Improvisations on a Scale: The Cinema of Mani Kaul

The films of Indian director Mani Kaul disrupted the debate between cinema as dream-fantasy and cinema as social realism.
Sen Arindam

Courtisane Festival in Gent, Belgium (March 28 - April 4) in collaboration with the Essay Film Festival in London, UK (March 21 - 29) has brought together a selection of Mani Kaul films for a program titled Soft Notes on a "Sharp Scale: The Rambling Figures of Mani Kaul."

Two events, seemingly unassuming and unrelated, that happened in the mid 60s were instrumental in shaping the cinematic landscape of India. J.S. Bhownagary was appointed Deputy Chief Producer for a second stint at Films Division in 1965, and Ritwik Ghatak moved to Pune to teach at the Film and Television institute of India (FTII) in 1966.  The first resulted in experimental documentaries being made by the likes of S.N.S. Sastry, S. Sukhdev, Pramod Pati, M.F.Hussain and the second was the harbinger of what is commonly referred to as the New Indian Cinema, with Ghatak during his tenure at FTII acting as an influential figure for the likes of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and John Abraham. Leading to this point, the discourse around cinema in India was balanced on a fragile opposition, the dream-fantasies of the commercial-popular against the social realism of the state apparatus, conjoined with subscribers to the idea of cinema’s eventual ambition of reproducing virgin reality.

 The films of Mani Kaul disturbed this equilibrium and presented themselves as disruptive fissures in this cinematic landscape. His films shunned away all popular tropes and served in their therapeutic capacity against the parlance of realism, a dominant discourse that breathed uneasily in the confinement of a peculiar appropriation by the young nation state as a de facto stylistic alternative to the melodramatic, spectacular, externalised theatrical excesses of the national popular cinema, anchored by, but not limited to the Bombay industry. This state thesis of realism, which is more akin to be called naturalism for its fixation on resurrecting the illusion of social reality, was reflexively resistant towards any subjective reworking of space and time in relation to sound and image. It simply sought to flatten out the realms of the fantastic and magical to facilitate a seamless identification on the part of the huddled masses, demanding an empiricism that resists complicating the order of representation. Mani Kaul, along with his peer Kumar Shahani, revolted against this modus operandi, radically rejecting both the primacy and the manifestation of this trajectory.


Kaul’s rejection of the realist-representation finds curious overlap with the the post-'68 situation and the ensuing transition of narrative cinema. According to him, the transformation of a social object into a cinematic one is facilitated by a certain mode of spatio-temporal intervention that rejects the possibility of a degree zero transition from the social to the cinematic (where the job of the filmmaker is limited to recording reality), this he refers to as the process of de-naturing.  Though not using the same nomenclature, Kaul in essence  theorises on the fundamentals of representation (the transition of a social object into a cinematic one). Like the Cahiers du cinéma group emerging out of the political landscape of 1968, Kaul from his own ideologically agnostic standpoint speaks of alienating cinematic space-time from socio-political space-time. The cinematic space-time thus emerges from the subjectivity of the artist, his own way of seeing or extending himself into the camera. Hence for him, dominant narrative modes are a way of asserting socio-political space time of a given object as cinematic.1

It might seem that Kaul’s argument did not have the ideological edge to interpret what he refers to as socio-political space-time, or the perception of it, as the enforcement of dominant power structures. An integral aspect of Cahiers du cinéma’s postulates and the cinema of Godard around 1968 was to deconstruct the order of representation. For them, a representation that sought to reproduce the world as it is resulted in a colaborationist aesthetic already compromised to the service of the ruling class by validating its repressive structures. Kaul's ideas did not have such a political urgency but as later discussed, he takes to a historical understanding of these relations, one where countering the prefiguration of perspective takes precedence and where ensuing ideological paradigms are displaced. In what marks a significant divergence between Kaul and Shahani, Kaul sees ideology as a quasi-static knowledge system evolving over time. In Towards a Cinematic Object, he wrote:

No ideology in itself is absolute but it definitely knows change only slowly and painfully. These systems of knowledge qualify themselves into being disciplines for cinematic use only when they treat reality totally (thereby providing a totalizing mechanics in practice).

The overlap with the post-'68 moment lies in the deep distrust towards dominant modes of convergent spatial organization within a frame and temporality that is subservient to linear narrative progression in relationship to sound and image.  Annette Michelson writing about Godard said2:

Godard’s increasingly violent attack on cinema is not, as in the case of Americans wholly focused on the constitution of a filmic ontology; rather, its deconstruction of the codes  of sound-image relationships is aimed at the creation of a foundation for another, oppositional cinema, a militant cinema destructive of bourgeois ideology”.

