Understanding Mani Kaul and his films

-devdutt trivedi

Kaul gradually acquired a reputation of being cerebral and pretentious to the point of being termed a pseudo. Although there have been many instances of crowds staging group walk outs or dozing through screenings of his masterworks, a few instances claim to have incited mob violence addressed directly at the director while he was present at the screening.


t is with immense difficulty that one comes to terms with the fact that the great Indian film artist of our time, Mani Kaul is no more. Kaul was one of the few film makers functioning outside of the contours of the narrative parallel cinema and was perhaps the most significant amongst directors in India to produce a full-fledged aesthetic discourse around his practice.

Born in Jodhpur on Christmas, 1944, Kaul studied filmmaking at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) under the tutelage of the illustrious Ritwik Kumar Ghatak. However after a screening of Pickpocket (1959), directed by the high priest of cinema, Robert Bresson, at FTII, Kaul was convinced that out of all the films he had witnessed, only Bresson’s “spoke the truth” and that he must study the French master’s approach to film form while developing his own. Kaul would compare his study of Bresson to his study of dhrupad, the austere form of North Indian music, with the legendary Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. He would state that it was precisely through imitating both his masters that he was attempting to discover his own approach in all its uniqueness. From Bresson, Kaul would borrow the logic of filming to capture the unplanned or chaotic through the ‘accident.’ The film maker would arrive at the accident through the mechanism of the retake, where redoing the same action can create unplanned responses from the actor or equipment.

Uski Roti

Mani Kaul’s first film Uski Roti (1969), based on Mohan Rakesh’s short story on a lonely woman waiting for her husband with his roti or bread has come to constitute a large chunk of Indian cinema’s formal vocabulary. Kaul emphasized the contrasting volumes of the flat Punjab landscape with the use of the telephoto 135mm lens and the wide-angled 28 mm lens. The effect created by the two lenses, sparse soundtrack and dialogue delivery without the least sign of expressionism, captures the tragedy of the everyday in rural India while the compositions themselves create an effect akin to Amrita Sher-Gil’s flattened paintings.

Kaul fragments Rakesh’s short story by removing unnecessary details and devising the spatio-temporal construct on the basis of the Brahminical idea of Pramataa or the individual (in this case the viewer) in quest of ‘prama’ or true knowledge. The different aspects of Pramataa include Pratyaksha or perception (of the image), Anumaan or inference, Upaman or gauging of similarity, Shabda or the text, in this case Rakesh’s short story, and Anuplabdhi or absence. The split between either, the spiritual and the material or between space and time is brought out through delayed editing akin to the Brahminical notion of chhanda. Chhanda refers to the rhythmic chanting of Vedic verses as well as the pre-empted and delayed succession of notes that create musical forms.


Arguably Kaul’s most acclaimed film Duvidha (1973) differs from Uski Roti (1969) as it replaces the individual’s concerns with the material and the spiritual by linking these concerns with the ephemeral nature of anthropological formations. The central character of the film, a ghost creates the basis for exploring the conflicting and contradictory relationship between modern and feudal societies as well as classical and folk art forms. The ghost creates a basis for an acute formalism consisting of exaggerated colours, a jagged soundtrack and a mixture of delayed editing and replayed footage to reflect a society in flux mediated by the spiritual nature of the ghost. Like in the case of Uski Roti, the material of the characters, the film medium and sound are built like air bags until in the final sequences the sensorial collapse, through editing and sound, disturbs the equilibrium between the spiritual and the material. Kaul formulated a theory according to which the ‘free will’ of the audience to view an object as a purely temporal mechanism is opposed by the object’s socio-political and economic relevance. The two conflict with one another to create a renewed abstraction which is appropriated to a society on spectatorial exposure.Duvidha went onto gain acclaim especially in Europe, where it was screened several times in the ‘70s and the ‘80s on television.

Satah Se Uthata Aadmi

Mani Kaul’s most important work, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980) on the radical poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh begins his association with the documentary-fiction genre, where Kaul’s documentation of landscapes is contrasted with his approach to figuration coming from the theatrical notion of the sutradhar or the narrator, who in this case is also the protagonist Muktibodh (played by the great actor, Gopi), as well as the fluid improvisatory nature of a raga. Kaul remarkably minimizes the fictional settings until the spectator confronts the location-documentation of the factory spaces. Kaul contrasts notions of materialism and idealism in a post-socialist India as reflected in Muktibodh’s poetry, with a succession of states of consciousness including the sleeping state, dreaming state, waking state and deep sleep state in all their permutations and combinations. The permutations and combinations are forwarded through an exposition in the raga Bilaskhani Todi by the legendary dhrupadiya, Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar. In both Duvidha and Satah Se Uthata Aadmi, Kaul displays an affinity for Anandavardhan’s 9th century text Dhwanyaloka especially in his approach to language, which is used beyond its significative and denotational dimensions.

His other works

Kaul continued his engagement with the blurred genre between documentary and fiction with Dhrupad (1982) on the fractal like Indian music form of the same name,Maati Maanas (1984) combining narrative forms through a discourse on a wide variety of pottery traditions in India so as to unite the plethora of matter into a single location-space, and Siddheshwari(1988) on the famed thumri singer Siddheshwari Devi.

Kaul’s further attempts at using the cinematographic form to reveal the nature of the ‘unknown’ were brought out through his following two Dostoevsky adaptations, Nazar(1989) and his tour-de-force Idiot (1991). In both of these adaptations, Kaul chose to not look through the view finder to capture the chaos and randomness of a space without allowing it to split into a sacral or profane entity. Kaul continued his exploration of the split between a westernized India and Muktibodh’s fantasy of a revolution with his Naukar Ki Kameez (1997) adapted from the novel by Vinod Kumar Shukla. In these works Kaul tries to free the film from the visual aspect so that the film ends with the image instead of beginning with it. There seems to be so much before the image so that the visual aspect of the film is as randomized as the ‘deframed’ visuals.

His films and audience

Kaul gradually acquired a reputation of being cerebral and pretentious to the point of being termed a pseudo. Although there have been many instances of crowds staging group walk outs or dozing through screenings of his masterworks, a few instances claim to have incited mob violence addressed directly at the director while he was present at the screening.

The impassioned response to Kaul’s death is a sign of the public’s gradual awareness of the great master and his muse. I remember a screening of Kaul’s iconic short on Kashmir, Before My Eyes (1988) and the intense quality of attention the shot of the deflating balloon created amongst the150 viewers at the NCPA Little Theatre, where it was screened as part of Amrit Gangar’s Cinema of Prayoga series on Thursday, 18thDecember 2008. Although Mani Kaul was disappointed by a technical glitch in the print, he spoke about his filmic philosophy at great length. At the end of his discourse Kaul stated that he found great satisfaction at having finally found an audience. The screening concluded with a Q&A session where Kaul responded to questions from viewers with the greatest gusto and enthusiasm.

Mani Kaul’s films have acquired myth-like status partially due to their lack of availability. Although a few of his documentaries made for Films Division can be purchased, his earlier work produced by such governmental bodies such as the National Film Development Corporation of India as well as Doordarshan have been long censored from the public. A filmmaker is sustained through his films; his art lives longer than him. Kaul might have left us, but each time a film lover somewhere plays a disc with his film on it, he will gain immortality. He will be resurrected in his work.

[Devdutt Trivedi has been viewing and writing about Mani Kaul's films since 2005. His essay on Satah Se Uthata Aadmi is part of an ongoing project on Indian Film Archeology on film makers censored from the public like Nina Shivdasani, Kamal Swaroop and Mani Kaul.]

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Vinod Anupam said…
देवदत्त जी का महत्वपूर्ण लेख उपलब्ध कराने के लिए आभार

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