His Films, Our Bread: In Memory of Mani Kaul (1944-2011)

One of the biggest stars of the dramatic Hindi cinema, Om Puri, had his (minor) breakthrough in Western arthouses in 1997 when he co-starred with Australian actress Rachel Griffiths in a British/French co-production called My Son the Fanatic. It was a moderately intelligent dramedy that had the good fortune of tapping quite presciently into the zeitgeist, since white people in both the UK and France were in the throes of anxiety surrounding the late ‘80s/early ‘90s wave of Muslim immigration. (The “headscarf affair,” involving the expulsion of three Muslim schoolgirls in a Paris suburb, made headlines in 1989. The xenophobic UKIP party was founded just four years before the film’s release, in 1993. 1998, one year after the film’s release, would see the bombing of Pan Am flight 103 over Lockerbie.) Since then, Puri has appeared in numerous Bollywood hits (Hey Ram [2000], Pyaar Diwana Hota Hai [2002], Singh is Kinng [2008]) and several Hollywood/international co-pros (Such a Long Journey [1998], Code 46 [2003], Charlie Wilson’s War [2007], and the culture-clash diptych East is East [1999] and West is West [2010]). But it was the late Mani Kaul, pioneer of Hindi “parallel cinema,” who gave Puri his first role in a feature film, the title role in Kaul’s third feature Ghashiram Kotwal (1976). It’s a political tale, made by an experimental Marxist filmmaking collective that, from the sound of it, operated in a fashion not unlike Godard and Gorin’s Groupe Dziga-Vertov, but without the latent sexism or one-upmanship. However, the experience appears to have left a sour taste in the mouth of the young movie-star-to-be.

On the Indian lifestyle news website DNA (which is an arm of the media conglomerate Esselgroup, which operates, among other concerns, Hindi mega-broadcaster Zee TV), Puri wrote a shockingly backhanded obituary, with the headline “Mani Kaul’s films didn’t appeal to the masses.” This is demonstrably true, and certainly by Kaul’s own artistic design. (Intellectual distinctions between the popular and the mass, a basic tenet of cultural Marxism, are useful here.) But Puri casts this approach, and Kaul’s entire career, as a kind of misstep. After comparing Kaul quite justifiably to an abstract painter, Puri complains, “some of the elite may have been impressed with his work, but his films held no appeal for the common man. They were—how do I say this—too bookish.” He goes on to liken Kaul unfavourably to his more populist-minded colleague Shyam Benegal, comments that Kaul “would have been a much greater teacher of film than a filmmaker,” and recounts an argument the two of them had on the set of Ghashiram. As tributes to the recently deceased and deeply admired go, Puri’s remarks rank somewhere down with Jonathan Kandell’s infamous New York Times obituary of “Abstruse Theorist” Jacques Derrida.

Sadly, fundamental misunderstanding of Kaul’s films is nothing new, and it has been virtually systematic. Kaul had completed exactly three feature films– Our Daily Bread (Uski Roti, 1970), A Day Before the Rainy Season (Ashad Ka Ek Din, 1971), and Duvidha (1974)—and a handful of documentaries when Satyajit Ray singled him out as politically incorrect (and formally abstruse) in his 1974 essay “Four and a Quarter.” (The piece can be found in a Ray essay collection with the pugnaciously avuncular title Our Films, Their Films.) Ray takes Kaul to task, along with Benegal, Kumar Shahani, and M.S. Sathyu, primarily for abjuring the realism that Ray considered too precious to sacrifice. The main target of “Four and a Quarter” is Duvidha, a film in which conventional narrative articulation of psychological states is scrupulously avoided. In its stead, Kaul employs, for the most part, purely objective cinematic cues the likes of which Hindi cinema had not previously seen deployed in such an unrelenting manner, and probably hasn’t seen since.

