Cinema of India


Experimenta 2013

By the time I got to know the details, I’d already missed half of this year’s Experimenta, India’s most prominent experimental film festival founded by Shai Heredia in 2003. This year’s edition was impressive not only in its expansiveness, being categorized into competition section, country focus, artist talks, live performances and artist profiles, but also given that it was entirely crowd-funded, which surely calls for some cheers. I congratulate Experimenta and wish them bigger successes in the years to come. Here are some notes on exactly one half of this year’s fest.

 

INTERNATIONAL COMPETITION

(Curated by Anuja Ghosalkar)

 

MOUNT SONG (Shambhavi Kaul, India, 2013, Video, 9min)

Burning StarShambhavi Kaul’s elusive, melancholy and richly atmospheric film starts with images of storm inside an artificial jungle. We don’t see the storm, just the idea of a storm, which is befitting for a film that traces the elements that constitute a sensorial experience, as when watching a film. Gliding through what looks like haunted, dilapidated sets for a Chinese martial arts movie, Kaul’s film preoccupies itself with pure form, such as the amorphous outline a wisp of synthetic smoke, visceral, staccato edits between shots and the mysterious interplay of light, dust, colour and camera movement, under the veneer of an abstract genre piece located somewhere between Masaki Kobayashi and Tsui Hark.

BURNING STAR (Joshua Gen Solondz, USA, 2012, Video, 4min)

Burning StarModest in scope yet hypnotic in effect, Solondz’s 4-minute animation in colour is admittedly a dedication to the artist’s father who apparently wanted him to “make a more colorful work”. Colourful, it certainly is. We see a twelve-sided star, alternatively imploding and exploding in dazzling primary colours, with spiky patterns that complement its periphery moving towards and away from the star’s pulsating core, which serves both as the visual and true center of the symmetric image. The soundtrack dominated of what sounds like radio interference, reminiscent of Peter Tscherkassky’s work, attains a musical regularity that makes the film easy to groove to.

PLAY LIFE SERIES (Ella Raidel, Germany, 2012, Video, 11min)

Play Life SeriesRaidel’s four-part study of performativity in the visual media begins with a rigged-up sword fight between two actors suspended on ropes in the woods – a scene that is soon revealed to be a part of a film shoot, prompting us to reflect not only on the artificiality of the fight, but also the film crew itself. This Brechtian gesture of exposing the inescapable element of performativity that marks all filmmaking becomes the organizing principle for the rest of the film, which emphasize the artificiality of earnest forms – melodrama, music videos and even everyday confrontations – by creating an ironical distance between them and the audience through the presence of a film crew – hardly experimental.

PARTY ISLAND (Neil Beloufa, France, 2012, Video, 9min)

Party IslandPerformativity and ritualized interaction are also at the heart of Beloufa’s raunchy video work that is set in an artificial, back-projected beach, where a bunch of actors stiltedly playing vacationers go through the codified rituals of vacationing, socializing and seducing. More interesting than its ham-fisted, part-Surrealist illustration of the sexualization of images and the subliminal representation of sex through phallic imagery are its formal pleasures – its tableau-like arrangement of actors in a claustrophobic setting, the equally suffocating chopped, restrictive images, the double framing of actors through geometric shapes, the intuitive, tactile editing pattern and the intriguing interaction among multiple visual planes.

BLACK POT AND MOVEMENT (Chaoba Thiyam, India, 2013, Video, 13min)

Black Pot And MovementA simple, direct and even schematic equivalence characterizes Thiyam’s modestly but precisely named film – that between the fabrication of the eponymous black pot and the formulation of a new movement by a pair of dancers. However, like its title, Thiyam’s sepia-tinted film is entirely materialist in approaching this comparison, striking an equation between the pliant material using which the pot is made and the equally malleable bodies of the performers. The juxtaposition between the rhythm of repetitive labour and dance movements also attempts to collapse the gap between the artist and worker figures – a chasm that artists have always struggled with.

ASHURA (Köken Ergun, Turkey, 2012, Video, 22min)

AshuraOne of the more assured and less academic entries in the programme, Ergun’s compilation of vignettes from Ashura Day – the annual commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussein, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, in the Battle of Karbala by minority Shia population in the outskirts of Istanbul – is a sketch of collective mourning, a reflection on the cultural regulation of expression of grief. Through an unforced collocation of theatrical religion and religious theater, the film demonstrates how heightened, artificial, popular forms become the most cathartic form of communal grieving and, in a general sense, how art’s purpose of embodying and representing collective apprehensions still remains central.

