. His very first feature, Uski Roti, adapted from Mohan Rakesh’s story of the same name, follows its literary source only enough to support the basic elements of the story. Bare in dialogue, the story in the film is developed using a variety of lenses and lights.
Kaul became short-sighted as a child, and his condition went undiagnosed for weeks, till his father noticed it and took him to a doctor. There is a visceral description in Uncloven Space of how, after getting spectacles, he looked hungrily at everything around him for days, as if reality had been rendered anew. Kaul relates very strongly to this memory of seeing while commenting on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1975 film The Mirror. Kaul’s emphasis is entirely on the act of seeing and the way the film negotiates the relationship between the eye and the object of its gaze: “Tarkovsky’s vision is such that, for example, I see a tree, what would happen? Either I remain ‘I’ and keep meditating on the tree, and the tree remains a ‘tree’. This is one way. The other is that I completely disappear, I am not there anymore …only the tree remains. The third possibility is that I remain here and my thought turns into a tree.” According to Kaul, a film like The Mirror explores all these three possibilities.
Many viewers have said that Kaul, and by extension his idea of cinema, was antagonistic towards meaning. Nowhere in his interviews or essays, though, does Kaul announce any such thing. If anything, he tries to poignantly redefine cinematic meaning in the context of his own films. In Uncloven Space, he says:
The fear of having no meaning scares people. After all, what is the meaning of music? ... It is not something permanent. It is created, and then ends. It will emerge again with a new face. For a balanced condition, the existence of meaning is essential, but meaning is continuously created. It is not such that it will stand by you, ready to be deployed, through your life. It keeps getting created.
For Kaul, seeing in cinema is a process that is most analogous to listening in Indian classical music. In many interviews and essays, Kaul draws the analogy particularly with the Indian classical form dhrupad, which he practised and taught, and about which he made a documentary. The lack of narrative or explicit meaning in music does not rob the listener of aesthetic pleasure. Meaning in dhrupad seems to reside in the specificity and clarity of every individual note. This is what prompts Kaul to also see cinematic meaning as a continuous process, which ends and is reborn with every scene. The analogy to music is crucial to Kaul because the process of listening comes very close to how he conceives of seeing within cinema—an act without definite and destined meaning, which is newly produced when an individual viewer encounters an individual moment in an individual scene.
In commercial films, the script closely dictates how the content is regulated. Even in avant-garde cinema by filmmakers such as Ingmar Bergman, a set of philosophical ideas dictates how the camera should operate. One of Kaul’s central obsessions was to overcome this separation between the camera and its field of vision, the script and its enactment, the eye and its object. Kaul envisions a cinema where the camera can come into its own as a unique instrument. This not only redefines ideas of spectatorship, which Kaul lays out diligently in his essays, but also creates a framework for filmmaking of a particular kind that others can follow.
REGARDLESS OF WHAT the many critics of Kaul’s craft would like to believe, he was genuinely interested in finding an audience that would notice his investment in the act of seeing. He was very clear about this when he said, “Without an audience there can be no filmmakers.” Yet he understood seeing as a fundamentally private experience even in a mass medium like cinema.
Kaul’s cinema has always been a marshy ground to pitch interpretive tents upon, even for the festival crowd. Yet, Kaul was alert to the particular experiences of his audience. He writes that he wishes cinema to be received piece by piece, where one singular shot can evoke cries of: “Wah! What a pan!” He goes on to say, “Such an audience will be born, that understands what I am saying. It might be that a mass audience isn’t quite ready, but there will surely emerge an audience that watches the moving camera and marvels: ‘That’s brilliant...What movement! What a cut!’”
In Uncloven Space, Kaul says that cinema is the only art form that trains us in seeing. Gazing as an act is not absent in other forms, but with the use of the camera, seeing becomes primary in cinema, even before the script or the story has been decided upon. Kaul’s essays barely give any thought to how the content of films should cohere with Indian realities. He was not interested in creating any indigenous or regional idea of cinema, as many of his contemporaries in parallel cinema had been. In his interviews, he never claimed that he was representing a new “Indian” regional identity, or a historical reality that was yet to be discovered by commercial cinema. Rather, he drew inspiration from a wide array of sources, including miniature paintings, dhrupad music, the modernist art of Henri Matisse and the films of the French director Robert Bresson, to be able to address some of the issues and paradoxes fundamental to gazing.
In a seminar on his films at UNESCO, Kaul spoke about how, in cinema, it was a challenge to resist focussing too much on organising and regulating space: “Since the European Renaissance, we have been trained to understand that organising space, and especially a sacred space—a church or a temple—is what creates a sense of attention and therefore time. But now I believe that I should in fact place myself in time, and into a certain quality of attention, and let the space become whatever it becomes.”
Commercial cinema does not allow for a similar multiplicity, Kaul suggests, because it organises space so that the actors, setting and sound come together for a close-knit narrative. A control over space allows such a film to have a unified and steady meaning, but giving up such control can open up the same space to various shades of meaning over time, which only the camera can reveal. The compartment scene in Chauthi Koot is one such exploration of cinematic time. Instead of arranging or changing the space with jump cuts or physical movements, Singh just lets the characters be and keeps the camera rolling. In those moments on the train, we really see how Singh, following Kaul, rids himself of character construction or plot and forces us to make meaning of the manoeuvring, or rather the stillness, of the camera. The scene is gripping and it draws its strength not from narrative techniques—such as suspending information, revelation or dramatic dialogue—but through showing the stillness of one’s life, and by extension one’s sight, even when one lives in anticipation of turmoil.
Kaul’s theory of the films of the future was focussed primarily on the audience of the future. In Uncloven Space, he says how “If we want the culture of viewing films to change we need to do something else, instead of making film appreciation so boring …We have to make them realise that there is joy in watching too. They should learn how to see, then meaning, etc. comes very easily.” Kaul’s way of creating a new audience was not by expecting a connoisseurship of a technical kind. He rather wished to invite viewers to see in cinema the very act of seeing.
The promise cinema holds for Kaul is that it can change the way in which audiences literally see the world. “Realism in a film lies in the truthful relationship between the social/individual sensibility of the film-maker and the cinematic idiom,” Kaul wrote in his 1977 essay “Communication.” “A director from the urban milieu who wishes to make a film on rural life will be respecting realism when he looks at the rural details with his urban sensibility and thus exercises adequate restraint on his performers,” he continued. This is where a director’s gaze becomes highly personalised—following its own specific and contextual way of looking even when surrounded by unfamiliar ideas and social landscapes.
Ultimately, our gaze is fated to be solitary. More than ever, we watch films alone now, as individuals, losing ourselves on ever-smaller screens, not collectively as mass audiences. Kaul’s writing is a testament to this solitude and its tense relationship with traditional theories of audience and modes of making cinema. This solitude, he recognised quite early in his career, is never absolute. If on the one hand Kaul’s gaze runs the danger of alienating his audience, on the other it stands challenged by the overbearing presence of what it sees, the visual object mired in its own social complexity. This is why Kaul’s writing and interviews become vital to read in order to anticipate the cinema of the future.
The cinema that Kaul imagined, if it comes to pass, will struggle, like all cinema, with the abjectness of its gaze, the solitude of its camera amid a world already determined by past representations. Overwhelmed by reality, it may choose to look away and return to a story well narrated through characters and settings. Or, like Kaul’s work did, it might make this abjectness the very story of cinema.