One of the things that is immediately jarring upon seeing Duvidha, if you have read about Kaul and his background, is not its radical difference from the popular Hindi cinema of its time (it came out just a few years before Yash Chopra’s classic Deewar [1975], for example) or Ray’s Bengali Cinema of Quality, but its lack of resemblance to the work of his highly influential (and equally radical) teacher, Ritwik Ghatak. Where Ghatak’s work demonstrates social injustice and the iron law of class and gender division with a tremulous homemade Brechtianism seemingly perched on the edge of a Naxalite powder keg (more Nick Ray/Sam Fuller than Fassbinder/Sirk), there is a deceptive but thoroughgoing placidity of form that is concentrated in the Kaulian frame. Our Daily Bread and documentaries like Dhrupad (1983) exhibit this style, but—much to Satyajit Ray’s chagrin—Duvidha displays this extreme temporality of the image to an almost transcendent degree. Based on a short story by famed Rajasthani author Vijaydan Detha, Duvidha plays like a Bressonian treatment of an Apichatpong script. Shortly after their marriage, a young wife (Raisa Padamsee) discovers that her husband (Ravi Menon) plans to leave her at home with his parents for five years while he repairs to the city for an extended trade leave. While on the way to the in-laws’ compound, she is espied by a ghost in a tree who desires her. Seeing an opening, he assumes the form of the absent husband and takes his place mere hours after his departure, explaining that a magical intervention has made business transactions unnecessary; he can produce gold coins daily, and stay home and be a loving husband to his wife. The ghost, however, loves the woman too much to fool her, and comes clean. She is more than happy with the arrangement, and lives in placid bliss with the magical impostor. Trouble brews only when the real husband receives word, during year four, that his wife is pregnant by “him.”

The first thing one notices in Duvidha is the conjunction of soaring traditional music with an intensive, concentrated peering at single images for unusually long periods of time, often combined with highly deliberate camera movements. Whereas Ray would send us into a bustling village to establish a mundane notion of “life” and Ghatak would break space up into brash fragments, Kaul operates differently. Kaul’s method has no doubt provoked confusion and consternation because, even more than the Brecht-derived “political modernism” that defined so much counter-cinema in the developing world during the ‘60s and ‘70s, Duvidha displays clear affinities with experimental French narrative cinema of the 1920s and ‘30s. This body of work, which David Bordwell has quite properly called “French Impressionist cinema,” includes directors such as Germaine Dulac, Jean Epstein, and especially Dmitry Kirsanov, whose 1926 Ménilmontant displays techniques—freeze-frames, slow-motion, superimpositions, and highly disjunctive cuts which imply a psychometric sense of space, rather than simple continuity—similar to those seen in Duvidha. For example, Kaul’s camera frequently follows the movement of the wife or the ghost through the in-laws’ house, but his panning and tracking is, for lack of a better word, “impatient.” It both precedes and falls behind its subject character, implying both an independent intelligence behind the lens (Kaul’s), as well as a relative autonomy to space and time themselves, one that exceeds the typically firm grasp of post-Griffith continuity editing and shot coverage. Not to put too fine (or too Lacanian) a point on it, but we could call this excess “desire.”

Similarly, Kaul’s means of depicting subjects within the frame, and across time, produced a radical form of anti-identificatory (or perhaps poly-identificatory) relationship that was obviously not in keeping with the dominant realist cinema (and in no way allowed for the Stanislavskian strutting of an Om Puri). “Poly,” I suggest, because Kaul’s cinema allows us to identify with images of individuals stuck in outmoded, ideologically inscribed positions. That is, we can simultaneously evaluate the social relationships depicted in the films; we can feel some sympathy for the hypothetical individual (or, I suppose, “character”) Kaul has placed in the situation; and we can also identify with Kaul’s purely formal interventions—an aesthetic engagement that supplements any illusionism.

Several aspects of Our Daily Bread exemplify this tendency at work, almost immediately in Kaul’s cinema. Most discussions of the film fixate on the most basic element of the plot: Balo (Garima), a dutiful wife, waits at a bus stop every day to provide her domineering bus driver husband, Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh) his lunch (“his daily bread,” as per the title). One day, she misses the meet, and Sucha Singh drives off in anger, precipitating deep anxiety in Balo. What is less often mentioned is that the first fifteen or so minutes of Our Daily Bread display the incident and aftermath that caused Balo’s tardiness: her younger sister narrowly escaped being raped. Kaul uses dark courtyard shots, underlit conversations, and at one point direct-camera address to deal with this feminist problem, which doesn’t concern any of the men in the film. In terms of time and form, Kaul differentiates male and female identification, without undue psychologization.

