Mani Kaul, who died on 6 July after a prolonged illness in New Delhi, returned to India after 12 years in 2007. He took over the running of Osianama, still an unrealized idea initiated by Neville Tuli’s Osian’s, for a film theatre and museum in Mumbai. What spurred him at this time was not so much the business at hand, but the challenge of testing his cinematic language—a formula-shattering way of using images and speech in a film’s narrative—for stories set in modern India.
For 12 years he had been teaching cinema at Harvard University in Boston, Duke University in North Carolina and Rigks Akademie, Amsterdam, as guest professor. The tag of an “outsider”, which he acquired after his first film Uski Roti (1969), remained with him and strangely enough, seemed to egg him on even in his 60s. Uski Roti outraged critics and the film establishment, then heady with star-driven, Bachchnesque euphoria, as well as the parallel cinema movement of the era. Kaul didn’t quite fit in either school, like another of his contemporaries, Kumar Shahani. Their films tried to replicate the relationship between real time and space in movies, which meant setting natural rhythms of speaking and being, to background music. Silences were mandatory in Kaul’s scenes.
On the job: Mani Kaul in Mumbai in 2007, when he was with Osian’s. Ashesh Shah/Mint
They did not seek big audiences and even from a small audience, demanded involvement. Satyajit Ray, master of a lyrical and nuanced, but very formal aesthetic, severely criticized Uski Roti when it came out. Jokes about Kaul’s films, perceived as slow and impenetrable, exist even today among students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). He was from the first batch of FTII, schooled by the iconic Ritwik Ghatak.
I met Kaul, when he was in his mid-60s, in the monsoon of 2007. Burdened by some of his films, which I had watched while in college, I expected a grim, unresponsive man. Kaul was in a grey formal shirt tucked into a pair of dark trousers. He wore a pair of immaculately polished shoes. He was restless, energetic and very eloquent, and excited about making a film about, he said, “the irrational violence so common in India” which had engaged him since his return. “I have a selfish reason to be here. It’s a great time to be in India.”
The passion to make movies was undiluted, and he appeared stubborn about his way of making them. Kaul believed film-makers must have free reign and that his cinema had an audience in the new India.
He was born in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in 1942 into a family that had its roots in Kashmir. His uncle was an actor-director and Kaul joined FTII as an acting student, later switching to the direction course. In 1966, he came to Mumbai and made his first film three years later. Around that time, Kaul met actor Rajkumar, a relative. Not surprised at the reactions to his film, Rajkumar said to him: “Roti, aur woh bhi uski? Mere saath kaam karo, hum halwa banayenge.”
After Uski Roti, Kaul made Ashad ka Ek Din (1971), Duvidha (1973), based on Vijaydan Detha’s short story which was remade by Amol Palekar as Paheli in 2005, Dhrupad (1982), on the musical form, Mati Manas (1984), a quasi-documentary on the development of pottery in the subcontinent, Siddheshwari (1989), based on the life of the eponymous thumri singer of Varanasi, and Idiot (1991), based on the novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, which was Shah Rukh Khan’s first major film role. His last film, Naukar ki Kameez (1999), a surprisingly linear but beautiful film, alienated some of his loyalists.
Kaul’s death means we won’t see that film on “irrational violence”. The end of a pioneer’s life, especially in Indian cinema, where fierce, unapologetic experimentation and originality hardly blossom, is an immense loss. Kaul’s sophistication of thought and engagement with society and politics, evident in all his films, made him an even rarer artiste.
The last film by Kaul I watched was at the Mumbai International Film Festival (MIFF) in 2008—a documentary called Before my Eyes. Shot in 1998, at the height of the Jammu Kashmir Liberation Front’s (JKLF’s) resurgence and the peak of the secessionist movement in the Kashmir Valley, Kaul’s perspective in the film is that of a hot-air balloon soaring above the valley, unflinchingly documenting its people—two people sleeping in a hotel, seen through a window, a woman playing a cello—and its beauty under threat. Kaul said he had written a script for it, but decided to shoot without one. It is an eloquent and gritty film—a proof of his obsessive love for real time and space.