Excerpts from the Inaugural Mani Kaul Memorial Lecture- Marco Mueller

Mani Kaul has been one of the few directors who really mattered for the New Cinema of this country. When he went back to the ancient representational forms and to the linguistics of the early grammarians from India, this was also to assert his idea of a contemporary cinema that would fight everything ornate, long-winded and self-important.

It is probably because his cinema was so culturally-rooted that his approach was utterly unique, that he grasped and expressed in his films the deep language of cinema with more subtlety and audacity than most other Indian filmmakers who have come after him. He has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative.

Mani-ji never sought popularity but pursued his own concerns, he never stopped questioning the results of his work: just think of the subtle inflections of editing and muting of the actors’ styles in his last feature, Naukar ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1999). And he made films as a way to find answers to the questions he never stopped asking himself. Mani once said “If film shows you something you already know, where will it lead us?”

Mani was a great teacher – and was mentor to some of the best young directors in contemporary Indian cinema (the first names that spring to my mind are those of Amit Dutta and Gurvinder Singh). He has shaped and sharpened the sensibilities of at least two generations of students and young viewers who cared about film.

But I am not here to analyze Mani Kaul’s works. For a superior reading of his films you would be much better served reading Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s most recent and important book: Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid. From Bollywood to the Emergency (2009).

Also, because some of the best film-criticism is now happening on the internet, it would be very worth checking out the entries on Mani Kaul in Srikant Srinivasan exciting film-blog: The Seventh Art.

Like Roberto Rossellini, Mani-ji was a splendid cook and a lover of great works of culinary art. His maieutics worked best in a restaurant, around a banquet that he always very intelligently composed. When we worked together on a film-project, he pushed me to give birth to my own truth about the film in front of a slow-cooked (dum pukht) lamb dish in a Delhi five-star restaurant, or of butter-garlic crabs and Koliwada prawns at Trishna in Kala Ghoda, with a series of questions that he nonchalantly proposed over dinner.

It was in fact at the Trishna Restaurant that the project of Under Her Spell, a film based on Dileep Padgaonkar’s extraordinary book, started to take shape. Every time I read and re-read this quite unique text of cultural history, I always wondered if Dileep, who had known Rossellini and been a close friend of Mani for three decades, had not purposely put a pinch of Mani Kaul in his Rossellini.

As Srikant Srinivasan has remarked, Mani-ji always started with the image and worked his way into the text (even when the text was a novella by Dostoyevsky). He hated the ‘perspectival’ notion of convergence, but also believed that film is made of conflicting elements: you can accept that film is a pictorial art only if its visual imagery will be completed and often contradicted by images and patterning stemming out of music and poetry.

Amrit Gangar – who has put together here an extraordinary Tribute, with a series of screenings and panels – was reminding us yesterday that one of the inspirations for Mani-ji’s Before My Eyes (1989) was Basho’s collection of haikus about travelling to the Big North. But there is another important relationship in Before My Eyes, the relationship to music: the film is edited as if Mani-ji was composing classical Hindustani music, moving a shot along the timeline, till he found the right place for it, in terms of mood or rhythm. Let me quote Mani-ji again: “When the shot finds its place, it has a quality of holding you. The position is its meaning.”

What filmmakers did we discuss when we met? Like it or not, one of the major activities of any film culture is a labelling of certain films and filmmakers as good and of others as bad. And this is what we were often doing when we met. Still, Mani-ji and I agreed that we did not need to pick a single creed to live by. We both believed we can deepen our understanding of film only by being sensitive to as many as we can manage.

I would like to resume here one our interrupted conversations. One that was, of course, not just a dinner-table conversation but a way of continuing to think through cinema’s artistic possibilities.

Starting from the 1960s, theorists began to consider film as a semiotic system, a system of culturally localized signs, with cinema being seen as a vehicle of social and political signification. By the 1980s, academic researchers were considering cinema primarily as a cultural arena teeming with conflicting notions of race, gender, identity, class, nation, and social processes. Films started to be read as symptoms of modernity, post-modernity, imperialism and consumer culture. These frameworks continue to be central to film studies and indeed to the humanities in general. As a result, the particularity of how cinema works as a unique art continues often to be ignored.

Most of the time we assume that cinema is an art of some sort. Not necessarily high art. Cinema is often a mass art – at least whenever there is no split between art and entertainment. Filmmakers as diverse as Ritwik Ghatak and Ozu Yasujiro have certainly been two of cinema’s most accomplished artists, but they were also filmmakers working within or across the popular genres.

Still, people who look upon cinema as an art do not necessarily share the same notions of what kind of art it is or should be. They have different conceptions of cinema’s artistic dimensions. We will not find unanimity of opinion about this among film-directors, film-critics, film-academics or film-audiences.

Film came along at a point when all the other arts (with the exception of photography) had been around for millennia. In the past, therefore, we have tended to think of cinema as an art by means of rough analogies to the other arts. Film as a pictorial art; as a narrative art; as a performing art; as an aural art; as a photographic art. But film is a synthetic medium, in the sense that all these features and more can be found in it.

Cinema can yield visual and aural discoveries that few other arts can.

