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.

10 responses to “An Interview With Mani Kaul”

  1. Anil says:

    Very nice…did you do the interview or is it from somewhere else? In any case a little background info about when, where and by whom this interview conducted would be nice. Unfortunately, I do not know much about Mani Kaul or his films so a little bio of him and his work would also be good.

  2. tushar says:

    He came to acj yesterday. I Sat withim for 15 min. Very articulateand witty chap. Click on trackback for a short filmography.

  3. Anil says:

    Trackback? I fail to understand…the trackback is just a link for other to link to the post. It just leads back to the post. Or am I missing something?

  4. Tushar says:

    There is some additional information when it links to the post.

  5. […] An Interview With Mani Kaul Published by Tushar on November 16, 2005 in films and india […]

  6. JANA says:


    This Interview will introduce Manida to you…

    Mani Kaul: I asked my guru Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar, ‘When will the new Tansen appear?’ He gave a simple, surprising answer, ‘When there is an audience for him.’

    But when audiences don’t accept an artist and the artist is not swayed by the audience but follows his own thoughts, he becomes a voice in the wilderness. What is that he is trying to protect? A small ego? Or something he venerates as the core of art that he doesn’t want to compromise?

    My ustand explained the swarup, the inner form of a raag as a knot in the air. If I play his Malkauns for two hours or ten seconds, we can still recognize it as Malkauns. What is it we call Malkauns that pervades every note? It is unknowable, unnameable, unchangeable. Of course something else has changed around that core. Nobody in the family of Dagars played like my guru. Two people will play the same raag differently, not just in the pattern but also in its soul. That ultimate self is not describable.

    Siddheswari Devi said, ‘When I sing I don’t know who is singing it.’ That is the greatest spiritual realization.

    We live in a new world. We are not faced with audiences, but with consumers interested in commodities. If I don’t get instant gratification in a concert I have no use for it. Consumers are not audiences.

    Artists who compromise lose depth. They don’t want to extend into metaphor, or ellipses that spark thought, vision. From the unknowable, unnameable, indescribable they come to the surface, as all commodities in the market must be superficial, reduced to an unthinking sensation. By naming the unnameable they merchandise it.

    The ninth century Anandvardhana said that when it resonates, the word takes on its actual meaning (dhvani). And only the sa-hridaya (one with a heart similar to the poet) can find oneness (tadatmya) with such a work of art. The audience must be absolutely the same quality and calibre as the musician. That is why Tulsidas said that the story of Rama is not about the prince who went into exile and lost his wife. When narrator and listener are equally gnanis, that untold story is actualized. (Quoted from Gowri Ramnarayan’s report in The Hindu, 1 December 2008)

    This reminds me of a Zen Master’s saying:

    Words cannot describe everything.
    The heart’s message cannot be delivered in words,
    If one receives words literally, he will be lost,
    If he tries to explain with words, he will not
    attain enlightenment in this life.

    One of the key words in what Mani Kaul said is tadatmya, which means sameness of nature or unity. How could such state of ‘unity’ between the audience and artist or a work of art could be reached? How can the audience be nurtured into sa-hridaya? The Cinema of Prayoga series had these questions in mind when it started and hence it aimed at a mimāmsā, rich with even distant sounding associations, a discussion beyond ‘realism’, beyond commodity-upbhokta relationship. During the screening of Vipin Vijay’s film Egotistic World or Unmathbudham Jagath (Sarjak 5. Samvaad 5) on Guruvaar, 23 October 2008 at Little Theatre, I was filled with joy when someone sitting next to me, saw a certain ‘pan’ in the film and exalted ‘kya baat hai!’ as a rasika would respond to a ‘taan’ in a raag. Cinematography, I think, craves for this kind of a tadatmya response, which could not be described in words, always.