The same can be said about Kaul, minus the persuasive ideological thrust, embodied by his unmitigated devotion towards deconstruction of dominant sound-image relations to create a different cinema which he referred to as Shastriya. The complex meaning of the term Shastriya in relationship to Kaul’s cinema is taken up in a subsequent section of this essay where his association with traditions of pre-cinematic art forms is explored. It needs to be stated here, though, that the Cahiers group’s relationship to ‘realism,’ their very understanding of the term is less particular than that of Kaul who primarily limits the project of realism to naturalism. There is also another significant link with the ‘68 moment that  ushered the imagination of a cinema free from the shackles of traditional production-distribution system. Drawing upon Ghatak, who spent five years among the people of the Oraon tribe while working on two documentaries commissioned by the Bihar Government (Adiwasiyon ki jeevan srot/The Life of the Adivasis [1955] and Bihar ke darshaniya sthan/Places of Historic Interest in Bihar [1955]) before he completed his second feature Ajantrik (The Pathetic Fallacy, 1958), Kaul wrote in 19773:

.. Filmmakers should then be encouraged to fan out to all parts of the country with specific projects; to live in areas for months; to work and live with the people there in the process of making a film. The films would then be supplied to the various organizations exhibiting 16mm films. Thus, the filmmaker and the audience rather than living in their own airtight compartments, would be able to discover an actual working relationship.

Though Kaul along with Shahani relied mostly on more traditional forms of financing for sustaining their project of Shastriya cinema, he came closest to realizing this vision of a collective actualization of a film in Mati Manas (The Mind of Clay, 1984).

Michelson’s observation on Godard and the distinction she makes from the exponents of New American cinema also lays the important groundwork to estimate the problems involved in confining the dialectical possibility of ‘anti-representation’ within the deconstructionist paradigms of Kaul’s cinema. Michelson is able to rid us of the often assumed false division into two avant-gardes, namely the political and the formal. If at all there were to exist two separate avant-gardes, like in the case of Godard and proponents of New American cinema, the distinguishing factor would have to hinge on their fundamental approach to sound and image. Kaul's filmmaking slants towards Godard's approach. Important monographs such as those devoted to Straub-Huillet4 or Fassbinder5 among others, underline this specific approach by engaging with the complex dislocations of representational indexicality within a similar deconstructionist vein. However, theoretical impetus gained from Structural-Materialist film theories like those articulated by Gidal6 (the only valid representation is the representation of the cinematic apparatus; the means of production) expands the dialectical horizon of this oppositional stance thus necessitating a prior qualification of the representational relationship between a filmmaker and his world.


Film society activist and a close friend of Kaul, Amrit Gangar once recalled a conversation in which Kaul said, both Ghatak and Bresson helped him cure the sickness called realism. These twin figures of acknowledged (cinematic) influence for Kaul present a certain degree of intrigue because of almost contrasting ways in which they approached cinema. The influence of Bresson on Kaul is more obvious, one that is linked to an austere approach to making films, flattening out of the crest and trough that are characteristic to the expressive idioms of the dramatic form, frequent use of non-professional actors, a shift from narrative events to the autonomy of gestures, fragmented actions that exhume chaste and devotional religiosity and a restoration of faith in the rhythm, tone and sensation of sound before its teleological determination. Kaul borrows from Bresson in terms of cinema’s constitutive elements that which Giorgio Agamben refers to as mediality, and gesturality as its purest form of exhibition.7

The extension of a hand to catch a falling fruit, a woman resting a hand on the shoulder of her husband, the formal elegance in ascending the stairs, the potter’s hand at work, hand bracing the wheel of a sewing machine, the utterance of someone’s name—each acting neither as a means of communication nor as symbolic articulation suggestive of a transcendental invocation, but are medial states, concrete and self-fulfilled, the state of being-in language becoming language itself.


First image: Uski Roti/Our Daily Bread (1970). Second image: Duvidha/Two Minds (1973). Third image: Mati Manas. Fourth image: Siddeshwari (1989).