Interestingly, though, cinema does not have to be photographic. Mani-ji often mentioned, as Amrit has reminded us, that it was Robert Bresson and Ritvik Ghatak who cured him “of a sickness called realism”. Let me tell you of my experiences when I visited George Lucas at the Skywalker Ranch (I am purposely quoting Lucas because in our dialogues Mani-ji never wanted to erect barriers between the so-called artistic and the so-called commercial cinema, between the so-called auteur and the so-called popular cinema. Mani despised the ‘middle of the road would-be auteur cinema’ because he thought it was an imposture, both morally and aesthetically; he preferred Bollywood and South Indian popular cinema because it had no pretensions. A ‘popular genre’ director can be an intellectual also when he has no such no intentions (and there are many examples of this in Indian cinema: Mani-ji admired Sooraj Barjatya’s Who Am I to You (Hum Aapke Hein Kaun), for its insistence on non-diegetic details, but sometimes the ‘popular genre’ director is also an intellectual – and George Lucas is definitely one of them. Every time I had a chance to visit Lucas we ended up discussing the new horizons of the film-scape: he has always held that contemporary filmmakers are no longer tied to photography and that the digital revolution will allow cinema to finally realize itself as a painterly art.

At the same time, if films may be stories (even the New Wave or New Cinema directors have made up stories – unusual stories, but still stories), those stories are not exactly told, they are enacted. Some of our favourite performers are probably not the best actors by stage-bound standards, or the most photogenic by ordinary standards. But once they show up on screen we are mesmerized. This is even more true of Mani-ji’s actors, both the non-professionals of his early films and the professionals (and even stars) of his later works. It is not just a matter of the face, the posture or the voice: Mani preferred to film them in positions that revealed the almost unnoticeable gesture that can be as powerful as a frown or a line reading.

With a few notable exceptions, journalistic reviewers do not pay much attention to the ways movies look. Not, surprisingly, do academics: Western film studies departments seldom pursue research into the visual style and structure of what Mani-ji called “the purely cinematic object”. (You are lucky in India to have filmmaker-teachers like Kumar Shahani, who would affirm a very different approach from their Western colleagues). Yet, a number of contemporary filmmakers still think of cinema as having the power to redeem our vision. And several others have been consistently poly-stylistic, exploring many different visual pathways or imagining a new synthesis of image, sound and writing.

Many of Mani Kaul’s films are literature, painting, architecture, poetry and music. Right from his early essay-like film Forms and Design (1968), Mani-ji makes it evident that he is interested more in the possibilities of a form than in the question of whether it can convey a preconceived thesis or message.

Analysing the alternative traditions in the synthetic art of filmmaking can lead us to enjoy the distinctive experiences they offer. Comparisons with music and poetry show up principally within the broad idea of film as a pictorial art.

Filmmakers in the visual arts camp have looked to adjacent artistic languages for models of patterning and imagery. Polemically, they would conjure up all possible analogies to counter the mainstream cinema’s emphasis on narrative and performance. They were attracted to the idea that music and poetry tend to be suggestive rather than explicit, conveying powerful emotions in elusive and open-ended ways. All these analogies work best as frameworks for sensitizing us to both similarities and differences between film and other arts. But they also point to the direction in which the synchronization of the senses in a film could still do to transform our movie-going experiences. There is a chapter in the philosophical history of cinema that Mani-ji always remembered when he was talking about anubhooti: Eisenstein argued that synchronization of the senses through film was the most powerful form of emotional stimulation, creating in the viewer an “ecstasy” comparable to religious fervour. This is not so different from a Mani Kaul movie raising a deeply sensuous-spiritual experience in his viewer. And I can also think of many of his movies where he conceived film-performance as an expressive movement to be synchronized with the properties of the image and of the soundscape to produce just that kind on anubhooti.

Cinema is not dying out. What is dying out is the cinema we knew. (And we can also say the same of painting). No art form that has been devised across the history of humanity has ever completely disappeared. Movies did not kill theatre, television did not kill movies. Neither did the new media. It is actually quite significant that the main components of the new media (computers, cell phones, gaming consoles, personal music devices, and the Internet) all possess features that allow us to watch movies on them.

Movies still matter enormously to many people. New media have given them new ways to reach us, and to us new ways to explore why they matter. But we are now poorer, less rich in the exploration of these future horizons – by now, I mean, that Mani Kaul is no longer with us to open new paths. But his films are here – and the retrospective tribute Amrit Gangar has put together is the best way to prove that Mani was right: he belief that a film that manages to be “a purely cinematic object” cannot age. And his films did not age. Not only have they not aged, they can finally resonate with us as intimations of the reasons why cinema will always survive all the transformations within the visual continent. And in this way, the spirit of the cinema of Mani Kaul will continue to stay with us.

Marco Muller, Director of the Rome International Film Festival, is a well-known Italian producer and film-scholar. He is currently the Director of the Rome International Film Festival. Earlier he was the Director of the Venice (2004-2011), Locarno (1992-2000), Rotterdam (1989-1991) and Pesaro (1986-1989) Film Festivals. The films he produced have won one Oscar (for Best Foreign Film) and several awards at Cannes, Venice and Berlin.

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