Even before this, the opening moments of Our Daily Bread find Kaul employing the distance between depicted action and filmic form to promote another kind of poly-identificatory structure. A series of shots, forming a continuous set of gestures, establish the prelude to the molestation: two rocks hit the branches of a fruit tree; Balo’s sister, under the trees, hits the fruit with a third projectile; a close-up of her outstretched hand under the tree, the fruit slowly drops, but she misses it; the fruit falls to the ground, a man slowly picks it up and offers it to her; reverse shot of the two hands, with the girl snatching the fruit with trepidation. There is a hint of M (1931) at work here, but as Srikanth Srinivasan has rightly observed, Kaul also includes allusions to Pickpocket (1959), Kaul’s favorite Bresson film. (The final shot in the sequence recalls the transfer of wallets from hand to hand in that film, or even the movement of the forged bank note in L’Argent [1983].)

What is truly remarkable about this sequence, however, is that even beyond Bresson’s unique treatment of the film image as a fully-formed, stand-alone “present,” Kaul allows each shot an inordinate amount of breathing room. For instance, the timing between the rock hitting the fruit and the fruit’s fall is “off,” and the missed catch and the fruit hitting the ground even more so. There is so much independent space between the shots in this sequence, they threaten to come apart completely. (One is reminded of the late Raúl Ruiz’s essay “Central Conflict Theory,” wherein he imagines recognizing “that between shot 24 and 25 Robert de Niro has had pasta for lunch.”) The net result is that Kaul demands that we attend to this moment of great diegetic tension while at the same time observe its assemblage from a string of self-sufficient moments, each with its own aesthetic valence and filmic exigency. Neither identification will do in itself.

To return to Duvidha, Kaul’s numerous close-ups of the wife are particularly indicative of the play of empathy and anti-illusionism. In the beginning, she is impassive, virtually a silent film heroine of the Constance Talmadge/Ruan Lingyu stripe. As she comes to accept her tenuous position, Kaul describes her with still images. But, at the height of her love affair with the ghost (when she knows it will soon come to an end), her still face is “animated” by a patterned scarf blowing in the wind. As Duvidha comes to its tragic conclusion, with all avenues of hope and self-expression closed, the dutiful wife ends the film with a final freeze-frame close-up full of bitter defiance, which slowly fades to black. Again, it is next to impossible not to identify with Kaul’s feminist message, another aspect of the man’s work that sets him apart from so much of the dominant Marxist counter-cinema of the era, with its unexamined masculinism. (Duvidha is a film Ousmane Sembène would have approved of.) But we don’t identify with this woman on an interior level; we are made conscious of the intensive, unchanging plight her situation represents, and how it impresses itself upon her over time, like a slow-acting photographic exposure inscribing itself onto a metal plate. We are identifying with an objectively defined slab of time, presented cinematically as a social fact. By the same token, when Kaul shows us a carefully composed shot of the grounds surrounding the in-laws’ house, with a tree anchoring the left side of the frame, this is open, expectant space which is immediately “ruptured” by unexpected freedom: the happy wife slices the frame from above, arcing through on a tree swing.

The extended time Kaul spends with her in this situation is a kind of static “dead time” by conventional narrative standards, just like the freeze frames and the moments in pensive repose. But the refusal of the typical codes of temporal motility provides us with something else, something we see in the French Impressionist films as well as in Bresson. Images and sounds are present on the screen; they are not mere points of transit toward a perpetual “next.” The films have stories; they indeed “move.” But this movement is achieved through the accumulation of fully culminated presents, time-spaces with which we are asked to identify, to co-exist in a hesitant suspension. We know this uncanny time-space from dreams, and from the trance films and psychodramas of the avant-garde (Maya Deren, Kenneth Anger, and especially Gregory Markopoulos), but it’s still jarring when we discover it in international art cinema. This simultaneous movement within stasis is the radicality of Duvidha, in which the “language” of the desiring unconscious (of Kirsanov, Dulac and Epstein) collides with the brute facticity of Bresson. This is perfectly adequate to the double-consciousness of a woman whose only hope for expression of any self whatsoever is the embrasure of a “material ghost.”