The influence of Ghatak is more elusive. Kaul was a student of Ghatak during his years at the film school in Pune. For Kaul, Ghatak via his epic form presents the opportunity to challenge a fundamental tenet of the narrative-dramatic, a convergence towards a conclusion for the narrative, that he identifies as a derivative of European perspective art emerging from the period of Renaissance. Kaul in the future minutely explored other art forms such as the Mughal miniature paintings and structures of Indian classical music to further confront the ideological dominance of perspectival illusion of convergence. While Bresson is known for his rigid fondness of the 50 mm lens, Kaul like his mentor Ghatak was more given to experimentation with lenses, assigning them a key role in exploring the margins of realism. Ghatak often favored the wide angle lens as a means to explode the expressive potential of a particular shot, by creating sharp contrasts in his way of meeting the characters in front of the lens . Ghatak, from around the time he was teaching at the film school, expresses in some detail8 the deployment of various grades of lenses, their distortive effects and mobilizing these distortions as  formally expressive means for dramatic/historical/emotional emphasis in relation to his own filmmaking practice. Ghatak’s filmmaking was not so dedicatedly combative towards the Renaissance aesthetic; he closely studied painters such as Sandro Botticelli and Michelangelo Buanorotti. In Uski Roti Kaul contrasts the use of 28 mm wide angle lens for portraying the protagonist Balo’s surroundings with an extreme telephoto 135 mm lens to shoot the dream sequences, without actually having a specific  association of lenses with the perceived duality of dream/real conveyed through the images. He writes9:

...confining the film to two lenses (28 mm and 135 mm) and making them represent the actual and the mental life of the waiting wife in the beginning of the film—I mean, the wide angle provided a universal focus or the extra actuality of the cinematographic image and the long focus a critical range of sharpness or a certain dream quality. Having faithfully established this as a norm, the lenses were gradually freed of the strict representation—they were crossing each other in the middle of the film where the distinctions were blurred—until in the end the representation was reversed, with the result that the actual return of the husband almost appears as a hallucination (without my resorting to any gimmicks or theatrical devices). This slight edge of disbelief in the reality of an actual return of her husband gives rise to an ambiguity, almost necessary for a scene to redeem itself of the physical covering and reveal the conceptual meaning.” 

The temporal dimension of Kaul’s films vary radically from both Ghatak and Bresson and is informed by the notion of Shruti, a metric for tuning, borrowed from Indian classical music that explains the prominence of temps mort in his films. While not coming from a thespian background like Ghatak and being in tune with Bresson on the subject of decisively extricating cinema from photographed theater, Kaul like Ghatak nonetheless was interested in the diverse confluence of various narrative forms and visual allegories in his adaptation of Ghashiram Kotwal as part of a collective. Kaul’s indulgence in the Dostoevsky adaptation Nazar is piqued by the novel’s thematic flux, mimicking the labyrinth of life, intertwined, elliptic, convoluted passages that tease without fulfilling the promise of redemption, and is sustained by Bresson’s adaptation of the same text, a film Kaul particularly liked.

Kaul continues to grasp and deflect these arches of influence to arrive at his own subjectivity. He does not believe that imitation is feasible, with regard to Bresson he writes10:

The natural incapacity to imitate someone else perfectly leads to a realization of your own inner and original strivings.


Kaul’s response to the question of representation and its aesthetic and political prominence is keyed to a sense of historicity. What might seem as a lack of an ideological edge is suitably substituted by a close study of Renaissance aesthetics, in particular, the sense of reality imported to two dimensional paintings by adding depth and by converging towards a vanishing point. This he identifies as the guiding force behind Western epistemological traditions in art. Kaul distances his style, the transitional space in-between the social and the cinematic object, from the political urgency called upon by the immediate social environment. Kaul’s exploration of various art forms had this one underlying quality, his sustained preoccupation to challenge the dominance of a single perspective of an object. The linearity of the narrative plot in cinema according to Kaul comes from this way of seeing. Hence in Ghatak’s epic form Kaul sees the unhinging of a linear narrative progression, fragmentation of the central narrative schema, or even the diffusion of a dominant theme. Speaking on Titas Ekti Nadir naam for a Channel 4 broadcast in 2006, Kaul said:

In the case of Titas, it includes shots of boats, the rain, nature, the archetypes of mother, the form of Mother is Bhagvati, even the main character is referred to as Bhagvati by the fishermen when they bring her back to her husband’s village. When the dramatic form is not just unfolding but also spreading out, the form obviously becomes more difficult to follow.