BLOOD EARTH (Kush Badhwar, India, 2013, Video, 40min)

Blood EarthSquarely located in the now-too-recognizable genre in Indian documentary of partisan filmmaking against the repercussions of globalization, Badhwar’s film is an account of the reactions of the residents of Kucheipadar village in Odisha to the acquisition of their bauxite-rich land by mining corporates. Shinsuke Ogawa it isn’t, but Blood Earth’s documenting of the often-glossed-over fault lines in a popular movement gives it a transparency frequently absent in its contemporaries. Its best moments, however, are completely apolitical: a protracted, fixed-camera shot of a room full of noisy, convening villagers that results in strange visual patterns over time and a Daïchi Saïto-esque tracking shot of roadside plants that delightfully takes the film for two minutes into a non-representational realm. Winner of the Adolfas Mekas award of the fest.

A+ (Nobu Adilman, Canada, 2012, Video, 6min)

A+Commissioned by the Liaison of Independent Filmmakers of Toronto, Adilman’s charming, humourous and even suspenseful short video, scored to a guitar solo, presents us glimpses from the meticulously maintained, hand-written film-viewing diary of super-cinephile Moen Mohammed spanning the year 2011 (inferred from an entry on Trash Humpers), consisting of movie names, year of release, director name and grades. The result is not only a straightforward documentation of the tastes of one Antonioni-loving, Godard-disliking film buff, but also an indirect snapshot of the boons of new millennial cinephilia which facilitates the viewing of such a vast, variegated repertoire of films within a short period of time.

TRAVELS ABROAD (Karl Mendonca, USA, 2013, Video, 7min)

Karl MendoncaMendonca’s petit film diary was shot in 8mm apparently over six years (go figure!) and charts the filmmaker’s return home from New York to India. We see the filmmaker’s ride back home through the eyes of an outsider, his (grand?) parents and his trekking into the local woods presented in a typical home video aesthetic, sometimes presented in time lapse. Marked by circular motifs, Travels Abroad is a self-proclaimed exploration of themes of migration, identity and belonging, but, in actuality, it never rises about its home movie banality and accomplishes little more than what any everyman equipped with a video camera flying back home would have shot.

PULSE (Anuradha Chandra, India, 2013, 16mm, 15min)

A sketch of Rotterdam in 2008, Chandra’s 16mm project presents out-of-focus, low frame rate, time lapse images of the city and its environs that are abstracted till the limits of perceptibility. Owing to high exposure times, people, vehicles, seasons and the time of day are abstracted out and the residual record of static structures underscores the strongly geometrical nature of urban constructions. These images, frequently dominated by a single saturated colour, carry a tension between movement and stasis. On a level, Chandra’s film is an Impressionistic portrait of a city (with pointillist images) that explores how far a geographical entity can be visually abstracted so as to retain its identity.

DAYS OF FUTURE PAST (Joe Hambleton, Canada, 2012, Video, 8min)

One is reminded of Chris Marker, especially the melancholy Level Five (1997), while watching Hambleton’s refreshingly widescreen structural film that employs a repeating element – the camera looking through the windshield of a car rolling on a highway before slowly zooming out and refocusing onto an object fixed to the car ceiling – while a voiceover recites what sound like diary entries of a gamer wandering internet message boards. We are in the far future, it would seem, and the current day objects – joysticks, electronic toys and other curios – in the car appear like shards from a past. The result is a meditation on memory, a reflection on how geography and everyday objects bear the trace of history.

ANOTHER COLOUR TV (The Youngrrr, Indonesia, 2013, Video, 9min)

The Youngrrr Collective’s simple and amusing critique of the isolation of the middle class from history would perhaps have been more effective as an installation, wherein the contrast between the two sections of the screen we see – a mute assortment of various local TV telecasts serious and frivolous and the reverse-shot of a middle-class household hooked to soap operas, ‘reality’ television and religious sermons and literally imprisoned within the frame of the television – would have been even sharper when placed face-to-face. Nevertheless, by locating tawdry television productions alongside their passive consumption and internalization, the film brings to surface the artificiality of the family’s time together and the ideological-mediation of their private conversations.

NEW HARVEST (Pallavi Paul, India, 2012, Video, 11min)

A discordant combination of talking-heads interview of a politically dissident poet, educational documentary about the desire of scientists to alter nature’s rhythm of day and night and morsels of letters real and imagined between two writers shot in digital video with harsh light sources that form deep chiaroscuros, Paul’s project revolves around things utopian – ideal yet impossible – images unmade, roads not taken. The segments or the fragments of narratives within each are linked by a dream-logic which suggest a impossibility but seem to look forward to a future where these dreams might be realized. The outcome is a set of vague stabs at anarchist political hopes.