    Space (and Time): Besides time, it is interesting to know how Mani Kaul views space in his work and outside. He is preoccupied with the space of Music and its kinetics, as also the organization of space in Indian miniature painting, particularly Akbarnāmā. His essay Seen from Nowhere (presented at the seminar Concepts of Space: Ancient and Modern, New Delhi, 1991) directly relates to his view about the split in perspective between the object and the horizon and, in a possible alternative tradition, between the point (the space of convergence) and its opposite, the void. Mani Kaul also touches upon this aspect in my interview with him, reproduced in this Program Note.

    Excerpts from Seen from Nowhere: Through a geometric appropriation of nature, perspective surfaced between cloisters and bridges, churches and fortresses, canals and hospitals, dams and instruments of warfare that the artists of the late medieval and Renaissance Europe designed and built. Among the masters, Gietto, Ucello, Leonardo, Michaelngelo and Raphael made transparent their ideas, judgments and desires and directed towards an emergent world the entire objective references in what they created. The vivid presence of an intentionally towards space was soon camouflaged by the seemingly natural enjoyment of the isolated object: the apparent distances and sizes into which space broke down concealed the fact that an optical world had been deduced from a conceptual one. In different ways the cubists and Picasso were the first to break into an unrestricted vision of the object. But in moving around the object, to release it from its optical unfreedom, they still dealt with object as situated in space, dealt with a reconstruction of the object from debris of sharply angled perspectives. The radical shift for the western painting from the object to the entire space really germinated in the watercolors of Cezanne and realized itself in the theories and practice of Paul Klee.
    Totally different from the cubists whose multiple perspectives brought them on the verge of destroying the object itself, the ‘perspectiveless’ view of space in the Moghul miniatures recovered a unity amidst the apparent planar distortions. For long we were made to believe the imbalanced optical proportions between corresponding dimensions in the miniatures were defects in the presentation of an objective reality instead of being, as we know today methods of generating an experience of individual spaces. The apparent contradiction triggered off by the juxtaposition of varying planes and proportions within a single-perspective-orientation towards the event finds illuminating parallels in certain philosophical and musical realizations. On a lived level we have the example of Kabir whose non-dual insights into phenomena did not make him abandon the act of weaving cloth every single day. The sense of the real surging into the phenomena like the ocean into tides, waves after wave, made him never shut his eyes or close his ears to the suffering or enjoyment of a world awake. It is this deeply moving synthesis of the immediate and the ultimate that makes a single-perspective-orientation in a miniature release floating visual perspectives, much as the traditions of elaboration in the classical Indian music transform a single-scale-theme into a concert of floating auditory perspectives…

    With reference to Cinema of Prayoga and Mani Kaul’s cinematography, the following excerpts from one of my interviews with him might help provide some insights. Excerpts:

    Amrit: Bresson said, ‘one does not create by adding but by taking away.’ The huge mass of so-called art all over the world has been doing nothing but adding to our familiarities, to our information. My question relates to ‘mystery’ in art.

    Mani: The great master is one of his own kinds. Now, do you think Bresson was visual? That will be a ridiculous statement! The man used one or two lenses all his life. Most shots were static or had minimal movements. The models always stood at a medium distance from the camera. The eye-level was of an average human height – neither low nor high. No sharp angles. There was never a question of zooming in and out. The lighting was evocative of an overall environment and the philosophical context he was elaborating upon but never ever expressing something stridently individual – there is nothing in Bresson that can make us call him a visual artist. His shots were ‘ironed’ out as he himself declared. There were no visual creases that could get our attention for their pictorial detail. When compared to him I would say Tarkovsky was a visual artist – he was like some fresco painter dwelling in cloisters during the Italian Renaissance and reborn in Russia of our times. He made meanings possible through an arsenal of visual vocabulary that was directly inherited from the so-called European Enlightenment. Not Bresson.

    In another way that was true of Ozu too. But that will get us far into a separate discussion. The suggestion of time in Bresson, of what Deleuze described as the realization of the time-image in his work, is of the greatest importance to the history of cinema. It will take time before we can grasp the significance of Bresson’s work. People wrongly imagine that we have left the Bressonian vision behind and gone beyond, that he is old hat by now.

