Mani Kaul: Master of the visual

Mani Kaul (1944-2011) had the gift of creating emotion on screen simply by choosing the right lens and the right kind of light.

Published : Jul 29, 2011 00:00 IST

Mani Kaul. He is remembered as one of the pioneers of alternative cinema in India. - R. RAGU

Mani Kaul. He is remembered as one of the pioneers of alternative cinema in India. - R. RAGU

MANI KAUL passed away on July 6, an hour past midnight. Cancer claimed him. He was a film-maker who swam against the (main)stream ever since he made his debut in 1969 with Uski Roti, based on a Hindi short story by Mohan Rakesh. It was splendidly photographed in black and white by K.K. Mahajan, a fellow student from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune.

Uski Roti was an idiosyncratic work but touched by passages of originality. The actors spoke in a monotone and in the eyes of many, used to the tempo of conventional’ films, the pace was too slow and wholly inappropriate considering it was about the life of a truck driver and his wife. When first screened at the Regal Cinema in New Delhi in 1972, as part of a film festival featuring the government-run Film Finance Corporation’s productions, it puzzled and even irritated many of the viewers.

Seen through the mists of time, one remembers its emotion-laden images, for instance, that of the truck driver’s beautiful young wife waiting with his food in the shade of a tree. The close-up of her enigmatic face, photographed against all the norms of classical cine photography, with a 32mm (probably Kinoptik) lens, and rendered all the more beautiful because of it, revealed an innate understanding of lenses and lensing, that is, the ability to capture on film the image seen in the mind’s eye by the choice of an appropriate lens on the camera.

Kaul had the gift of creating emotion on screen simply by choosing the right lens and the right kind of light, natural and artificial. He would, in his charming manner, say that actors always tried to do too much in front of the camera because they forgot that other elements in the frame, like light, choice of the lens, other visible objects, not to forget incidental sound, the space thereby created through this harmony or the lack of it, were what made it so eloquent. He did not like loud acting, and when he did allow actors to perform’, as he did in his warm, witty, touching comedy Naukar Ki Kameez (1998), his last film, he got them to find a balance between spontaneity and subtlety. He always wanted the actor to integrate into the mise-en-scene.

Kaul could, despite his wariness of Hindi commercial cinema actors, appreciate those who were good. Long ago, sipping tea at the terrace caf in Triveni Kala Sangam in Delhi, he had expressed his admiration for Geeta Bali, an actress from the Hindi cinema of the 1950s whose acting struck an effortless balance between pathos and humour. He thought she had an incandescent presence on screen.

He had a particular vision of the cinema, and one remembers him observing in Hindi, more than a decade ago, film tees aur chalees ke beech banti heye (a film acquires its visual authority when it is shot between the optical range of 30mm and 40mm in 35mm or the 1:1:33 aspect ratio).

French film-maker Eric Rohmer, who passed away at 89 in Paris earlier this year, had expressed similar sentiments regarding the kind of visual language he liked to use in his films.

Was Mani Kaul only a visual stylist or a master craftsman? One remembers being deeply moved by certain scenes in Ashad Ka Ek Din, based on Mohan Rakesh’s play on the Sanskrit poet Kalidas’ life and his love for Mallika. This black-and-white film, eloquently photographed by K.K. Mahajan, had a moving scene showing Mallika feeding milk to a deer. Even more moving was a scene towards the end when Kalidas, in latish middle age, tells Mallika, who wants to turn back the clock that it was impossible do so because life was too immense to come in their grasp ( Jeevan bahut bara heye Mallika). The camera, caressing the faces of the lovers, moves up to the sky with scattered clouds adorning it. After all these years, another image also comes to mind, that of a horse seen from the top, through a small window, cantering away into the distance. The heart is wrenched at the thought of Mallika waiting in vain for news of her Kalidas, now a court poet of the king of Ujjain.

Neither Uski Roti nor Ashad Ka Ek Din were commercially released. By then (1972), Kaul was a married man and a father and was desperate to work. Distinguished painter Akbar Padamsee came forward to help. He loaned him his 16mm Bolex camera with a 16/86mm Switar zoom lens and gave him just enough rolls of Kodachrome film, a very slow emulsion rated at 25 ASA (daylight) and 40 ASA (tungsten), to shoot Duvidha, his third feature film and his first in colour. It was based on a story by Vijay Daan Deta, a Rajasthani folklorist and writer. Duvidha, which came out in 1974, was one of the early feminist works in Indian cinema. It was about the young wife of a young merchant, who is away on his travels, sharing her home and bed with a ghost who is the spitting image of her husband. Kaul told his story with humour, elegance and an underlying seriousness.

The making of Duvidha also marked Kaul’s parting of ways with Mahajan. Mahajan, who had won the National Award for Best Cinematographer in 1969 for Uski Roti, had declined to photograph the film because it was being shot on a Bolex and under amateur conditions. Kaul, stung to the quick, decided never to work with him again. It was perhaps then that Kaul supposedly made the acid remark, Meye toh kisi paanwale ko cameraman bana sakta hoon (I can make a cameraman out of any old paanwala). Vain as this remark sounded then, it was not far from the truth. He caught hold of Navroz Contractor, a fine stills photographer who happened to be passing under his window one morning. The making of Duvidha is a saga in itself.

