Mani Kaul on DVD

 | DVD Review |

  BY Devdutt Trivedi

I have been a keen follower of Mr. Mani Kaul’s films since 2005 when I chanced upon a screening of Uski Roti (1970) through the services of GRAFTII, an organization consisting of graduates from the Film and Television Institute of India. The sparseness of the dialogue, the rarefaction of the image, and the carefully constructed tempo of the film particularly struck me. I had not seen Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) or Au Hasard Balthazar (1966) for that matter, which I now consider to be two significant films that shaped Kaul’s approach to the cinematograph.

Mr. Kaul’s films are about intentionality, the relationship between a state of mind and a state of affairs in the outside world. In this way there seems to be a link between the world inside and the world outside, where the world inside is emphasized earliest by Méliès’ magic tricks and outside by the Lumière Brothers’ actualities. Uski Roti marks that point where the formalization of the film medium through distortions in the lens, jaggedness in the cutting and careful selection of sounds that produce a notion of movement. I stress movement over Mani Kaul’s own preference for duration, since the duration consists of juxtaposed volumes of movements. Movement must be handled first and then duration.

The three DVD boxset consists of his mammoth debut Uski Roti; his artwork comprising of folk based strokes Duvidha (1975) and the failed experiment Nazar (1991). Mani Kaul emphasizes intentionality but attempts to construct an image without any intentionality. His relationships with thought occur through opening up movement to time. However the objective is to construct a shot without intentionality, an empty shot where construction is withdrawn. Intentionality (kuch-nahi-hai), the thought is thoughtless.

The problem in this construct is that the theoretical possibilities of constructing praxis (i.e. practice taking theoretical considerations into account) stay within the realm of theory. It does not integrate a spatio-temporal discourse on movement within the image and could be considered anti-cinematographic. Kaul’s films, then, are about an internal state that has virtually nothing to do with cinema.

Duvidha takes this discourse on individual action and applies it to the group. The ghost is the archetype of myth that pervades the consciousness of the group. The intentionality is withdrawn from the auteur and enters the subconscious of the group projected on the screen, and the intentionality of the audience that can will a shot. The new element in the group changes the relationship between hierarchical figures of tradition and the equanimous figures of modernity. The modern construct becomes an amorphous mass that is best defined by the Deleuzean term utterable [1]. An utterance which is formed on a higher degree of matter.

This higher degree of matter is empty. It is a volume like a container chiseled out by Mr. Kaul with the greatest precision. The volume is empty. The emptiness exists as a degree. Since the emptiness is immaterial it can only form a sensorial relay of presence of degree, or absence (as in a vacuum). The sensorial collapse through delayed editing and repeated footage links the vacuum to the degree of emptiness that forms the Deleuzean utterable.

The space within the frame is linked to the space outside the frame through sets and parts, which appropriate a number of objects within the finite frame to infinite objects outside it. The infinite objects outside the frame are referred to on the soundtrack or made present by the actor. The intentionality is withdrawn to allow the sets and the parts, both, absent and present, real and imaginary, to open out to duration. This is what Kaul attempts through Deleuze’s notion of deframing [2] where the sets or parts open out to a totality of duration that is empty. It’s something-ness exists in the degree of its nothingness.

Shekhar Kapur inaugurates Nazar by stating the facts. His words are utterables but the image is an utterance. The image at one point is repeated so as to make the collective assemblage of enunciation into a double articulation. This is precisely the notion of chhand [3] where the duration of the part and the whole is folded onto the plane of interval between two shots, between two durations. This notion of chhand binds the editing of Uski Roti or does it really? Kaul’s attempts are flawed, the empty volume finds its materiality in a container (the pots in Maati Manas) or as in Nazar, the use of language which frees the emptiness through the utterance/utterable.

Not looking through the viewfinder is Kaul’s attempt to construct a time-image. The conditions of possibility of a time-image are not looking through the viewfinder. In this way a liquid perception is triggered off where the solid elements dissolve into the whole of time. Deleuze takes the example of sugar dissolving in water which form a system and create a new system with the addition of the spoon that increases the speed of the dissolution. The bhoot is the new addition to the system that changes the speed and materiality of the liquid perception. Instead of triggering intentionality with the auteur theory, Kaul reduces intentionality to its lowest point to emphasize a nothingness in its becoming.

Mr. Kaul has read Dhwanyaloka [4] which emphasizes language as being used beyond its significative, metaphorical and denotational dimension where the utterance occurs after it offers a mass of signification through the utterable.  In this way Kaul moves beyond the denoted space to link the volume of time that appears as being either concentrated or rarified.

Speaking of the DVD itself, NFDC have over restored the sound and made it quite immaterial. The images look ravishing and one hopes that these become the landmark releases of the Kaul films. I was a bit disappointed by the image quality of Duvidha as I had access to the release by Film Four which I consider to be much more superior.


1. Cinema 2: The Time Image. Gilles Deleuze. Continuum International Publishing Group (March 2005). : “Semiotics, by contrast, is the discipline which considers language only in relation to a specific content, images and signs. Of course, when language takes over the content or the utterable it makes from them properly linguistic utterances which are no longer expressed in images and signs. But even the utterances are in turn reinvested in images and signs, and provide the utterable afresh. [Page 250-251]

2. Cinema, Volume 1. Gilles Deleuze. Continuum International Publishing Group (March 2005). : Bonitzer has constructed the interesting concept of 'deframing' [décadrage] in order to designate these abnormal points of view which are not the same as an oblique perspective or a paradoxical angle, and refer to another dimension of the image. We find examples of this in Dreyer's cutting frames; faces cut by the edge of the screen in The Passion of Joan of Arc. But, we see it even more in empty spaces like those of Ozu, which frame a dead zone, or in disconnected spaces as in Bresson, whose parts are not connected and are beyond all narrative or more generally pragmatic justification, perhaps tending to confirm that the visual image has a legible function beyond its visible function. [Page 16-17]

3. Chhand refers to a quatrain of distinct rhythm, widely used in ceremonial and religious rituals; its distinctive meter adapted into the Nautanki drama.

4. Dhwanyaloka is an ancient treatise on aesthetics, written by Anandavardhana.