Spotlight Society

Mani Kaul’s spare and beautiful world

Mani Kaul   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), the central character, Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro), narrates his state of existential despair as follows: “The days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next. A long continuous chain.” Balo (Garima), the female protagonist of Mani Kaul’s debut feature Uski Roti (1969), finds herself in a similar predicament, albeit without voicing any similar thoughts.

A still from ‘Uski Roti’

A still from ‘Uski Roti’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Her monotonous daily grind entails preparing ‘rotis’ at home for her husband and walking many miles to the highway, on which he plies a bus. If she’s lucky, he even comes home once a week. Kaul distorts the narrative in this seminal work of the Indian New Wave by adopting a non-linear approach, thereby destroying any semblance of coherence. But linearity hardly matters as Balo’s routine of one day remains indistinguishable from the other. However, unlike Travis, who is desperate to change the status quo, Balo is at peace with her role of dutiful housewife.

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In Duvidha (1973), Kaul’s third film, and first colour feature, the duty-bound housewife Lachhi (Raisa Padamsee) seems luckier than Balo. When her husband sets out on a business trip for five years immediately after their wedding, a ghost who’s in love with her takes the form of her husband and infiltrates the household.

A still from Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha’

A still from Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement


Even so, Balo’s alienation and suffering appear insignificant when compared to the travails of Mallika (Rekha Sabnis) in Kaul’s second feature Ashad Ka Ek Din (1971), based on the eponymous Hindi play by Mohan Rakesh. The film, which turns 50 this year, unspools in three acts, chronicling the historical romance between Mallika and the great Sanskrit poet-playwright Kalidas. Incidentally, its first act embodies the essence of Uski Roti, while the third act has certain elements analogous to those in Duvidha.

Selfless suffering

In the first act, Kalidas (Arun Khopkar) is torn between the desire for greatness and his love for Mallika. He has been conferred a state honour by King Chandragupta II, who wants Kalidas to leave his home in the Himalayas and become the royal court poet of the capital, Ujjayini. Mallika urges him to leave, thereby sacrificing her happiness for the greater good of her lover. This selfless act of hers parallels that of Balo in Uski Roti.

The third and final act sees Kalidas returning after several years to meet Mallika, after he has renounced his courtly life. But

things have changed. Mallika is unwillingly married to Kalidas’ nemesis Vilom (Om Shivpuri), and has borne him a child. Even Kalidas isn’t the same as before. He admits to Mallika that the man in front of her is not the Kalidas she knew. In Duvidha, such a predicament takes literal meaning in the final act as the ghost is tricked out of the house while Lachhi’s actual husband returns after four years. But the man she loved and with whom she had a child was the ghost.

Subsequently, she falls into a state of silent suffering and goes about leading a loveless married life, similar to that of Mallika and Balo.

Painterly minimalism

Half a century later, Ashad Ka Ek Din retains its austere Bressonian power. Staged as a chamber drama, almost the entire film unfolds in Mallika’s dilapidated hut, situated in the foothills of the Himalayas. Each frame has been crafted with painterly minimalism, accentuating the subject (characters) to heighten the emotional impact while rendering the external environment out of focus in stark white.

The poster of ‘Ashad ke Ek Din’

The poster of ‘Ashad ke Ek Din’   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

This ‘whitening’ of the Himalayas by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan ( Kaul’s batchmate from FTII) creates a transcendental atmosphere and makes the hut appear like a heavenly abode. By situating every conversation indoors, Kaul attempts to transmit the claustrophobic and desolate feeling endured by Mallika for years amidst the infinite beauty of the verdant mountains, trees, and clouds.

Inspired by Bresson, Kaul used background music sparingly in his films. An admirer of Indian classical music like his mentor Ritwik Ghatak, Kaul employed Ratan Lal to score a few scenes in Uski Roti using the santoor. In Ashad Ka Ek Din, he engaged only percussion instruments, including the tabla, through legendary composer Jaidev.

In Duvidha, folk music complements the natural environment of the story set in Rajasthan. Kaul would go on to further explore his love for Hindustani classical music by creating two documentaries: Dhrupad — delving into one of the oldest genres of music, and the National award-winning Siddheshwari — based on the titular classical singer’s life.

Agony and longing

Kaul was enamoured with art and his deep appreciation for beauty is responsible for the immaculate picture composition in his films. The photography and spacing in Uski Roti were modelled on artist Amrita Sher-Gil’s distinct post-Impressionistic depictions of Indian womanhood. Akbar Padamsee, another Modernist Indian artist (and Raisa Padamsee’s father), was the financier of Duvidha, and his trademark use of rich hues of red, yellow and orange finds obvious homage in Kaul’s film. But in Ashad Ka Ek Din, words take precedence over images.

The poetic depth of this tragic love story is summed up beautifully by Kalidas in one sentence when he learns about the blank notebook that Mallika made to gift him on his return from Ujjayini. She wanted him to write his greatest epic in the book. But when he did not visit her for many years, she gave up all hopes of his coming back. Over the years, she took out her frustration on the pages of the book — biting them, dissolving her countless tears in them. Kalidas realises that no quantum of words can capture Mallika’s endless agony and longing. Looking at the battered book, he says, “This is the greatest epic ever written!”

As for Kaul, whose 10th death anniversary falls on July 6, Gulzar’s poetic words describe the avant-garde genius best: “One of the most beautiful stories written on celluloid.”

The author writes on films and contributes to several publications. Twitter @arunusual

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 11:05:41 PM |

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