July 7, 2011 3:45:28 am
With the passing of Mani Kaul on Wednesday,after a long battle with cancer,our cinema has lost one of the pioneers of what used to be called the Indian New Wave,a term that was decimated by the advancing wave of cut-paste filmmaking that took over just as he,and the new cinema,began flowering. When I mentioned his name at a recent gathering of people who call themselves cineastes,there was more bewilderment than comprehension. One of them asked,helpfully,oh you mean Mani Ratnam?
No,I didnt mean Mani Ratnam. I meant Mani Kaul,the man who gave us many of our most enduring film images. He worked his way in by letting his visuals do the talking,by not sullying the purity of the picture with unwanted words. He was a director who lived very strongly in his mind and yet found no difficulty in reaching out. And hes left us a series of films which did not,tragically,reach too many people and which are now preserved only in some memories. Such gems as Uski Roti,Duvidha,Ashadh Ka Ek Din,Satah Se Uthata Aadmi,Siddheshwari and Idiot will always be part of any discussion that focuses on the high points of Indian cinema,the art that was housed therein,and its practitioners.
Its been years since I have seen these films,but some of my most indelible cinema memories come from them: Mita Vashisht reaching out for the perfect sur in Siddheshwari. Shah Rukh Khan (yes,the same SRK who was at one point so delighted to work with Kaul that he couldnt stop talking him,and Idiot,up,and whose superstar trajectory began with this offbeat venture) peering out from behind a boulder,with an expression he has never used again in movies. The face of the wife as her husband walks away from the carefully prepared roti,captured by the terrific lens of K.K. Mahajan in Uski Roti,just as the film did the essence of Mohan Rakeshs superb short story. And if you have seen the sparse yet telling Duvidha,you would know why I laughed my head off when I saw Amol Palekar try a virulently coloured reboot of the same story in Paheli,with SRK playing the desirous bhoot in twirly moustaches and curly pagris.
Based on Vijaydan Dethas classic novella about a ghost and his relationship with his wife,Kauls film was an unforgettable essay on eternal love. During one of our conversations,when I asked him about the availability of his films,he said he had no idea where most of the prints were. It is sad that Kaul wont be around to see the restored prints of Duvidha as well as Nazar. The NFDC,which is doing the restoration,was about to send him the prints for approval.
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Kaul was one of the first Indian directors who stepped away from the style of linear,conventional storytelling that was in currency at the time he broke in (the only other Indian director whom you could call remotely akin was Kumar Shahani,who delighted in the abstruse; the rest of his compatriots who joined up and grew the parallel film movement like Shyam Benegal went a very different route with very different results). Kauls source material was always treated with respect,but he took off in directions more suited to his way of looking at things. Never head on,but elliptical,off from a side,and always,always lyrical. He was a life-long student of dhrupad,and sang well,too. His documentary for the Films Division,Dhrupad,came out of his passion for this style of gayaki,and it is a film I never like to miss whenever it plays in one of those old-style cultural outposts of the capital,which have musty auditoriums but heart-felt programming.
A few years ago,he asked me to find a suitable house in Delhi. He was shifting because he was going to head Osians Cinefan,the citys go-to destination for world cinema then. Eventually,he found a suitable abode,not too far from mine,but I did not get around to doing the one thing I wanted to: hear him sing his beloved dhrupad. His association with the festival lasted only a couple of years,till Osians Cinefan wound down after the 2009 edition. But he was going back to filmmaking: he was mentoring a student who was making a Punjabi film,and he was about to direct a film co-produced by the NFDC.
If the films had been made,maybe the person who asked me that question would have said,oh you mean Mani Kaul,right?
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