Mani Kaul was an extraordinary filmmaker and teacher who touched the hearts of his many students and admirers.
On Wednesday [July 6], we woke up to the distressing news that Mani Kaul passed away after a prolonged battle with cancer. Mani was a fighter; his films reflect the lonely journey of an artiste who created works that were never popular. We grew up in a cinema, where Mani Kaul was considered a dirty word but for all who knew him, Mani was truly a guru.
One could sit at his feet and listen to him hold forth on music, literature, and cinema. His sense of humour and that twinkle in his eye have touched everyone who has ever known him.
Mani has been a figure of veneration for many reasons; his last avatar was as Festival Director at Osians. He is the first, or perhaps the only film festival director, who organised a Dhrupad concert at 4 a.m. for visiting filmmakers and festival guests. They all arrived bleary eyed, not wanting to displease their host, to listen to this concert while Mani chuckled and said jhelene do (let them put up with it). The selection of films was criticised but Mani believed that as festival director, the films he liked were the films to be shown!
In 2009, a few of us shared an apartment in Cannes. One afternoon we went for a walk and bumped into Subhash Ghai. He and Mani were classmates at the Film and Television Institute of India. It was a hilarious meeting in the middle of the road in Cannes. Truly a meeting of art and commerce!
In Thiruvananthapuram, we all remember the Aravindan Memorial lecture where just listening to him speak with so much passion was such a pleasure. A born teacher, whether it was cinema or music, he had this knack of inspiring and stirring up the intellect.
In the nineties, Mani went through personal experiences that took him away from India. He taught at Columbia and lived for a while in Holland. Some thought we had lost an artiste. Mani was unapologetic.
Support for good cinema
John Abraham who worked on ‘Uski Roti' as an assistant director jokingly called him ‘Public Money Kaul.' He made most of his films for Government agencies such as FFC (now called National Film Development Corporation) and Films Division since no private producer was willing to back him. This is also a great reflection of the 70's when the Government still backed good cinema without an eye on the box office. Films such as ‘Uski Roti,' ‘Ashad Ka Ek Din,' ‘Duvidha,' ‘Sateh Se Utatha Aadmi,' ‘Maati Manas,' and ‘Dhrupad' were all made because of public funding. Today these films are cinematic experiences that are almost unparalleled in Indian cinema history.
Beginning from his first film ‘Uski Roti,' Mani made a huge departure from the Indian Cinema “tradition” both in terms of narrative and form.
‘Uski Roti' was the start of a body of work which was truly Indian in inspiration but with an aesthetic that was not till then seen in Indian cinema. ‘Duvidha,' based on a Rajasthani short story, with its stunning imagery and style captured the essence of the dilemma of the lonely bride. The traditional narrative was transformed to be a cinematic exploration.
Mani acknowledged Robert Bresson as the guru of his cinema. Mani's intense engagement with music, particularly Dhrupad, was the abstraction that he extended to cinema. It was not story telling but experiencing with patience and concentration that Mani sought. He worked with a variety of talented actors and technicians and each one of them acknowledge that it is the Mani Kaul film that taught them more about cinema than any film school. The late Bharat Gopi who was cast in ‘Sateh Se Udtha Aadmi' always spoke about the experience of actually acting by not acting.
Mani's films are not easy to watch and the last time we spoke he laughed and said “Bina Yaar…I'm suddenly very popular…because nobody's seen my films!” Indeed the tragedy is also that many of the films cannot be seen. In his last days he was also engaged in trying to restore and get new prints of these almost lost works.
Mani died, cared for in his last days by a group of students. Through those dark days they tell me, it was still music and cinema that was on his mind. Mani is no more but apart from his films he has left behind a bunch of inspired students.
(The author is Artistic Director of the International Film Festival of Kerala.)
Keywords: Mani Kaul