Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Mani Kaul's Our Daily Bread (1970) is now showing in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.
The Indian auteur Mani Kaul spoke of the Dutch painter Vincent Van Gogh in some of his interviews, but his favorite artist was Paul Cézanne. Kaul admired the father of modernist painting for his ability to build one image upon another, a quality that Kaul called “constructivist.” Though sounding awfully formal, constructivism is, in a way, precisely what Kaul does so beautifully in his films. His debut feature, Our Daily Bread (Uski Roti, 1969) is a prime example. Narratively paired down, following the strict injunction of Robert Bresson (another artist Kaul admired deeply) that actors ought not act, Our Daily Bread nevertheless tells some story in a conventional sense. Yet its deceivingly simple frames are so varied and surprising that it feels like there’s a whole other picture inside it—hidden, in plain sight. That other movie wants us to consider objects, planes, and landscapes as autonomous characters, to tell a story only with volumes and lines.
Story-wise, a young married woman, Balo (Garima) brings the bread that she bakes daily to a village bus stop, so that her gruff and exigent husband, Sucha (Gurdeep Singh), who’s a bus driver, may not go hungry. Such is the wife’s noble intent, but that single act—a meek handing over of a freshly baked loaf—stands in for an entire string of complex relationships and facts. Balo’s younger sister (Richa Vyas) and even strangers know that Sucha never goes hungry, nor does he spend the six days he’s away working. Instead, Sucha has a mistress in town. It’s left to Balo to wait for him in vain; the best she can hope for are brief exchanges, rarely warm, when he comes home. But Balo must also work up her nerve, and break her constant worry that Sucha might stop coming home, to give him troubling news: an elderly villager, Janu, is sexually harassing her young sister, who lives with them. It is then up to Sucha to judge this delicate situation. So Balo’s demureness in the scene when she finally hands over the bread is both a reflection of how poorly she’s been treated by her husband—how collateral, dispensable she feels, despite, as her young sister points out, pulling in more than her share of expenses—and a tactic to get him to listen.
But what's really striking is the sequence that follows this forbidding marital exchange. Balo walks alone from the bus station, after her hubby huffed grotesquely, uttered an imperial, “[I will] come on Tuesday,” and drove off in his ramshackle bus, disappearing into a puff of dust and smoke. She stops by a tree and deliberately rests her hand on its coarse trunk. That moment is entirely hers—the stillness, her inwardness, the camera’s deliberate slowing down and pausing on the trunk’s textures. Nothing here invites us in, in a literal sense of denouement or characterization. But then Balo slowly turns, and sees. What does she see? Off camera, perhaps the same man, a mendicant, who before once handed a fallen fruit to her sister. Does she recognize something in his gaze? Is it desire, inquietude, or shame? Balo then walks through a field, and in the dry patch, some thorny twigs get stuck to her clog, so she bends to remove them. But then an eerie sound reaches us, again originating off camera. It is a laugh, perhaps; it sounds vaguely derisive. It could be birds’ low chirping, if it were not for a momentary snippet that does sound awfully like a male voice, accompanied by a shepherd’s bell. Nothing’s foreclosed; nothing’s certain. And yet a mood has been established, a mystery of a world that’s Balo's alone, and that beguiles us, but then denies us final entry, complete comprehension.
It’s impossible not to admire Kaul’s handing over such pristine visual autonomy precisely to the subjects who have it least, narratively speaking. It says a lot about what a complicated, never clear art cinema can be, in the hands of a deliberate, theoretically inclined director, but whose natural gift is nevertheless for the aching, mysterious beauty of the material world.
At the same time, there’s no denying that this world has an aura of dread. An offering of a fallen fruit can be innocent, but the Bible sure warns us otherwise. And since Kaul’s is very much a women’s film—his radical closeness, the camera’s identification, has made it so—the sense that it is a horror, in the worst, most violent sense, also intensifies in this seemingly calm sequence of a woman walking alone. Black birds ominously flock the skies above, as if cut out of a Hitchcock frame.
This sense of dread grows with each incremental plot point: the old Janu’s crepuscular return to Balo’s house, when her sister’s alone (a terrifying shot of his and the girl’s image, reflected in the mirror, their backs turned to each other, but the plane flattened, like in a Cézanne painting, the protective distance between the two collapsed); the drowning of a woman in the village who, we’re told, couldn’t tolerate being a widow, though her loneliness was just as terrible when married. Then the certainty, the minute carefully groomed Sucha returns, that the horror, the direct threat, with which the entire film is so potently impregnated but whose direction we haven’t foreseen, is in fact entirely wedded to his promiscuous figure.
It takes some time to realize just how cruelly Kaul has recut his world in the constructivist vein. Mainly that Balo isn’t returning to the bus stop multiple times, but that she is always there. We’re seeing her single wait in pieces—a perfect figure of stasis, of paralysis, while her sister’s tragic fate unravels on that fated day. The tragedy of such fractured time is then also ours. We don’t see the truth quickly enough, can’t prepare for its blunt edge. This gives Kaul’s tale a terrible aura of inevitability, like seeing a death mask in a horror film. Perhaps that’s befitting, since Kaul was taken with death’s importance in Bresson’s Une femme douce (1969).
The force of objects also returns in the scene when Balo guesses what’s happened to her sister, but not who did it. “Where is my pleated braid?” the girl asks. “It’s gone.” It’s only then that the earlier scene, of Sucha slickly braiding his hair before a squalid hotel mirror finds its match. Such posterior piecing together, readjusting angles to finally glimpse the whole is also the mark of modern, “constructivist” painting.
In his interview, originally for Indian Super Bazaar (January, 1982), reprinted in a booklet by the Courtisane Film Festival, Kaul spoke of how important sensuousness was to his movies. He observed, “Anything that is trying to alter it,” such as logic, or sense, “is trying to alter something very deep. (…) There is a lot of dead material sticking in this sensuousness within us.” That dead material, terrifying, unspeakable, feudal, and permissible only on account of diminished imagination and deadened empathy for the other, for women, is the very subject of Our Daily Bread. In the end, as Balo sees Sucha off without having really spoken to him, or he revealing his deed, she lingers in the dark at the bus stop. The repeated take of her veiled face is a piercing twist on the traditional shot-counter-shot. Balo looks out and sees herself. Or else she’s staring into the abyss—a lonely figure whose double is death.