Mani Kaul’s first film, Uski Roti (1969), evoked a variety of reactions from cinephiles in India: Some raved about him as an avant-garde film-maker, some critics were scathing, film schools deconstructed his innovative craft to pieces and jokes started circulating about him. One parliamentarian said in public that the film was so boring she wouldn’t forget it all her life.
Kaul, now 62, and back in India after living 12 years in the Netherlands and the US, has taken over as the creative head of the Film House at Osian’s Connoisseurs of Art, Mumbai. “I’ve come back to an India where if Uski Roti were to release, it would at least have a run at the multiplex,” he says, “but that would mean no jokes.” So did he take the jokes as criticism? “Neither criticism nor praise, because I was convinced about what I was doing. But let me share another joke with you.”
When actor Raj Kumar, Kaul’s cousin, came to know that he had made a film called Uski Roti, he told Kaul, “Arrey jaani, roti, aur woh bhi uski? Mere saath kaam karo, hum apna halwa banayenge” (Roti, and that too, someone else’s? Work with me, and we’ll make halwa for ourselves).
In the last 12 years, Kaul has taught aspects of cinema sound and cinematography at Harvard University, Boston, and Duke’s University, North Carolina, and later at the Rigks Akademie, Amsterdam, but it’s obvious that something about the “outsider” tag that was attached to him despite the 13 films he made in India still eggs him on.
It was the 1970s, when the star power of Amitabh Bachchan was rising and the parallel film movement pioneered by directors such as Govind Nihalani and Shyam Benegal was also gaining ground. Back then, directors such as Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani were outsiders to both these strains of film-making because of their distinctive styles. Many of Kaul’s films have been described in the US and Europe as “impenetrable”. The “outsider” tag got attached to Kaul permanently. Except Naukar Ki Kameez (1999), all his important films—Ashadh Ka Ek Din (1971), Duvidha (1973), Mati Manas (1984), Siddheswari (1989) and an adaptation of Dostoevsky’s The Idiot, with Shah Rukh Khan in a lead role—were made before he left India. Says director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, his contemporary: “From the time we started as film-makers, audiences have changed and so have we. Mani Kaul has stuck to his style, so unless he has a theme or a story that suits his style, he wouldn’t make a film. His audience has always been film-makers and film theorists.”
Now, besides his role at Osian’s, Kaul is working on his own scripts, based on themes of violence in ordinary Indian life. “Ever since I’ve returned, I’ve got engaged with the fact that irrational violence has become so common in India,” he says. “I don’t want to preach about communalism and world peace. I intend to shock and jolt people out of their comfortable realities.”
Kaul studied at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, under Ritwik Ghatak, the institute’s first director and a legendary film-maker. But he says that FTII and Ghatak had little to do with the distinct style he adopted—shots extended beyond their usual limits, sometimes even incorporating flash frames where the exposure ceases to exist. In Uski Roti, Kaul tells the story of a traditional housewife who waits at a bus stop for her working and often absent husband through a narrative that moves between the present and the past. Because of his overemphasis on style, Kaul is not known to be an actor’s director. Actor Mita Vashisht, who played the lead role in Siddheswari, her first feature film, says: “He would keep talking to the cinematographer and completely ignore me before a shot. And when the shooting would begin, he’d ask me to pose in a particular way. But the challenge with that was that I had to put life into a frame or scene without doing much of acting.”
The director says being a professor for more than a decade took a toll on his originality. Kaul began to realize that he had become too used to tackling questions from his students. “My own questions began to desert me.” During such a phase, about a year ago, he happened to meet Osian’s CEO, Neville Tuli, in the US.
Tuli offered Kaul the job of handling his company’s films section and managing Osianama, a multi-screen theatre and museum of film memorabilia that’s opening in early 2008, by revamping the Minerva theatre in Mumbai. Tuli also recently announced in Mumbai that under Kaul’s aegis, Osian’s will offer the initial boost to first-time film-makers with finances and resources, and help them find producers. “I’m a little wary of the way cinema has been corporatized in India. While there are many advantages, such as streamlined production and professional set-ups, the executive producer seems to have the final say. If creative talent is to be really nurtured, film-makers must be given free reign. They need that initial support to carry their vision forward,” Kaul says.
He is curating films at the annual Osian’s Cinefan Film Festival that starts in New Delhi on 21 July. Initially apprehensive of his new corporate role, Kaul seems driven by the idea of going back to direction: “I have a selfish reason to be here. It’s a great time to be in India.”
Daisyby Andrew Lau Wai.
This 2006 film by Hong Kong-based film-maker Wai is an urban melodrama about a young struggling sidewalk artist, the Interpol police detective she loves, and a professional hit man from whom she can’t escape.
Raami by Babak Shirinshefat.
This debut feature by documentary film-maker Shirinshefat will have its world premiere at the festival. An Iran-Azerbaijan co-production, the film is about a folk composer who comes out of a refugee camp years after the Karabakh conflict between Armenia and Azerbaijan and goes in search of his roots.
Hanoi-Winter by Dang Nhat Minh.
Made in 1946, this film analyses the events leading to the Vietnamese war of independence against French colonial rule. It also deals with Ho Chi Minh’s decision to launch war through a Viet Minh official liaising between the Viets and the French.
Focus on Japan
This special package will have films by Kenji Mizoguchi, Yasujiro Ozu and Akira Kurosawa, including Mizoguchi’s famous ‘The Water Magician’. It will also feature samurai films and modern Japanese cinema.
Manorama Six Feet Underby Navdeep Singh.
Set in a sleepy town in Rajasthan, this film is about a failed pulp novelist, now contributing to a small magazine, and aspiring to be a detective. The lead character, played by Abhay Deol, gets into a situation he can’t get out of. Other cast members are Gul Panag, Sarika, Kulbhushan Kharbanda, Vinay Pathak and Raima Sen.
Cut and Paste by Hala Khalil.
Cairo-based Egyptian film-maker Khalil won acclaim with her first film, ‘The Best Times’. Here, the closing film at the festival, she maintains a balance between a light-hearted comedy and a grim look at problems facing modern Egyptian society. It’s the story of a young couple dealing with unemployment, housing problems and the constraints of traditional Egyptian society.
From 20 to 29 July. At the Siri Fort Auditoria, Alliance Française and PVR Rivoli, New Delhi. For registration details and passes, call 011 41743157/58/66