Kaul and his tiny unit landed up in Rajasthan with practically no money. Financial stringency forced him to improvise for all he was worth; he did so, brilliantly. He had four Sunguns, lights of 1,000 watts each, usually used for newsreel coverage. The reflectors were home-made and he taught villagers to hold them. The brightness of his lights was often affected because the voltage in rural Rajasthan was very low. Unfazed, he went through the shooting with unbelievable confidence. He told Navroz Contractor, who had done projects for the Ford Foundation and was a stringer for Life magazine, that motion picture photography was but an extension of still photography and that there was nothing to worry about.

Kaul turned every hurdle into an advantage. There was no money to do sound, so he reduced dialogue to a bare minimum and used the aesthetics of the silent cinema to great effect. He cast Akbar Padamsee’s half-French daughter, who knew no Hindi, as the silent bride. He managed to complete the shooting and practically shamed the National Film Development Corporation into releasing Rs.2,50,000 to complete the film. L.V. Prasad, a self-made man and owner of Prasad Productions and Prasad Film Laboratories in Chennai, was so impressed that he set up an Oxberry animation film stand for Kaul, who then proceeded to copy the 16mm Kodachrome footage frame by frame onto 35mm negative film himself and make a beautiful 16/35mm blow-up copy possible. Apart from its quiet, subtle narrative, Duvidha was widely appreciated for its visual quality.

Ritwik Ghatak’s pupil

Kaul had been a favourite pupil of the stormy petrel of Indian cinema, Ritwik Ghatak, when the latter was the Vice Principal at FTII. Perhaps Ghatak saw something of his own idealistic youth in the impetuous young Mani Kaul. Kaul once said: Hum ne unki seva usi tarah se ki thi, jaise ek chela apne guru ki karta heye (I served Ritwik Ghatak with the same devotion as a disciple serves his master).

He recalled going to Bombay (now Mumbai) once with Ghatak to meet Ravi Shankar, the great sitarist who was to compose the music for a Bhojpuri film that the former was to direct and which later fell through. Ravi Shankar was oiling his luxurious locks when Ghatak and Kaul arrived at his flat unannounced. Ghatak asked him to stop being so effete and virtually commanded him to play, which he did exquisitely for the next 45 minutes, until he broke a string. From Ritwik Ghatak, Kaul imbibed a mulish streak of stubbornness which became his greatest strength. He disowned a documentary on women that he was directing for the Films Division of India because a voice-over on a shot of women breaking stones by the wayside had been added without his knowledge.


Documentaries formed an important part of his oeuvre. For the Films Division he made Arrival, a film on migrant labourers from villages arriving in Bombay like so many sacks of potatoes. Those who accuse him of being apolitical ought to see it.

Arrival startled many people who thought of him as a decadent aesthete. Its powerful visuals proved that he could indeed inspire the most cynical of hacks to rise to the occasion. The film’s camerawork was done by a Films Division employee who kept calling Kaul for years after the film was made to express his admiration. Chitrakathi, another Films Division production, is remembered with affection after so many years.

Some of his later shorts and documentaries had brilliant patches but were too idiosyncratic to attract a wide audience. Mati Manas on Terracottas had several poetic moments, including a tracking shot of terracottas standing on the ground filmed in reverse. Before My Eyes, made for the Jammu and Kashmir government well before things collapsed in the State, for promoting tourism, became in Kaul’s hands a delightful visual poem both personal and abstract in intent.

Siddheshswari, on the light classical singer from Benaras, Siddheshswari Devi, did not work for this writer. It was too pretentious to be effective; it was neither biography nor fiction but Kaul’s peregrinations into her life and music that led to a labyrinth.

He made a most impressive comeback in 1998 with Naukar Ki Kameez based on Vinod Kumar Shukla’s novel. It was a comedy with serious undertones that had the drollery of the early Chekhov stories enlivened by a pinch of Dostoyevskian humiliation of the recently married protagonist, a minor functionary in a provincial government office. It is a great pity that the film was not released commercially for it would have had a fairly large audience in India and abroad.

He was rueful about the way he, and other serious film-makers in India, including the stalwart Kumar Shahani, were treated by the establishment. Shaadi ho gayi, bacche ho gaye, bacche badey ho gaye, lekin hum ko ye log abhi bhi young film makers kehte hain (We got married, we’ve had children, the children have grown up, yet they still call us young film-makers), he used to say.

With time, a certain mellowness had set in. Kaul taught cinema at Brown University in the United States in the 1990s and was very happy with his interactions with students, most of whom were from other academic disciplines and were pursuing film-making as an additional pleasure. He loved music and was a pupil of the rudra veena maestro Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, who lived in Bombay. He learned Dhrupad from the master of Dagar Bani. A skin allergy prevented him from playing the veena, so he learned to sing Dhrupads tunefully. He made a long documentary on Dhrupad in the early 1980s.

Mani Kaul is survived by his two former wives Lalitha Iyer and Miriam Van Lier, daughter Shyambhavi and son Ribhu from his first marriage and son Rumi and daughter Neisha from his second marriage.

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