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The Ghosts of Mani Kaul: Close-Up on "Duvidha"

Through bold use of form, Mani Kaul's 1973 classic centers a woman at the intersection of tensions between feudal and modern societies.
Bedatri D.Choudhury
Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Mani Kaul's Duvidha (1973) is now showing in the series A Journey into Indian Cinema.
When Mani Kaul’s debut film Uski Roti (Our Daily Bread, 1969) premiered in the Sunday evening slot, reserved for popular films, on India’s public television channel, Kaul famously said, “They could have had a programme called Shastriya Cinema or something and shown Uski Roti there—like they have Mallikarjun Mansur on Shastriya Sangeet!” The Hindi word shastriya means classical. Kaul’s affinity for the “classical” is obviously an act of distancing from the “popular” but not harking back to any notion of a cinematic legacy. What he chooses to align with, on the contrary, is a legacy of classical arts that is pre-cinematic. It is natural then that his films, including Duvidha (1973), are a collaborative but non-linear mixing of fine art, folk music, literature, and myth.
Duvidha is based on a story by the same name by Rajasthani author Vijaydan Detha. It is a magical realist telling of the story of a newly-wedded bride Lachhi (Raisa Padamsee), who unknowingly attracts the attention and love of a ghost. When her husband Kishanlal (Ravi Menon) deposits her with his parents and leaves for a five-year-long business trip a day after their wedding, the ghost takes on Kishanlal’s shape and enters Lachhi’s household. He confesses his love to her and Lachhi accepts the ghost as her husband till, after five years, she is brought to the dilemma (the meaning of the word duvidha) of choosing between continuing to live a happy lie or go back to living a sad, neglected truth.
1973 was an interesting year for Hindi cinema; the box office rang with success with the release of blockbusters like Raj Kapoor’s Bobby, Prakash Mehra’s Zanjeer, and Nasir Hussain’s Yaadon ki Baarat, while Shyam Benegal’s Ankur brought Parallel Cinema to the Hindi film industry. Kaul’s Duvidha followed his two earlier films, Uski Roti and Ashadh ka Ek Din (1972). While the Bollywood potboilers told fantastical stories studded with stars, Parallel Cinema, as espoused by Benegal and Saeed Mirza, was marked by a stark social realism and a focus on telling “real” stories of men and women suffering though a classist, casteist, and sexist India. Mani Kaul’s films depart from both these camps and disrupt the binaries that divide the Parallel and the mainstream.
Duvidha breaks free of the conventions of time and space and exhibits a style of filmmaking that is austere and absolutely stoic. Within the narrative of a love triangle, no one raises a voice or sheds a tear and everyone speaks in monotonous, stiff sentences. On screen, there are no physical markers that prove the passage of five years. The faces and eyes of the characters remain lifeless and Kaul makes sure the audience never forgets the fact that all they see on-screen are actors who are rattling off rote lines. In doing this, he distances himself from both the ”suspension of disbelief” model of commercial Hindi films and the hyper-realism of Ray, Ghatak, and Sen. It makes sense that Kaul described watching Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959) as one of the most formative experiences of his life. His rejection of cinematic conventions is deeply inspired by Bresson.
Kaul works with cinematographer Navroz Contractor to create a mise en scène that is highly saturated and constantly plays with deep, contrasting color schemes. In recurrent scenes, Lachhi sits wearing a red veil against a stark white wall; her eyes thickly lined with kohl and her forehead smeared with a big red bindi. She looks like a woman who has walked straight out of a painting by the avant-garde Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gil. Akbar Padamsee, another Modernist Indian artist and Raeesa Padamsee’s father, was the financier of Duvidha and his trademark use of rich hues of red, yellow, and orange also find an obvious (though unacknowledged) homage in Kaul’s film. While the saturated palette of Duvidha evokes a passionate ambience, Contractor’s camera focuses on inert people, often zooming in on eyes, hand, and mouth thereby adding to the distracting dismembering of cinematic cognition. While the screen freezes, the colors draw out our vision. Kaul’s use of avant-garde sound and image dissonance resists any kind of recognition from the audience; every image and every sound is a marker for something else that is hidden from the audience view. What we see or hear is never the complete picture that popular cinema or even the New Wave cinema of Benegal or Adoor Gopalakrishnan provide.
The question that arises then, naturally, is who is Mani Kaul’s cinema for? This is of course a question true of most avant-garde filmmakers but especially pertinent to a filmmaker making his films in a country like India. In Brazilian Cinema, Robert Stam says, “in third-worldist film theory issues of production methods, politics, and aesthetics become inextricably mingled. The idea was to turn strategic weakness - the lack of infrastructure, funds, equipments - into tactical strength, turning poverty into a badge of honor, and scarcity, as Ismail Xavier put it, ‘into a national signifier.’ The hope was to give expression to national themes in national style.” The “national style” that Kaul expresses through his films is a classical one: he draws heavily from the classical styles of the Kangra and Basohli miniature paintings, apart from the Modernists mentioned before, and uses a soundtrack of Manganiyar music, which though a folk form is a niche interest beyond its immediate geographical context. Writing on Kaul in Literature and Film, Stam adds “his “image track ‘inherits’ the history of painting and the visual art while the sound track ‘inherits’ the history of music.” One wonders, is Mani Kaul’s cinema ever accessible for the audiences that are not privy to those histories? Is his inaccessibility then the foundation of his idolatry?
There is also an inevitable gender question when a story centers a woman at intersections of tension between the feudal and the modern society. If the ghost is seen to be a metaphor for modernity and Lachhi’s husband and in-laws the stand-in for the old world feudal order, then Lachhi’s body plays out as the battlefield for this tension. The agency that she has in allowing the ghost to cohabit with her is taken away without her permission while she wrestles with an almost-fatal labor. “Mani cornered me and said, ‘You are going to act in my film,’ and I was so overpowered that I said yes,” Raisa Padamsee recalls in an interview. “This was a world of assertive men grappling with ideas and stylistic approaches, and the women surrounding them usually said little and admired from afar,” she adds. There is always a discomfort surrounding how female actors get treated within the world of genius male filmmakers. One remembers Dorothy Dandridge’s accounts of being “treated like a dog” by Otto Preminger and Anna Karina saying “I was always treated worse than the rest of the guys in the cast” on the sets of Pierrot le fou. Padamsee reveals that Kaul’s brief to her before starting Duvidha was “You are the branch and I am the wind. When I blow, you move.” Kaul, interestingly, often considered Padamsee to be his best female actor. “That’s because I had been so submissive. I was very young, and Mani told me, ‘You are beautiful, but I am going to crush your beauty.’ It isn’t something you say to an adolescent,” says the actor who now lives in Paris.
Duvidha is a beautiful film that resists an understanding of what it really means. This is obviously not a problem but given its post-modern approach towards narrativizing a story which is not post-modernist, the film’s viewing begs the question: who is allowed to draw a meaning from it and over whose silence?

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