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A Partial View: il miglior fabbro

A tribute to Mani Kaul, the film-maker, who died on 6 July.

COMMENTARY

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A Partial View: il miglior fabbro

Arun Khopkar

A tribute to Mani Kaul, the film-maker, who died on 6 July.

Arun Khopkar (arunkhopkar@gmail.com) is a Mumbai-based film-maker, theorist and teacher.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 27, 2011

A
s I opened my eyes, I sensed the grey early morning light around. I could hear the rain lashing at the window panes, but that was not what woke me up. It was the double beep of my cell phone, almost like the sound that lizards make. An SMS, so early, meant either someone could not contain his happiness or there was news so dark that it could not wait till daylight.

“Mani passed away at 1 am. Latika”. A rainy day in ashadh and a cloud-capped star extinguished. It was coming for a long time, but one hoped for a miracle. It was Mani’s tremendous vitality, resilience and his ability to make impossible things happen, which made you hope that he would even triumph over the disease that was eating him away.

Our last meeting was in February 2011. As Mani came out of his bedroom into the drawing room, it was evident that he was in great pain as he walked. He gave me a big hug. I could feel the wasted body as I

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held him for a long time. So much had gone out of that body that I had hugged 40 years ago, when we finished the shooting of Ashadk Ka Ek Din.

But there was so much left too. He

opened the package of thin badam and pista chikki that I had brought for him. He took a small morsel and examined it carefully by holding it against the light. He was pleased with what he saw. Then he put it in his mouth and allowed it to dissolve. A smile broke and his eyes shone. “Nice”, he said.

Our conversation flowed on. We spoke of many things, of music, philosophy, languages, etymology, pre-natal experience… “Of shoes and ships and sealing-wax/Of cabbages and kings.” It was interrupted by bouts of his extreme pain, breaks for medication and exhaustion. But when it was resumed, his razor-sharp intelligence, eccentric humour, insatiable curiosity and joie de vivre were all there. When he went in for treatment or to rest, I was alone with the signs that had marked the difficultjoyous path of his life. A volume of Basho, an etymological dictionary, CDs of music of his guru, volumes on philosophy…

I was there for nearly seven hours, but we spent only about three hours together.

COMMENTARY

In the long hours that I spent by myself, many incidents and memories flashed through my mind, from our long association of over 40 years.

Shooting Ashadh Ka Ek Din

Mani was always wild and tremendously strong-willed. But there was also a great self-discipline in him. From the time our film unit got together in Kasauli for the shoot of Ashadh Ka Ek Din, it was clear to everyone that there was going to be a boisterous, rumbustious roller-coaster ride and back-breaking hard work.

We were shooting in winter. Kasauli was covered with snow for the best part of the shoot. We all worked on the set, took part in the firelight wild parties, but the call-sheet was sacred.

I knew nothing about the invisible cinematic frame within which an actor was supposed to perform. But the way Mani and K K Mahajan worked brought an electric charge to it, and sparks almost flew if you were not able to hold its balance through your gestures. No, not the sparks of anger but sparks of energy that was conveyed to the actors, mostly without words.

Each take was prepared with the thorough ness of a sacred ritual and had to be performed like it. Slowly, the subtle rhythms that Mani had in his mind began to flow through our muscles, blood and bones. No emotions, no exhibition, no improvisation. Rhythm, rhythm and rhythm. When it worked, Mani would go into raptures and shout, Hit ho gaye. Mahajan would growl, Sirf hit hogey ki doosra shot bhi loge?

He had worked out five distances from the lens, for five kinds of images, within which you and the camera had to move. So, all movements of actors and camera were like musical notes. In the rooms where the unit stayed, especially in Mani’s, were scattered stills from Ajanta cave paintings to provide inspiration for the frames of the film. Mani did not imitate any of these frames but searched for significant and expressive details that he could modify for his shots: a certain inclination of the neck, the proportion of the white of your eyes as you looked at a point, the angle between the torso and waist, the absorption of the bhangas of the Natyashastra that were depicted in stone sculptures and bronzes.

I began to understand the hypnotic spell his Uski Roti had cast on me, which I had seen before I worked in Ashadh. The film was without sound then. Its frames were inspired by Amrita Sher-Gil’s paintings but what made them come alive was Mani’s superb control over rhythm. They did not come alive to quotidian, mundane rhythms, but moved to the beat of a deeper dimension of time, that is almost imperceptible. It is the rhythm of centuries of chaini life, like the vilampat of a bada khayal, where the urban rushed splitsecond has not entered.

Mani’s films were always revelations, even when the themes were well known and ancient, like dhrupad, or pottery. Or even the too familiar landscape of Kashmir. He hunted for those cycles of time and traces of experience that would reveal. It was with the patience of an “artist of fire”, to borrow a phrase of Paul Valery, that he put all these together and waited for some invisible fire to blend them, like a perfect pot.

In his film Desert of a Thousand Lines there is a shot of a man drawing water from a well, using a pulley and a bucket. The camera is static and close to the well, at a slightly top-ish angle. The man who is pulling the bucket out, is near it and then he begins to move, pulling the rope with

august 27, 2011 vol xlvi no 35 EPW Economic & Political Weekly

COMMENTARY

him. He keeps on moving for nearly three minutes till he is a speck on the horizon. At that point half a bucket of brackish water emerges from the well. Not a thousand words could have brought out the scarcity of water and its sacred value in that desert with such quiet dignity of its dwellers.