    Amrit: Somehow I can’t forget Satah Se Uthta Aadmi (Arising from the Surface, 1980). I don’t know why but I still associatively remember the scene of the woman’s suicide in the pond and Bresson’s Mouchette, the girl when rolls down the hill, over the dge and into the water; the ripples, and the way water settles. Satah Se Uthta Aadmi is remarkable for its deeply sensuous experience, which of course, is there in all your work.

    Mani: The split between the spiritual and the sensuous is a product of an ill-defined modern-day fear. The whole spiritual-sensuous experience once fragmented allows you to consider the spiritual as some strict religious activity and the sensuous as vulgar pornographic one. In other words the real quest for truth is reduced to a conflict of signs. For instance it is enough to carry certain signs on your body to be included or excluded from a group. Of course the debased fundamentalist perspective must look only at the surface of life for signs of the sacred and the signs of the profane. Great Bhakti and Sufi movements as well all know have attempted to reconcile the two and repeatedly given us ways to define what humanity learns and forgets as ‘love’. Not just in India but elsewhere in the world too there appears to arise waves of conservatism that take dangerous shapes and positions. Art is not about naming feelings; it is, I think, about a desire to express feelings. That ‘desire to express’ (vivaksha) signals, arouses, provokes thoughts and feelings. A film is not about a thought, it is about giving birth to a thousand thoughts. A film cannot age.

    Amrit: If I have understood it correctly, your life and art’s struggle has been to counter the European idea of the Perspective; I mean the mathematical perspective that ‘splits space into object-horizon’. How have you gone through this journey, how do you view it at this juncture of your life?

    Mani: In moments of deep affection my mother would use a certain expression to describe the hopeless state of my being: Baudam Chale, Nau Ghar Hile (When the idiot moves, nine houses shake). For its innocent origin, the group of words was fitting; if I got up to leave the dining table, at least three to four objects shook or fell – the table itself was knocked up and down. My father, on the other hand, drilled the following into my head: Neki Kar, Kuain Mein Dal (Do the right thing, fling it in the well). He was an upright government officer and refused to bow down to the demands of corrupt Indian politicians. Now, as I grew up, my life’s dilemma was simplified when in my mind the two sayings coalesced into one truth, i.e. when I realized that I was an idiot set to do the right thing, fling the reward into the well and care a hang if nine houses shook when I moved. The deadly mixture of an idiot doing the right thing became a driving impulse, a powerful creative need, or as Ritida would describe, ‘a blind urge’ in life and work – it propelled (and propels) just about every existential detail of a journey that continues to fascinates and last. (Ritida – Ritwik Ghatak)

    For a mind so severely in step with chaos, the phenomena of perspective naturally offered small attraction. I mean that point where parallel lines are seen to converge is ultimately a defect in the eye. In the head, I daresay. Things parallel never meet and the right thing to pursue is indeed ananta prayoga, if I may use a phrase of yours. Convergence, where answers and resolutions abound, is a killing field for curiosities, it is an illusion that reduces an infinite universe into a finite domain of rationality, where we feel content to play with cause and effect and imagine an entire future under our control.

    Amrit: I am also curious to know and particularly at this moment, how do you reconcile Robert Bresson and Ritwik Ghatak? The two contrasting worldviews?

    Mani: They both equally cured me of a sickness called ‘realism’.

    (Source: Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913-2006, Eds. Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, a no.w.here publication, London, 2006)

  7. […] about it altogether. Here is a snip from Kaul’s essay – Seen from Nowhere. I found this here.“Totally different from the cubists whose multiple perspectives brought them on the verge of […]

  8. Rina Sen says:

    Excellence itself.
    I’d like to know about Cinema of Prayoga,about which I’m not aware at all.

  9. […] An Interview with Mani Kaul by Tushar. […]

  10. kaul Gattoo says:

    Excellent interview.Will post it to his students.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *