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[I joined FTII in 1968 and within a year of joining came across the best and the worst of Indian filmmaking: Satyajit Ray and Mani Kaul. Two years later Kumar Shahani upstaged Mani with his Maya Darpan and took his place. No filmmaker has since come along to overshoot the scale on either side. These three have consistently remained head and shoulders above the rest. Tragic.

For me this article has been one of the easiest to write and the most difficult to ‘release’. For here I was dealing with friends from the alma mater. Co-religionists, so to speak. Even Godard had written that critiquing fellow filmmakers of the nouvelle vague, they highlighted what they liked and overlooked what they didn’t. Was I backstabbing the Cause?

The article was eventually distributed as Mani & Kumar Wave—tees saal baad? in the FTII-NFAI Film Appreciation Course of May–June 2001. Before that it had been in select circulation for years.]

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Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti had its first showing in the Institute sometime towards the end of 1969.

The film had made news all along its making. We had heard vivid accounts of how John Abraham, fresh from the Institute and assisting Mani, had come drunk right on the first day of shooting, and how Mani had firmly dismissed him from that Punjab location, only to join him at the end of the day with a bottle, saying, “Now we’ll all drink, John!”

Similarly, all through post shooting, everybody coming from Mumbai came high on how the film was shaping. “It’s a trip!” was the common expression they all itched to use sooner or later, unmindful of—or even perhaps intending—those other hippie-marijuana associations of the times with what the film did to you. “Imagine if the silent version is this, what’ll happen when Mani adds sound to it!”

I would tend to be cautious. “Well, frankly, anything could happen since these things are not necessarily additive—”, and already I could see waning interest on the faces of otherwise warm and well-meaning friends.

Even though not an ex-student, and nor yet a celebrity, Mrinal Sen was no stranger to us. Being a frequent visitor to the campus, we had known him from carrying his arm on our shoulders much before his Bhuvan Shome—round glasses, crisp white kurta and mischievous looks the same as now. But Mani, as also Kumar Shahani soon after, ‘happened’ to us sharp and sudden by comparison.

“Oh, he is quite a cheez,” enthused Vinay Shukla, a batchmate who had known Mani from Jaipur. “He’ll come and eat up everybody on the scene, you’ll see.” Indeed, as it happened, Mani made 2-3 visits preparatory to Uski Roti and gathered quite a few of us at varying distances around him. Being a direction student and an ‘intellectual’, I was in the inner circle, though it took me quite some time—and conscious effort—to get on first name terms with him. Always accompanied by one or more diploma holders from the recent batches and never alone, Mani would first be seen under the wisdom tree. Then after a while greeting lightboys and production staff on the way, the group would head for Professor Bahadur to his office, or wherever else he would be. Once as lights came on after projection, we found them sitting at the back in the CRT. Over a number of sessions Professor Bahadur had put to us that Pather Panchali’s was a classical dramatic structure divisible into three or five “acts” (as against episodic in Brecht’s epic tradition) and initiating them into discussion asked Mani what he thought of the film’s structure.

“I think it’s an epic!” snapped Mani with the authority of a Pope, and went on to praise the film for peculiar reasons. Clearly, he meant to praise the film sky high by calling it an epic and, as always, it was his form you were supposed to admire, not substance, and even less its relevance. (But the form is the substance, did I hear someone say?) In any case, you couldn’t expect in Mani the modesty to join a discussion—if he was sitting without saying anything, he looked protesting, and when he spoke, it was to preach. Professor Bahadur punctuated the discourse thereafter with his endless chant of, “I see,” “I see,” “That’s interesting.”

In the evenings, we would all go walking to Deccan Gymkhana market where our haunt would be India Coffee House. Long since closed, this was an all-India coffee cooperative where you could spend an entire evening around just one cup of coffee. And what a coffee it was! Piping hot, it would be served in their standard logo-embossed white cups and saucers, and by sprightly—if slightly jaded—white-uniformed waiters, complete with starched, stately turbans. The place had a reputation all its own and if you were a regular at ICH, at any of their branches all over India, no further questions need be asked about your artistic-political credentials.

Auto rickshaws used to take just two in those days and returning one evening I found myself with Mani in one. Eager to establish a personal rapport with a rising star, I told Mani how anxious we all were to see his Uski Roti and how important it was for that film to really succeed.

In a big close up, Mani turned to look at me full in the eyes. His glasses have always gone from thick to thicker, it would seem. And then he spoke with emotion. “I’ll not disappoint you Chawdhary,” he said. “I assure you of that.”

Somehow I have always felt odd about this exchange of 30 years back with Mani. I think he had sensed I had been holding back and not surrendering like others, and therefore needed this different handling which I had myself walked into. At any rate, intended or not, I felt being manipulated and not left free to decide about the film as and when it came my way.

The day Uski Roti was finally shown, all of us were in our favorite seats well before time. Projection quality in those pre-TV, pre-video days, as indeed the viewing attitudes as well, were much more congenial to academics in the Institute than today. In order not to miss anything of the great event, I had taken care to have gone to the loo as well as taken light snacks and chai from the canteen, which until recently used to be just across the road from the Main Theatre. (Do I hear somebody kicking an empty glass trying to find a seat in the darkness?)

I don’t remember if Jagat Murari or Mushir Ahmed accompanied the famous ex-student and his entourage but Professor Bahadur formally welcomed Mani, and asking him to introduce the film, eagerly took his corner seat in the front row. A stiff Mani climbed the steps and walked the stage to the microphone held atop a bare metal stand.

Then to a packed house afraid even to breathe, Mani gave a cryptic 2-minute introduction to the film and abruptly ended with issuing his much publicized and debated barb about lack of concern about the audience.

“And finally, I have asked those doors to be kept open,” he declared pointing towards the back of the auditorium where he had just entered from. “If anyone wants to leave in the middle, they are free to do so.”

This was hot and cold at the same time. I had thought that we were about to sample what the whole world would soon want to see and here was Mani showing everybody the door. We must have looked like sheep not to move or otherwise protest. Or was it that we needed another filmmaker—on whatever terms—so badly to break Ray’s monopoly to greatness and didn’t want to be left out just when that historic moment promised to happen?

The film started. Quiet titles, held longer than normal and simply cutting to the next, were striking…

[To be continued]

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