Invalid Distinctions

People often speak of Mani’s documentaries and feature films. I do not think any thematic and non-cinematic distinction is valid for his films. He made cinema, whether it was a short film or a long one. It was no surprise that his Siddheshwari opened a documentary film festival at one time and a feature film festival at another time.

His films had layers of different kinds of poetry. There was lyricism when he dwelt upon a tiny grain of time and opened it slowly to hold infinity in his palm, as Donne would describe it. Or he would contrast the tribal and the classical to bring an epic dimension to his narrative. Obvious dramatic mode he shunned, including frontal humour. But a scene from Uski Roti where a coat is thrown on a peg and keeps on falling, or a Balkrishna sticker on the glass pane of a bus that keeps looking at you, as the road below it moves, making the image levitate are some of the best examples of purely visual humour that is at once subtle and lyrical, gentle and intelligent.

His powerful sense of the dramatic breaks through his films, like sunrays bursting through clouds, in intimate exchanges between lovers in Duvidha as well as Naukar Ki Kameez, through little intimate details, conversations that leave out more than say, through subtle glances, and the almost unnoticed movements of feet and hands.

Mani’s ability to take you into various zones of time is one of his greatest qualities and is rare even in great film-makers. He devoted several years of his life to the study of dhrupad. The slow-moving alaap that opens a dhrupad has something primeval about it. At the end of his film on dhrupad Mani moved his camera over the cityscape of Bombay at 120 frames per second, slowing time down to one-fifths of its normal flow. As the camera glides over the city, in a never before seen slow speed and gradually goes outfocus, it takes the viewer into an experience that is near mystical. It is an experience of a universe

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
august 27, 2011

that is gradually dissolving before your eyes to return to a state that is nirgun and nirakar, without attributes and without shape.

This nirgun and nirakar was suggested through saguna and sakar. For Mani’s films are a treat for the eyes, ears and also for other senses evoked indirectly. Griffith once said that he made films so that people could see. I wish people had seen, heard and touched his films instead of looking for plots and melodrama and the films would have stretched their limbs from the screen and caressed the vision, hearing and skin of the spectators.

Mani’s early work reveals a meticulous planning, where nothing is left to chance. As time went, accidents began to fascinate him. After the meticulous planning of his early films, he got interested in the role of chance in film-making.

The most prominent film-maker in the history of cinema, who planned meti culously, took many takes of a shot – sometimes even 40 or more – but ended up using the first or second at times, was Robert Bresson. He did so since he could see an element of grace there that was revealed to him in the solitude of the editing room.

Giving Play to Chance

Mani shifted to letting “chance” intervene. The slow-motion shot of the city that I have described above was taken with a camera with a faulty lens-mount. Its going outfocus was an accident that was discovered only after the shot was taken with great effort

– smooth camera movement in slow speed is very difficult to achieve. Next day a retake was done with a properly fitted mount and the shot stayed in focus throughout. But when Mani saw both takes, he felt that the “faulty” take was much closer to his vision and it was retained.

All his life Mani followed his vision. It was a difficult life. Lack of audience response has driven many wonderful directors to despair and even to suicide. But Mani took it all in his stride, not only with great courage and fortitude, but also with a tremendous sense of humour. No one could tell stories about the lack of popularity of his films better than Mani himself, with his dry humour.

He was a great raconteur. His narrations would hold his audiences spellbound. Once someone asked him why, if his

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narrations in real life were so interesting, were his films so boring? I remember the passion, intensity and the seriousness with which Mani answered this question. There was a stunned and pin drop silence after his answer for nearly a minute and then the applause broke out in celebration of truth of the artist that was Mani Kaul.

Mani Kaul was no saint, as his friends as well as his enemies would easily agree. To his friends, he was an irresistibly lovable rascal and to his enemies a terror, with his acerbic wit and a zen presence of mind. When Nargis said that Uski Roti was so boring that she would remember it as long as she lived, he thanked her for her compliment, as a film so memorable that it could never be forgotten. His laughter was spontaneous and infectious. His energy would flow into those around him, whether he was making a film or drinking.

Great Teacher

He was a great teacher because he never imposed any of his ideas on his students. With his charisma and deep knowledge, it would have been easy for him to have imitators – and he does have many clones – but if you wanted to follow your own calling, he was your best friend, philosopher and guide. “Whatever can be taught, is not worth learning”, he used to say, quoting Matisse. Yes, he never taught, never gave you formulae but helped you in releasing yourself from bonds that held you back.

He would judge what you needed best, as he looked at it from your viewpoint. When I was looking for a heroine for my diploma film, I gave him the script to read and he suggested a girl that he had seen on television, as a newscaster. She was Smita Patil, all of 18 years old. When I saw her, I knew at first sight that she was the person I had imagined but did not know had actually existed. Mani had read my script so well that he sensed what was between the lines.

There were moments of such intensity that one experienced with Mani, be they through the perfection of his films or on account of the sharpness of his wit or his joyful wisdom, they remain privileged moments, rare to surpass. He was a great film-maker, one of the best and most original, but he was a greater practitioner of the art of living. Ecce Homo.

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