A Requiem for Mani.
For Shambhavi, Ribhu.
Track in zoom out, zoom in track out…
Mani Mama, Mani Mama, Mani Mama…
This ditty sung to the tune of a then popular Hindi film song from a Subhash Ghai film by all FTII students. It amused Mani no end. We were celebrating just one of the shots in Mani’s vast oeuvre.
Images jumble and leap…
Leaping orange flames from a log fire, the high-pitch tremolo of the crickets, the speaking silence of the wilderness. Sitting smack in the middle of the Ranthamabor forests where I lay my eyes on this large man with big deep eyes for the first time.
Dental Dilemma, a silent exercise we cut on pic-synch. Tall actor performing toothache.
Walking to the girl’s hostel in FTII and this tall, striking, vital man walking with his band of chelas/ admirers. And he sets eyes on me and rumbles – “Jaipur ki ladki. Kaisi hai tu?” (The tu being an acknowledgement of our common muluk).
Later it would turn to aap now in acknowledgment of my typical-film school-student-duh question. His voice sonorous, deep. The large, patrician nose. The handsome, powerful profile, the drawl – “Main swaant sukh ke liye film banata hoon.” Then turns full face and gazes into my eyes – “Swaant sukh samajhti hain aap? Tulsidas kahte hain jis sukh ka ant swayam mein hi ho.” And there would be a silent ripple. He turns back to profile shot, slinging one arm carelessly on a vacant chair. Large, muscular arm. Big hands. The perfect pose. Charisma oozing. I suspected he was a bit of an actor still.
Mani wearing a tomato red shirt post his Amsterdam life, sitting cross-legged at our house, regaling us with his endless repertoire of self-digs and flashes of his observation about life.
To use words about a man who only spoke the language of visuals is rather daunting and tough.
In my little koop-mandook (the frog’s well), the name of Mani Kaul first filtered from Fateh Singh Rathor, the Tiger man. Fatta ji, as I called him, nursing an unconcealed crush on him spoke and spoke about his school friend from Jodhpur who ‘makes movies.’ When I look back now, his school friend Mani and he shared a lot in common. A vitality, stylishness, both performers, both passionate. Mani about his Cinema. Fateh Singh about saving his Tigers. Both these adbhut men have been felled by cancer. Fateh Singh went before him.
My Father was posted as Collector Sawai Madhopur and after his office hours we would drive down 6-8 kilometers and be in the deep jungles of Ranthamabor. I was studying for my 12th boards, having recently lost my Mother. Papa and I couldn’t stick being inside a house in evenings. Fatta ji felt there was no future in studies and I should go into movies like Mani Kaul. And one evening Mani was there. Mani was very wan, distant, aloof. Fatta ji told me later that he was having a lot of trouble putting together a movie…. Which later got made – Duvidha. But once the daaru started flowing, Mani and Fateh Singh sang their childhood songs, limericks, ditties. The orange flames leaping, the long shadows of the trees dancing.
Calling Mani ‘Mama’ is a very personal feeling for me. We came from the same state. The same city, Jaipur. The city till then had sent 2 people into the haloed doors of the Film & Television Institute of India. Mani Kaul and Asrani they would say with huge pride. My Father was getting good bad-vibes from all our relatives at my decision to join FTII. Then one day Papa told me his buddies, two ladies were coming to check out whether I would make the grade and also to assure him that I was not going to wolf-land. They were Mani Mama’s sisters. On that sweltering afternoon, the older one drove down on her bike with the younger one.
They had gone for the Rajasthan spell of his new film, Mati Manas. They confessed they were clueless about how films are made. That’s how they expressed it. “Bhaiyya stares at a place, location these people call it, for long. Then the camerawala puts the camera. Then Bhaiyya goes and looks through the view-finder. Then he goes back and stares for long. Very long. Then he shows with his hands where he exactly wants the camera. Then he shows with his fingers a bit down, a bit up… And then we have no patience and we go to have lunch.” Years later when I recounted this to Mani he gurgled with laughter and said – “Poor things! But after that they never asked me to come for a shooting.”
His sisters told me films were dull affairs but seeing me set they assured me that if I wouldn’t die of boredom, I would be fine. What clinched going to FTII was their supreme confidence as they assuaged the fears of my Father. Film Institute is a nice place, nobody will eat her up. And then Bhaiya is there to keep an eye on her. Imagine! Mani Kaul keeping an eye on the latest Jaipur export! But Ma ke gaaon wala Mama hi hua na? ‘Mama’ Mani became and that’s how he stays for me.