ARS MEMORATIVA (Scott Miller Berry, Canada, 2013, Video, 20min)

Ars MemorativaArs Memorativa – Art of Memory – refers to the methods and techniques we use to remember things, but in Berry’s four-part examination of audiovisual media as incubators of personal memory, it also points to cinema as the preeminent art of memory, of remembrance. Amalgamating analog and digital video, celluloid and audio recordings, whose scratches, smudges and crackling noises, in their own way, act as traces from the past, the film partly ruminates on the purpose of cinema as an authentic document, as evidence of a person’s existence. Berry’s film is a modest reflection on how home movies, music records and photographs, after a person’s passing, develop the quality of preserving the history of the person’s life.

 

SPECIAL FOCUS: JAPAN

(Curated by Chris Gehman)

 

GESTALT (Takashi Ishida, Japan, 1999, 16mm, 6min)

With a beguiling organ-driven soundtrack, Gestalt impresses us with the transparency its of intention, as the title makes clear, and the single-mindedness of its approach. Ishida’s delectable study in 16mm of the malleability of our perspective of space, apparently achieved by continuously repainting the walls of a room, founds itself on the interaction of various geometric and non-geometric motifs that make the space appear alternatingly two and three-dimensional. The effect is to continually keep altering our impression of the room space, and in critical theoretical terms, to undermine the artwork’s interpellation of the viewer as a subject and to destabilize the Albertian perspective on which his/her relationship with the image is based.

A FEATHER STARE AT THE DARK (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2003, 16mm, 17min)

In the dream-like way normally unrelated objects segue into each other, Tsuji’s hand-drawn illustration of a made-up Creation myth reminds one of the Surrealist game of Exquisite Corpse, and perhaps even the works of Dali. Tsuji’s method involves drawing with charcoal on paper, photographing the result, erasing the plate and redrawing the next frame. The result is that the each frame carries a trace of the previous and, consequently, the film chronicles its own history, its own making. Tsuji’s drawings are unrealistic, disproportional, undignified and composed of fluid forms that throw his method into sharp relief. The outcome is closer to sand animation than traditional drawing

YELLOW SNAKE (Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2006, Video, 10min)

Pitched between non-representational and traditional 2D animation, Aihara’s purposefully unwieldy video work, made 5 years before his demise in 2011, consists of two distinct visual planes – a periodic flux of semi-representational figures (bottles, fingers, planets, doughnuts) progressively growing in size to give an appearance of coming out of the screen (and hence the appearance of three-dimensionality) and a realistically drawn two-dimensional yellow hand with a pointed index finger that keeps poking into this swarm of monochrome objects – laid over a discordant soundscape. Mischievous and gleefully indulgent, Yellow Snake, if not anything else, is a reflection of the artist’s own playful relationship with his drawings.

MY TOWN (Tomomichi Nakamura, Japan, 2007, Video, 17min)

A mélange of even wider variety of animation techniques marks the quasi-Cronenbergian My Town, which draws from low-resolution photography, stop-motion animation, commercial anime drawing and video game graphics on which rudimentary pencil sketches without much foreshortening are overlaid, which, in essence, inscribes two-dimensional objects in three-dimensional space. Nakamura’s part-science-fictional part-fantastical narrative seemingly about a virus outbreak, an ensuing nuclear war and the eventual wiping out of humanity is distinguished by its soundtrack – a combination of drum beats, electronic music and low-frequency noise – and its cinematic approach to space – its simulation of film camera and its depiction of flat objects in three-dimensions.

SPACY (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1981, 16mm, 10min)

Intermittently stitched together from hundreds of photographs taken inside a gymnasium exhibiting these very photographs, Spacy is a structural study of cinematic space that creates a mise en abyme of photographed spaces into and out of which we move until we are no longer sure of which ‘level’ we are in. Despite the rapid stream of images shot at us, our focus remains firmly fixed at the geometric center of the image around which the configuration of represented space changes continuously. This trait, along with the absence of any vertical camera movement and the many levels of space negotiated, places the film alongside contemporary First Person Shooter games like Doom.

ZONE (Takashi Ito, Japan, 1995, 16mm, 13min)

Ito’s intense and claustrophobic piece, positioned between postmodern music videos and generic horror, shows the reanimation to life of a headless man wrapped in gauze and tied to a chair in a room populated by mirrors, a bandaged toy truck, a masked figure with light sources on him and framed photographs of eerily empty locations. Rife with movement – pleasing lateral tracking shots, time-lapse photography, reverse video and stop-motion animation – Zone plays on Kracauer’s idea of cinema as resurrection of dead objects from the ghastly stillness of photography. Ito’s psychologically motivated film is closer to classical Expressionism than his earlier structural work.

