Documentary, Features

Before My Eyes: Understanding Mani Kaul

I first saw Mani Kaul’s Before My Eyes, (a film made to promote J & K tourism), in 1989. The image of a hot air balloon taking off and then passing by a hotel room window with a couple sleeping in foreground is all that remained with me all these years.

Later at FTII, Pune I saw a few other films by him. But raised as I was, on an exclusive diet of Hindi melodrama and an occasional Hollywood classic, screened in the school auditorium or finding its way after years to Rahul, Westend or Alka (cinema halls in Pune), I didn’t take too kindly to Mani’s films.

I was not averse to world cinema, different rhythms or paces of story telling. Ozu and Fellini, I loved at first go, as I did Truffaut, Ray and Ghatak. I could like Bergman and Bunuel too. But films without any visible signs of story bothered me. Though I am much more open now to different kinds of filmmaking after 3 years of daily film viewing at FTII, and lots of years of film festivals and DVD viewings later, I still need to make some sense of a film before I can say I like it. I may accept it, yes, but like, no.

I went to NCPA last week only to see Before My Eyes and that balloon shot again. Mati Manas (1984) was also screened, and I did not quite get it this time too. Of course, I enjoyed the journey across the country, the processes of pottery, the potters and their landscape, their routine and their sounds. I could also understand the need for the 3 actors to create a feeling of alienation in the frame, representing the filmmaker’s own urban intrusion into a rural space. What defeated me was the text by a senior FTII-an Kamal Swaroop.

Even though Mani had warned us that the text, though it came from intensive research was in some parts dense and obscure and also at times, completely unrelated to what was happening in the film, I was still trying hard to make sense of it while viewing the film. Wondering if so much went above my head because of the mythological references which I am unfamiliar with, or the language which was more Sanskritized than I am used to, or the distraction of the lines being delivered in flat, unnatural monotones.

Friends who were not trying so hard as me were able to enjoy the film more than I did. I was more accepting of the film after Mani spoke at the end of it, explaining how he shot it with a 35-strong crew travelling in a bus over 15000 miles across the country. Or the fact that what he always strives for is a dream-like effect, without obvious logic. At the time he was making these films, this chasing of dreams was considered a sinful self-indulgence in a socialist country, where art was directly related to materialism and realism. He also revealed that though his films were well-researched, he never worked from a written, detailed script, abhorring the idea of ‘execution’ as opposed to the actual process of shooting.

He spoke of how the audience of 50-odd people was larger than he was used to 20 years ago. And yet, of how industry bigwigs like Raj Kapoor, Dilip Kumar and Sanjeev Kumar respected the work that people like him were doing, and showed it in gestures like hosting a party or delaying a dubbing schedule to accommodate his.

Though I have many reservations for the films of makers like Ketan Mehta, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Sudhir Mishra and the parallel cinema movement of the 70s and 80s, I now feel a sense of loss for these films. Now that Indian cinema, particularly Hindi cinema has become completely subsumed by commercialism. Even the so-called smaller Hindi films have their own formula and their own ‘hooks’ to reel in an audience. Eccentricity or originality are hard to come by.

I was glad that we had made the trek into town to see the films, particularly since the National Film Archives prints are in such bad shape, Mani knows little of the state of the prints of many of his films, and DVDs are very nearly impossible to come by.

In 19 years, my own understanding of cinema may still not be able to take in Mani Kaul’s films fully. Yet I enjoyed the fact that I was intrigued enough to think about them for days after I had seen them. Intrigued enough to write about them. That my mind had stored a few more images from the films to be remembered and looked at for the next 19 years, perhaps.

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  1. Great you managed to see one of his work. Actually I’m envious, not being part of film school or to get a chance to see his oeuvre. Yet from what I have seen (Uski Roti, Duvidha, Dhrupad, Naukar Ki Kameez) he is one Indian filmmaker whose mise-en-scene is seriously universal. Hoping that we can write more on him in times to come.

    And thanks for sharing this information, just like this film I can’t get the image of the wife waiting in Uski Roti, the bride close-up in Duvidha, with her head slightly titled, and the the sudden pause at disorientation of gaze in Dhrupad.

  2. Its sad that ‘experimentation’ and ‘adventure’ in telling stories is not much in vogue nowadays. Mani for me is a too esoteric and obtuse but I admire and respect his ability to create hypnotic images and sounds and for walking down a path that few have the abilty and sensitivity to explore.

  3. Yes, Nitesh, we were really privileged to be at FTII, and next door to the archives. In these days of DVDs, one tends to think that everything is available on DVD, and then realizes that so many films are not. So much that you still can’t take for granted.

    Boorback, so true. For me too, Mani is difficult to understand but one has to respect that spirit of exploration in a film maker, which is so rare nowadays.

    Thanks, Susan.

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