At FTII, Mani Kaul was GOD. Or the next best thing to God. If Ritwik Ghatak is the presiding deity of FTII, then Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani his most guni disciples. That he kept an eye on me I am not sure. But the tu and the Jaipur link which he would state kind of made me feel watched over.
Years later when he had come down from Amsterdam, I made full shameless use of this link to invite him over for dinner. Rajasthani garlic sukha chicken and gatte ki sabzi for dinner. Gurpal gleefully told me what clinched the invite was ‘gatte ki sabzi.’
Mani enters in a tomato red shirt. Niranjan, who has been his Cinematographer team for Mati Manas with Venu, is calming me as I check my dishes, the booze. We are thrilled but don’t know where the night would go. Initially it’s all sober, formal. Then seeing my little baby boy crawling Mani asks “Ise kahaan sulati hai tu?” Between both of us. Mani rumbles with amusement. “Kadwe tel se maalish karti hai tu?” Now I am uncertain where this is going. Yup, I say sheepish. Mani is delighted. He is a new Father. So he details how his western wife tried to put a cot, a video camera and alarm which goes off if the kid has peed in the nursery. Mani told her, let the baby sleep between the two of us. That is how we do it in India. And our babies carry the feeling of safety and security all their life. Did your wife agree, I ask? Mani nods, “Aankhein khul gayin!” The ice melts. We discuss techniques of bathing babies, massaging them with oil…vehement that Indian system is far too good.
Of course we talk of Cinema. We pester him to take the post of Director FTII but his only response is – “If they will let me pursue my own film-making. I am not a clerk yaar. I need my freedom. Freedom…”
Mani hums some dhrupad as he pats my baby to sleep. Cracks jokes about how the late LV Prasad in whose lab he was developing his picture negative told him – “You are such an interesting man. You talk such sense. So deep, so fine. Why do you make such boring films?” And Mani cracks up and we all high are giggling. He is rather proud of directing Shah Rukh in Idiot. “Wo star ban gaya na? Hai us ladke mein kuchh.”
The myth and folk-lore of Mani is part of what we lived and breathed.
Raaj Kumar, an actor and a fellow Kashmiri, tells him at a party – “Kya uski roti iski roti? Hamare saath aa jao jaani. Mil ke Paratha banayenge!”
Khalid Mohammed, a film journalist wants to do a face-to-face with Mani Kaul, Manmohan Desai and an Art filmmaker, who makes films about social causes and issues. Mani and Manmohan Desai are damn keen to meet each-other. To do the interview. Both object to the Art filmmaker. They don’t want him. Delicately or deliciously they say it.
The trench field battles between Non-narrative and Narrative cinema was fought every day between the “arty” and the “commercial” crowd in FTII. Mani at that stage was someone the ‘narrativewalas’ loved to hate.
Then one day, the biggest votary of Mainstream cinema, my pal comes and reads a passage from a book with a guess-who-said it. The book is Indian Cinema Superbazaar. (Malls had not come till then). He reads and I quote…
“I was a very quiet child and my eyesight was weak… I never complained about that to my father. If I couldn’t see a thing I would go very close to it. I remember very clearly that if I went to a film, it looked practically hazy. I saw life also like that… I remember that year, it was Mount Abu. By chance we were standing on the mountain top and my sister said “look at the road. It runs like a ribbon.” Probably because of my weak eyesight I lacked concentration. I was a lost child. My Mother seriously thought that … there might be some problem.. retardation or something… suddenly it occurs to my Father and he takes off his specs… powerful in terms of lenses. I wore the specs and it was like a shock… I saw trees, leaves, rocks, mountains. It was too much for me…. After that I saw a film called Helen of Troy…and after that I could not think of anything else in my life except films.”
The image from out-of-focus coming to sharp clarity moved me. It was Mani Mama’s experience which touched the souls of all of us, even the hardened baiters. The best, most honest, no phony interview of the book we declared.
Later, I heard Mani comes to teach at FTII and sees Johny Mera Naam. Changes his teaching plan and shows it to the students pointing out it’s precise compositions, it’s cinematography.
Mani, as I grasp, never had a theory of Cinema that he tried to push to fit one single viewpoint. He grew, shared, lived, learnt.
So tonight when I write my requiem to him I say with complete surety… Agree or disagree with his Cinema. There is nobody… NOBODY from FTII, who has not been affected by Mani’s cinema. His vitality, his deep questions, his search for the ‘image’, his humour, his seeking, his showing. Niranjan always says that as a cinematographer he opened our eyes. No box or definition could contain him. Mani Mama is Free at last.
Mani at last your going puts me in courage to say what I could never say to you.
I know that Mani knew that we all knew that he was a very-very ‘sexy’ man.