Kaul’s interest in pre-cinematic art forms also rests on how perspective is multiplied on their respective spatial and temporal planes. In Uski Roti, Kaul framed the women in a way that distinctly recall paintings of young women in pre-partition Punjab by Amrita Sher-Gil.  Another prominent painter and someone curiously placed in the history of Indian small-gauge collective filmmaking, Akbar Padamsee collaborated and assisted Kaul while working on two projects, namely Duvidha and Forms and Design (1968), the former based on the folkloric writings of Vijaydan Detha and the later commissioned by the Films Division. Duvidha in particular helped Kaul sustain his emergent interest in non-urban polyvalent artistic practices after his initial tryst with the urban-modernist writings of Mohan Rakesh, the most prominent name associated with the ‘Nayi Kahani’ (New literature) movement.  In Satah se Uthata Aadmi (Arising from the surface, 1980), a film that contains multifarious visual, temporal and narrative styles, Kaul takes up the elliptical poetry of Marxist poet Gajanan Madhav Muktibodh. This film showcases Kaul’s lingering interest in confronting the two dynamic aspects of  cinema, fiction and documentary, an interest that shaped Kaul’s liking towards Roberto Rossellini’s landmark film during his sojourn in the country, India: Matri Bhumi (1959). He unburdens the impetus of the film from being about a figure of interest, where the film shadows the figure, limiting the attention it draws on itself. Kaul’s approach is to affront the text and biographic elements of the life of Muktibodh with an adequate cinematic form that is laced with narration, conversation, contemplation, reading of poetry, the written text as a self-sustaining narrative device and musical compositions by Ustad Zia Fariduddin Dagar, all the while allowing for suitable interplay between the text and the image, deploying landscape as a means to delineate or fragment any semblance of linear progression. In Siddeshwari, another loose artist-profile film on the Hindustani Thumri singer from Varanasi, Siddheshwari Devi, Kaul soaks the film’s body in intersecting timelines and texts using  theatrical and musical devices along with  the transmuting quality of light on the banks of the river Ganges (a quality noted by Stan Brakhage while viewing Forest of Bliss (1986) with Robert Gardner).  The saturated color schema as often with Kaul stems from a sustained interest in pre-Mughal and Mughal schools of miniature paintings, he also uses archive footage to explore the liminality of both documentary and fiction film each extending well into the other to the point of indistinguishability. In many ways, the culmination of Kaul’s experiments with modalities to subvert the perspectival dominance happens in Naukar ki Kameez (The Servant’s shirt, 1999), a film based on a novel by Vinod Kumar Shukla, Kaul instructed his cameraman to set up shots without looking through the camera  pinhole to arrest the appropriation of the space framed, to resist the segmentation of space into Renaissance categories of sacred and profane.

This brings  up the question of Shastriya cinema, Kaul once half jokingly remarked that Uski Roti should have a special slot on television like those assigned to classical music. The evening slot where the film was shown was usually reserved for potboilers. On the one hand, the term Shastriya for Kaul, commonly translated to classical, has more of a structural/grammatical connotation than a temporal one. On the other hand, Kaul identifies the differentiating element between the composition of Dhrupad and cinematographic art with regard to the use of the term. Improvisations on any scale still functions within the imposition of a specific set of notes acting as structures, cinema does not need to abide by any predetermined structure as such. In the temporal realm, Kaul is not so much interested in carrying forward any form of cinematic legacy, in fact he deems it impossible, but his interest lies in an active engagement with classical pre-cinematic art forms, to study them closely on coordinates of representation, spatial politics, movement, rhythms and gestural dynamics. The scale of this polymorphic concern can be estimated as much from his body of work as from an essay he wrote in 1991 titled Seen From Nowhere11

Kaul's cinema was, like most modern artists at the turn of the 20th century, oppositional to the order of perspective. Though variant in their literal , historical and teleological interpretation, Kaul’s articulation finds resonance in some of the practices by Stan Brakhage. Writing about Brakhage, R. Bruce Elder observes12:

Brakhage’s hostility towards Renaissance perspective is not motivated simply by his belief that this form of visual representation is not natural to the eye or it represents visual thinking that has been influenced by society, as it is generally thought to be (and as Brakhage himself proposes in the opening section of Metaphors on Vision. Rather, I believe, his anti-perspectival rhetoric is also fuelled by his belief that images that employ Renaissance perspective depend on rectilinearity and imposed a geometric grid fixed upon the world”.

While Brakhage confronted the Renaissance mode of spatial organization by directly expressing into the camera the infinite visions of an unrestrained eye,  Kaul re-worked the framed space by often allowing architectural constructions to intervene the symmetric rectilinearity of the perceived space. This he achieved by framing bodies and landscapes through various architectural passages like doors and windows.

First image: Duvidha. Second image: Ghashiram Kotwal. Third image: Dhrupad. Fourth image: Mati Manas.


