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Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Mystique of Mani Kaul

 Let me be honest! I am not a Mani Kaul fan by any stretch of imagination. In fact, he seems to have created more tremors in death than during his lifetime, when for a major part he was the butt of ridicule of Bollywood filmmakers, particularly one Manmohan Desai, who had the propensity to say things impromptu and then try and give lame justifications for the same. For so many, Mani was simply a red-rag, whose cinema was an incomprehensible as it was a drag, he made films devoid of filigree whose frames were like the ripples of the ocean, slow and expressionless.

I managed to catch a glimpse of 'Uski Roti' way back in the 70s during the black & white days of Doordarshan, which also happened to be my pubescent years in Lucknow. And all I remember of the film was a woman unpacking a sack for her truck driver husband which consisted of the obvious epicurean wonder : the 'roti'. I was anyways not really enamoured of watching the movie beyond this momentary glimpse. Gradually things changed for with age and time, one does learn to appreciate such esoteric strands of cinema that have created their own diminutive space in a wider canvas of film making. 

Mani was now well within my ambit of curiosity primarily because he was one of the leading lights of the off-beat cinema movement along with Mrinal Sen and Bhisham Sahni, way back in the late 60s. A kind of cinema which holds a strange fascination for me now. More specifically, Mrinal Da's 'Bhuvan Shome', Mani Kaul's 'Uski Roti' and Bhisham Sahni's 'Maya Darpan' are considered neo-classics in having pioneered the art cinema movement in India. Around the same time, Basu Chatterjee also came up with 'Sara Aakash' but unlike the other three, he chose to move away from the art genre and gravitated towards the middle path that straddled the realm of art and commerce a.la. Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Gulzar. The most unique aspect of these four films was that they were all devoid of songs, something unimaginable in the heady days of the 60s and the 70s.

A still from 'Uski Roti' [1969]

As usual and as is the norm in our film industry, once an artiste or technician departs, he becomes the focal point of conversations & discussions, regardless of the fact that his life was shrouded in obscurity during his last days, like Mani's. Having gone through the whole gamut of obituaries that have been written on him, the one anecdote that stood out for its jocularity and was a satirical garb in self-deprecating humour went like this : Mani's landlords, an ageing couple once called him over for dinner and the husband, in an obvious jibe at the filmmaker said, 'Do you about Mr. Kaul's latest film which is about a man waiting at a bus stop...'. The wife immediately chortled, 'No, please don't reveal the story and spoil my joy'. At this Mani just smiled and said, 'Sorry, but he has already told you the story, ma'am'. If anything, this was reflective of the kind of filmmaking in which Mani revelled and excelled too. He essentially belonged to a school of filmmakers who followed a cinematic pathway that was subvertible from its narrowness or the imperfections of its very basis. Throughout his chequered career, Mani struggled to find his niche as a film-maker. Even the cerebral often lamented that he  found it hard to comprehend his kind of film-making.

I would define Mani Kaul as one who swam against the tide, but rarely did he manage to wade out of deep waters; his kind of obscurantism on celluloid had little or no takers. Yet, I would be willing to give my right hand to get hold of 'Uski Roti' and Aaashad Ka Ek Din', which were both based on literary works of Mohan Rakesh and 'Duvidha', which took inspiration from a Rajasthani folk tale. These three works of Mani have given him some kind of a halo in a world of cinema that depicted stark  & stoic realism.

God bless his soul!!

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