Filmmaker Mani Kaul was constantly re-inventing himself and never developed a ‘distinct' visual style. A director remembers his mentor from FTII.
As the FTII completes 50 years it can lay claim to just two filmmakers who have been iconised as ‘avant-garde', rebels of a certain indescribable commitment who emerged together into the Indian film scene in 1966: Mani Kaul and his compatriot Kumar Shahani. You cannot mention one without naming the antithetical other!
With no one else being allowed entry into these hallowed gates by the alumnus of the FTII, for over 45 years, the duo have carried the onerous cross of the ‘radical' vanguard and honestly it cannot be a very enjoyable task! What looks like an act of reverence from the outside could also be a certain kind of warning to all ‘daring' filmmakers that they are the limits to imagination of the transgressive type!
I have had the proud privilege of being mentored by both of them during the turbulent years of the Emergency at the FTII despite being warned by some faculty to stay clear of their ‘heresies'! While Kumar was an avowed Marxist, Mani revelled in the Upanishads and quotes from the Bhakti poems of Kabir and Tukaram.
Immersed in his work
I remember Mani came to the FTII in 1975 on his way back from travels through South India after securing the Nehru Fellowship to study certain traditional narratives. He was ecstatic about the uninterrupted yet non-linear forms of story-telling in the sculptures of Mahabalipuram, the architecture of the Padmanabhapuram palace and the frescoes inside the Thanjavur big temple.
During these conversations we would also be mesmerised by the screenings of the highly cerebral films of Miklos Jancso and Tarkovsky. Later, after several rounds of local nectar through late nights, the south Indian frescoes synergised with the peripatetic movements of Jansco's “Red Psalm” while the silences of the Kerala palace and the cries of mythical creatures on the sandy shores blended into the grace of “Andrei Rublyev”. Mani Kaul made me see the togetherness in all that. But what appealed to us most was realising that great artists immersed themselves deeply in their works, sometimes even disappeared. It is only mediocre artists who want to stand outside of their works waiting for the limelight!
The traumatic days of the Emergency was forcing Indian artists to either go underground or take opportunist stances. By serendipity Mani spent long days in the FTII campus with our batch and together we resolved that the only solution was in erasing the filmmaker/author's identity and merge it onto a collective. We launched the YUKT film cooperative in 1976 with Mani in it as a simple member along with 15 other new graduates! This sent shock waves through the entire ‘art' film fraternity at that time. How could someone having made films like “Uski Roti” and “Duvidha” with such an individualist rigour blend himself into a collective? How could a film be made without a ‘single' director taking all the decisions? What kind of recognition would such a work get when completed?
Mani simply threw all these doubts into the wind and immersed himself in the work and teamed up with another set of 30 actors to produce the film version of the celebrated play “Ghashiram Kotwal”. Few could believe their eyes watching such a celebrated artist roughing it out and sacrificing his ‘independent' mind to realise the beauties that would emerge in such a synergy. He made us all realise that the process was more important than the final product since the artist had control only on the sheer enactment of the thought stream on-location and nothing else.
The completed film belonged to the complex regions of finance, publicity, exhibition, critics and audiences, areas over which the artist had no control at all! So his question was, “How can an artist be held responsible for the way in which his or her work was going to ‘communicate'?”
Mani was forever chastised for being deliberately complicated, uncompromising and self-indulgent just because he chose a filmic idiom, which was detached and not dependent on the ‘actor's' performance. He would ask, “Why is this question not levelled at Ramesh Sippy for making an ‘uncompromising' film like ‘Sholay'?” His crew members and financiers also cursed him for his extravagance and indulgent postures but later applauded him for his ‘sincerity'! For Mani, cinema was also an area of the dream state.
The difference between Mani and Sippy was that Mani treated cinema like a complex dream ‘as it is' with cinematic elements while Sippy and others tried to transform that dream state into a ‘ reality' status through devices actually offered by theatre and literature. So why do artists like Mani get so easily chastised and especially by people who do not even bother to enquire into their essential paradigms?
Unlike our other new wave filmmakers, Mani was constantly re-inventing himself and never developed a ‘distinct' visual style. From the frescoesque “Uski Roti” to the colourful folk tale in “Duvidha”; from the non-linear landscape of “Satah Se Uttha Aadmi” to his miniature-like “Siddheswari”; from the callous world of potters in “Maati Manas” to his Kashmiri dreams in “Before My Eyes” Mani explored cinema and its linguistic capacity in the most original ways.
Despite their enormous talent, artists like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani could not find a single producer through the entire first decade of the 21st century! Despite the meteoric rises of other modern Indian artists like MF Husain or Anish Kapoor in the same period, modern Indian cinema seems to be content with the radicalism of Anurag Kashyap or Mysskin.
Sending condolences on the demise of such an artist makes no sense when the State and the film industry continue to ostracise such ‘innovators' as incapable of communicating in ‘their' lingo! This is the moment where I would like to offer my apologies to Mani who helped unlock so many minds like mine that deigned to spend even a few moments in ecstatic conversation with him and got nothing in return from us beneficiaries.
The writer is the Director, L.V. Prasad Film and TV Academy, Chennai.