The determined outsider

He was the uncompromising outsider. He refused to genuflect to commercial diktats, sticking stubbornly to his individualistic — frequently non-linear — form of filmmaking. Down four decades, he was identified with what is variously termed as “art”, “new wave” and “parallel” cinema.

To know Mani Kaul, who passed away at the age of 67 after battling a terminal illness in New Delhi on Wednesday, was to know a mercurial, larger-than-life man. As a film director, he discussed the status of women (Uski Roti, Duvidha), crafted visually seductive documentaries (Arrival, Before My Eyes, A Desert of a Thousand Lines) and went through a spell of interpreting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterworks. The Russian writer’s short story A Gentle Creature inspired Nazar, shot in low, chiaroscuro lighting.
Dostoevsky’s classic novel Idiot was grafted to an Indian milieu with Ahmaq, which incidentally featured Shah Rukh Khan in a key role. Khan has recalled the experience of working with Kaul fondly, albeit with the rider that he could never understand what the film was all about.
As a knee-high child, Mani Kaul, nephew of prominent B-town director Mohan Kaul, saw the world through foggy eyes. His eyesight was weak but he thought that’s the way landscapes and faces look: blurred. It was only when he was around 12 that he wore spectacles and saw life in focus. “After that, I refused to change my vision”, he would laugh, bemused. Although his cinema was serious, groundbreaking and contemptuous of amassing profits, he did not take himself seriously. His booming laughter and a saturnine smile a la Jack Nicholson were his calling card.
In person, he would captivate an ever-enlarging group of admirers with his bagatelles, and impromptu Hindustani classical music soirees, at his home on Mumbai’s swishy Altamount Road. The apartment belonged to his wife, Lalitha, who doted on him as if he was her third kid after Shambhavi and Ribu.
If his temper was provoked, there could be storm and thunder. Once, a Delhi ministry bureaucrat, over the phone, was bamboozling him to fly to an international festival in economy class. Kaul reasoned that he wasn’t interested in going anyway. Yet the bureaucrat persisted. Crrrrrrash! The reluctant traveller pounded his fist into a glass-topped coffee table. End of phone call.
A graduate of the Pune film institute, circa 1969, he went on to become a cult figure in the campus. Students down the years have been intensely influenced by him. Others, obsessive about Bollywood cinema, have been dismissive about Kaul, saying, “But who sees his Uski Rotis?” The rest of the world did — practically every one of the 25 documentaries and features he made were showcased and saluted at Berlin, Venice and Locarno. Four Filmfare trophies for the Critics’ Award went to him for Uski Roti, Ashad ka Ek Din, Duvidha and Idiot. In addition, he was feted at the National Awards regularly during a time when “intellectualism” hadn’t been reduced to a pejorative term.
He painted abstract canvases and had acted in Basu Chatterjee’s Saara Aakash.
Deeply influenced by Ritwik Ghatak, who helmed the Pune film institute during the mid ’60s, Kaul had a healthy disrespect for middle-of-the-road cinema. Kumar Shahani, a fellow traveller in filmmaking, was one of his closest friends.
Despite an ideological argument over which they came to blows at a cafe, the bond between Shahani and Kaul persisted. Both had a tough time securing finance from the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC), for which they had directed the most-treasured films in its repertory. As it turned out, it was a losing battle with the NFDC changing its priorities to market-friendly cinema.
Shahani moved to New Delhi to teach. Kaul set anchor in Amsterdam, where he remarried, had two more children, before returning to Mumbai. His last film was A Monkey’s Raincoat and his last job was as the creative director of films at the Osean’s.
The mercurial filmmaker shifted eventually to New Delhi. Once he had phoned to inquire if M.F. Husain would allow him to shoot a documentary on his art and life. That was not to be. Mani Kaul had become near-reclusive but his pair of spectacles were always in place. His vision never altered.

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