Thursday, July 7, 2011
Mani Kaul 1944 - 2011
Mani Kaul was the closest thing India has had to an avant-garde film-maker. Let me explain what I mean by that term. The great age of the avant-garde in visual art occurred in Europe between 1900 AD and the outbreak of the First World War. A bewildering number of experimental movements flourished at that time: Fauvism, Cubism, Expressionism, Futurism, Cubo-Futurism, Vorticism, Constructivism, Suprematism and so on. Around 1905, Henri Matisse and his colleagues began painting in bright hues that bore little resemblance to the real colours of their subjects. A French critic dismissed them as Fauves, or wild beasts. Two years later, the 26 year old Pablo Picasso painted his seminal canvas, Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. Henri Matisse ridiculed the painting, calling it a hoax; and his fellow-Fauve André Derain said that one day Picasso would hang himself behind that canvas. Their response to Picasso mirrored the outrage of the traditionalist French critic when faced with their own work. That's a feature of the best avant-garde art: it feels very unlike what has hitherto been defined as art, and can't adequately be judged by established standards associated with a given art form.
Mani Kaul confronted a similar situation with his first film Uski Roti, made when he was 26. The film is a straight-out masterpiece. I have no hesitation in placing it among the great debuts of all time alongside the likes of Citizen Kane and Pather Panchali. It also holds a secure place in my list of the ten greatest Indian films ever made. On a sadder note, I categorise it as the last truly great film produced in India. Movies have come close since then: some of Adoor Gopalkrishnan's films, and Aravindan's, and the early Ketan Mehta's; and also Mani Kaul's Duvidha, made two years after Uski Roti, and his last film Naukar Ki Kameez from 1999. But Uski Roti has a clarity and command of medium that sets it apart.
The film was so different from the cinema being produced at the time that even directors outside the sphere of commercial cinema couldn't grasp its achievement. Satyajit Ray detected a "pernicious anaemia" in Kaul's work, a "wayward, fragile aestheticism" that had "led him to the sick bed". Ray was in the position of Matisse and Derain faced with Les Demoiselles D'Avignon. His own cinema had been criticised for its supposed incomprehensibility and tediousness, but here was a director whose work Ray himself found incomprehensible and tedious. The formal experiments in Kaul's work left even the leading lights of parallel cinema befuddled and angry.
It is amusing, today, to witness Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani being asked to eulogise Mani Kaul. The media groups all these directors in the category of "1970s and 80s art film makers". The fact is, though, that they belonged to two separate camps -- social realists and aesthetes if you will -- with no love lost between them. Mani Kaul and his colleague Kumar Shahani treated Benegal and Nihalani's work with something close to contempt; and, while I'm not aware of what Shyam Benegal thought of the Kaul / Shahani style, I know Govind Nihalani despised it.
Uski Roti doesn't have much of a plot to occupy its 110 minutes. A woman travels from her home regularly to give her trucker husband his lunch. One day she is delayed and he gets upset. Afterwards, they reconcile. The film's affect is determined by its pace and framing, which is as controlled and unwavering as that of the first two Godfather films. I like to say that, had The Godfather Part II run for thirty minutes less than it did, it would have seemed too long. Luckily it runs for over three hours, which is just right. When I first saw Uski Roti, I was completely drawn in; I found its rhythm mesmeric. However, for those who can't feel the power and inexorableness of the near-stasis, a screening of Uski Roti probably feels like watching paint dry.
To go back to what Satyajit Ray said about Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, I was a bit unfair to the Bengali master. He mentions Uski Roti only in passing, and concentrates his ire on Duvidha, Kaul's third film. Ray observes that Kaul and Shahani have reduced acting to certain minimalistic gestures, eschewing dramatic cliches, but the gestures they favour, such as the slow turn of head from one profile to the other, become cliches themselves, as do the lavish colours they utilise. This is absolutely on the spot, and became a significant drawback in Mani Kaul's films of the 1980s and 1990s. In cinema, particularly experimental cinema, there's no such thing as a good habit. All habits are bad habits. Kaul's over-reliance on particular gestures and modes of expression was exacerbated by an incursion of symbols in his work. An element of self-parody crept into films like Mati Manas, Siddheshwari, Nazar and Idiot. There's plenty to admire in each of them, but they are a long way from Uski Roti and Duvidha. The beauty in their frames frequently comes across as a form of prettiness rather than an exploration of new visual possibilities.
The low point in Kaul's career was The Cloud Door, part of a series titled Erotic Tales. An actress named Anu Agarwal, popular at the time, played the central character. Since her role involved nudity, the film became something of a media sensation. The Cloud Door is a disaster from beginning to end; a risible interpretation of an old myth about a parrot who tells bawdy tales; a princess who saves it from the king's wrath; and a lover led by the parrot to the princess's bedroom.
Kaul found top form once more with his final film, Naukar Ki Kameez. Hardly screened at all in India, the film marked a return to a fluid, less stilted style. Its easy humour and discernible everyday narrative were refreshing after all those films involving myth piled on legend piled on symbol; and Mani Kaul's old control over pace and framing was evident from beginning to end. In person Mani Kaul was a great raconteur, full of energy and humour. Somehow that side of his personality was absent in the films he made in the 1980s and early '90s.
He directed no films in the last decade of his life, but Naukar Ki Kameez proved a wonderful final act.