An Interview With Mani Kaul
Q. Can you tell me something about your batch at FTII?
A. I was in the 1963-66 batch. Kumar Shahni was my batch mate, John Abraham was junior while Adoor Gopalakrishnan was a year senior to me. We lived in a very different era. The 1960s was a decade of great ferment and unrest. The environment at FTII was very loosely structured, perhaps it was something to do with the times. At the institute we all believed that we could make films expressing our individual vision. John worked with me on my first film Uski Roti.
Q. What was the narrative style of your first few films?
A. One of my major influences was the French film maker Robert Bresson. Bresson’s films reflected a particular strand of Christian belief called Jansenism which manifests itself in the way leading characters are acted upon and simply surrender themselves to their fate. I believe that cinema is not so much visual as it is temporal. But most film makers concentrate on the spatio-visual aspect. This has led to certain problems. What time reflects is more contemporary than the arrangement of a set of visuals. I do not want to focus on this visual aspect in my films, but want to make the temporal aspect primary.
Q. Did you use music in your films?
A. Film expresses itself through images and sound and to that extent I don’t believe that music is that important to the narrative. I have made a few movies that incorporate Indian classical music. I am inspired by the form of Indian classical music and have used this form in my films. Hindustani music is spontaneous and has highs and lows and climaxes. I like to elaborate on the narrative, just like music.
Q. Did you want to convey a certain message to your audience?
A. No. I made films because I wanted to make films. I didn’t do it with the intention of giving the audience a message. The act of making a film is a social act.
Q. You were part of the new-wave movement of films in India. What were the concerns of the movement and how far did the message penetrate the audience?
A. The new wave movement was a parallel movement to the mainstream cinema in India. We wanted to find a form that corresponded to contemporary reality. Usually, the mainstream films used a medieval idiom. So obviously there was a discrepancy. We tried to create something new.
Q. Were you disappointed that your films didn’t achieve mass appeal?
A. No, not at all. I was well aware that my films would have a limited audience. We were up against a distribution system that manufactured an audience by feeding them the same mainstream formulae. Though my films didn’t get released commercially, there were a number of film screenings.
Q. But there was a lot of debate about your films in the media.
A. Yes, at that time there were a lot of write-ups in the media about them. Journalists felt that it was important to let readers know about the parallel film movement, even though most people wouldn’t get to see my films commercially. Times are very different now. There is absolutely no debate or discussion about what kind of a world we are living in, no attempt to understand it. I was in America at the start of the Iraq war and I couldn’t find a single T.V. or radio station that spoke out in clear unambiguous terms against the war. The entire media toed the line of the American administration.
Q. Why did you stop making films?
A. For the last five years I’ve been teaching music, especially the dhrupad style, and exploring its form. I am thinking of getting back to film making now.
Q. You have also made documentaries. What difference do you see between your films and documentaries?
A. The dividing line between my films and documentaries is thin. Some of my films, like Siddheshwari, are like poetic documentaries. Another documentary, Arrival, is about labour migrating to cities.
Q. What do you have to say about Paheli?
A. The very meaning of a Paheli is that it can be solved whereas a Duvidha can’t be. In my film, the woman couldn’t choose between the material and the spiritual husband. So in that sense, for me the problem still continues. In Paheli, the woman makes a choice. I guess that’s why the film makers called it Paheli.