Mani Kaul made a number of short documentaries commissioned by Films Division from the 1960s, mostly to be used for educational purposes, and he found increasingly innovative ways to make them anything but superficial public service announcements. One of Kaul’s recurring stylistic motifs is the dissonance between image and sound. The documentaries are underscored by voice-over narration, but rather than the sound and image complementing each other, there is a contrast in how the voice-over and the images pull the viewer into completely opposite directions.
Kaul would also employ this technique in his feature films, in which he could let the formalist in him cut loose, but the constraints he was working under while making the shorts also yields interesting results.
Consider Forms and Design (1968), which begins with a shot of the camera exploring statuettes in a dark room, with a torch spotlighting the artifacts. Co-scripted with painter Akbar Padamsee, the film features themes that would show up in his other works too. It tells of how the advent of industries which manufacture household items is making things quick and convenient, but is also killing the art embedded into everyday objects.
Made to inform the people about the work of the Indian Institute of Crafts & Design, Jaipur, Kaul nevertheless composes stunning shots, such as an image of carpets that has an avant-garde quality to it, or scenes of artists at work that anticipate Mati Manas (1985).
Similarly, the three-minute documentary Homage to the Teacher (1967) highlights the importance of the teacher and ends with footage of Dr Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan. But before that, Kaul takes us through various forms of teaching and learning by highlighting the very small details. This is also where Robert Bresson’s strong influence of Kaul is apparent in the unlikeliest of ways. The camera closes in on a teacher showing the student how to light a burner in a chemistry lab, captures the frenetic movement of a physical training instructor as well as a dance teacher dancing with her student, and a surgeon explaining things to a young intern.
The friction between Kaul’s preoccupations and the Films Division’s demands is the most apparent in An Indian Woman (1975.) It begins with a title card that reads “This film is a contribution towards the struggle of Indian women for freedom. The solution is to be found neither in Western emancipation nor in Eastern veneration…” Throughout the film, Kaul makes deft use of cinematic space to convey the relation between women and the environment they inhabit. As in his later independent films, he uses images to erase preconceived stereotypes – to debunk the demarcation between a woman plastering the wall of her house with cow dung and a woman reading a Mario Puzo novel while listening to a Jim Reeves vinyl record and smoking a cigarette. But the voice-over runs in the exact opposite direction – telling of how urbanisation has made women free, how practices such as Sati and child marriage have been erased with time. The Films Division logo on the screen, the only thing in colour against the background of the black and white film, almost takes on a humourous quality.
Suspenseful is a word I thought I’d never use in the context of a Mani Kaul film, but that’s exactly what During and After Air-Raid (1970) is. Made to educate the people about the do’s and don’ts during air-raids ahead of the Indo-Pak war of 1971, During and After Air-Raid at first seems like a part-documentary depiction and part staged demonstration. But moments of casual enactment – such as a man standing near the frame of a door – are followed by still photographs of real victims of an air-strike. Things suddenly get serious. A simple shot of a man driving a car, the camera showing us a close-up of his hands on the steering wheel, assume the tension of a film you’re more likely to find in Hitchcock or Hawks, simply because Kaul holds the shot for moments longer than he needed to, making us wonder who the man is and what’s going on around him, before pulling the rug from under our feet by revealing that this is just a demonstration of what to do if one is caught in a strike while driving a. We’re shown images of the fire squad extinguishing a giant blaze. It keeps us guessing whether the ongoing “scene” is a drill or a real crisis happening right there before the camera.
The stunning Before My Eyes (1987) is the one film not commissioned by Films Division, and has Kaul operating in a much freer mode – he’s no longer under the obligation to convey a message accessible. “A filmscape on the valley of Kashmir,” the opening title card tells us, before taking us through a breathtaking journey comprising of aerial views of the Dal lake, of the valleys and mountains; while also closing in on a small stream of water crashing against the rocks in its way. This is very much a “symphony film” in the mode of Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi, but Kaul creates a hypnotic filmic rhythm. The sound is again not complementary to the image, but the same technique now takes on a different meaning. As we see a shot of a valley taken from a helicopter, we hear the chirping of birds and the rustling of leaves. A cello plays the Dhrupad raga, the first time we hear background music in the film, before it is revealed that the sound is diegetic – a woman is playing it in a serene house located by the lake, but the sound makes its appearance much before its corresponding image.
Before My Eyes is reminiscent of Dutch filmmaker Bert Haanstra’s masterpiece Panta Rhei. Kaul’s own pet themes, seen in films such as Forms & Design and Arrival are also not too different from what Godfrey Reggio conveys in his own industries-vs-nature film. But in Before My Eyes, Kaul gets rid of the didacticism of that film, placing pure form at the forefront.
Kaul’s contemporary Kamal Swaroop calls him the only “complete artist,” one who has keen knowledge of all the art forms that make up cinema. A filmmaker friend once related to me his interaction with a family in Miraj in Maharashtra, several generations of whom have manufactured tanpuras. The family believes that one must know how to play the instrument before one can make it, a view not many agree with. When asked if they know Mani Kaul (tanpuras are used in Dhrupad which he explores in his documentary on the genre), their response was an emphatic affirmative. Except that they seemed to have no clue that he was a filmmaker.