Kaul identified himself as a painter and a musician. Trained under the tutelage of Ustad Zia Mohiuddin Dagar and Ustad Fariduddin Dagar for a period of ten years in Dhrupad, a north Indian classical music form with its roots set in the 13th century, the interference of music in his life was lasting. During the last years of his life, Kaul continued to teach music in Rotterdam. While Kaul’s references to filmic narrative structures and the analogies they share with Dhrupad can sometimes seem well exaggerated, what nonetheless remains fascinating is the interplay between improvisation and grammatically imposed structures in both music and films, less deterministic in case of the later. For Kaul, the improvisations that extend the compositions beyond their formulaic construction is what presents them with a distinguishing characteristic. In a very Bressonian way what is achieved in Dhrupad via the tonal variations in Raag (a framework for composition identified with the Indian Classical music) is achieved in film through persistence with repetition of the ritualistic mode of filmmaking until an accident occurs thus injecting a signature into a repeated formula. The uniqueness of a performed Raag thus corresponds to a non-improvised realization of a figure. He wrote13:

Like the two sides of a coin, Dhrupad is made up of tone and silence. It might seem strange to suggest that one should go to a musical concert to listen to silence. But that is the truth of a Dhrupad experience; its fullness will be appreciated only if one begins to relate to both tone and silence, particularly to a kind of pervasive and a whole silence that stands above the tonal expression. A togetherness of tone and silence carries the listener to the figure of the being of a raag. This idea of figure is crucial to my films, and in order to adapt it to cinema I have for a long time unsuccessfully fought the requirement of writing scripts for film productions. I have had trouble raising money for films because if you don't have a script, you simply don't get the money. I wrote scripts and went against them as the film found its own shape. The method of working towards a figure is different from that of working towards a construction.




It is worthwhile to lend our attention to some of the shorts Kaul made during his career, namely Forms and Design (1968), The Nomad Puppeteer (1974) and Chitrakathi (1977). Arrival (1980) presents itself as some sort of dialectical mirror to these films. In these films leading up to Arrival, Kaul diligently explores localized, popular but vanishing ethno-musical, ethno-theatrical and ethno-epic traditions, the narrative polymorphism imbibed in them. There is a dystopian sense that aligns itself with urban migration, a nightmare which amplifies and resonates through the skin in Arrival. Like The Storyteller for Walter Benjamin, the cottage industry weaver, the puppeteer of Rajasthan, and the semi-nomadic fishermen community for Kaul are not mere vestiges of the pre-modern. Kaul understands that the modern human condition risks the diffusion or even complete obliteration of the variegated narrative structures in their cultural fold. These shorts form the spinal column for two of his most complex films in the 1980s, Desert of a Thousand lines (1981) and Mati Manas.

The cinema of Mani Kaul in India has been historically met with cold skepticism, the films were always shy from being a fertile ground for postmodernist signification, their ambitious deconstructivist impulse with regard to dominant sound-image relationships in films resisted an easy alignment with Parallel cinema; at best, they were a labored exercise that demanded intense attention, and at worst they were inert formal exercises. This general attitude towards his films recalls the reception of the films of Straub-Huillet. It is not only the analogous interests in Mughal miniatures and Cezanne’s paintings, in Dhrupad and Bach’s compositions and performances, in the nature of historical landscapes of Kashmir and Venice that one finds loquacious possibilities within their individual body of work, it is also reflected in the encompassing desire to invent the liberated spectator. They both share a resolute quest for a redemptive historical view and struggle for an appropriate cinematic form to realize this view.


1. Towards a Cinematic Object, Mani Kaul, 1983.

2. The art of moving shadows, Annette Michelson, 1989.

3. Part of the Symposium on THE CINEMA SITUATION, Mani Kaul, 1977.

4. Landscapes of Resistance, Barton Byg, 1995.

5. Fassbinder's Germany: History, Identity, Subject, Thomas Elsaesser, 1996.

6. Structural Film Anthology, Peter Gidal, 1976.

7. Giorgio Agamben, Notes on Gesture in Infancy and History: Essays on the Destruction of Experience, translation Liz Heron, Verso Books, 1993.

8. The Eye: Movement in Film, Ritwik Ghatak, 1969.

9. Explorations in New Film Techniques, Indian Film Culture 8, Journal of the Federation of Film Societies of India 8, Mani Kaul, (Autumn 1974).

10. Filmmakers on Bresson, Robert Bresson, edited by James Quandt, 1st edition, 1998.

11.  Seen from Nowhere, Mani Kaul, 1991.

12. The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson, R.Bruce Elder, 1999.

13. Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures, 1998-2001, Mani Kaul: The Rambling Figure, Institut Français, 1999.

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