JAPANESE KITCHEN: THREE STORIES (Tabaimo, Japan, 2000, Video, 9min)

Japanese KitchenA more traditional style, closer to commercial Japanese animation, marks the three-episode Japanese Kitchen, which presents sketches of a housewife trying to imitate recipes shown on daytime television. The manner in which the banality of the situation is superimposed over chilling body horror – beating small men and women in a mixer to produce babies, deep frying the male brain and seeds that have people crawling out when soaked in water – betrays a trace of populist horror cinema, television and literature. Tabaimo’s tongue-in-cheek triptych – commissioned for television whose audience is the very subjects of her film – proposes tantalizingly easy and morbidly humorous solutions to the demographic problems of Japan.

INCH-HIGH SAMURAI (Tanaami Keiichi and Nobuhiro Aihara, Japan, 2007, 16mm, 8min)

Inch-High SamuraiOne of Aihara’s last films, Inch-High Samurai is admittedly a tribute to and a re-imagination of a popular manga series the directors used to read as kids that presented the adventures of a Samurai measuring an inch in height. The difference is that this film taps directly into the libidinal foundation of the manga and crystallizes the sexual and violent forces brimming beneath. Hyper-kinetic, raunchy and decidedly over-the-top, the film opens with drawings of various body parts floating on the sea from where the little phallic Samurai begins his extremely telescoped set of frenzied adventures that is, quite literally, the stuff of wet dreams.

CHILDREN OF SHADOWS (Naoyuki Tsuji, Japan, 2006, 16mm, 18min)

A ghastly spin on Western fairy tales, especially Hansel and Gretel, Children of Shadows is a tale of survival and growing up that is constructed with fluid, curvy and continuous forms that facilitate and highlight Tsuji’s charcoal on paper approach. The artist uses his POV like a moving camera and negotiates a three-dimensional space even when he abstains from providing a stable reference as in traditional drawings which makes it tougher to judge location or proportion. The movement of characters is slowed down, as though traversing an oneiric space, there is an affinity for closed forms and the humour is black and the drawings joyfully vulgar.

GOD BLESS AMERICA (Tadasu Takamine, Japan, 2002, Video, 12min)

Takamine’s God Bless America gives us the artist and his female assistant sojourning inside a red-walled studio while working on a massive lump of clay present in the center of the screen and the room. We see them pass 18 days working, eating, socializing and having sex in time lapse while the clay head is moulded in such a way that it appears to sing the titular hymn in real time. If this construction of twin time frames within a single film derives from music videos, the integration of the work of art into lived-in space derives from architecture, where it becomes an object to be experienced intuitively by habitude instead of through active contemplation.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: JACK CHAMBERS

(Curated by Lauren Howes)

 

HART OF LONDON (Jack Chambers, Canada, 1970, 16mm, 79min)

Stan Brakhage called this final film of Canadian visual artist Jack Chambers, who died of leukemia in 1977, one of the greatest films ever made. Chambers’ predominantly found-footage film exhibits touches of Brakhage’s own work, especially Dog Star Man (1961-64), in its use of roving secondary exposure, image overlaps, negatives, faster frame rates and high-velocity montage and its partly phenomenological approach to images. Opening with footage of a deer hunt – an event that would haunt the entire film – the first section of Hart of London is scored to the sporadic sound of the elements of nature and engages with visuals of architecture and everyday life in London, Ontario, superimposed with a negative that results in stereoscopic images at certain points, and, at times, abstracted away from photorealism to the point where we only observe black dabs on a white screen. Towards the midpoint, the film moves away from superimposition towards montage as the primary technique for meaning creation. It is from hereon that the film crystallizes its exploration of the cycle of life. Images from a slaughterhouse are intercut with those of a baby, dead sheep fetuses are juxtaposed with a human newborn. The architectural marvels of the first segment are responded to in the second by destruction and demolition of buildings, which become as much a spectacle as the former. On one level, the film is certainly an indictment of human egotism, which places humanity at the center of the universe and deems it as being the prime mover of all things. But it is also a meditation of humanity’s ceaseless capacity to learn, endure and survive and the film abounds with symbols of birth, rebirth and resurrection. This view of humanity from a detached, godlike-perspective takes the film closer to the oeuvre of Artavazd Peleshian, whose ultimately hopeful view of life, Hart of London echoes, however less emphatically.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: PANCHAL MANSARAM

(Curated by Shai Heredia)

 

INTERSECT (Panchal Mansaram, India, 1967, 16mm, 6min)

Panchal Mansaram was already established as a collage artist when he came to cinema and this transition is evident in the approach to his material in Intersect, which mashes footage shot during his interactions with Satyajit Ray, Ravi Shankar and Marshall McLuhan with excerpts from TV and radio commercials. “East and West are becoming like each other” goes one stray audio bite. Evocative of the many fine experiments at Films Division – yet not as pointed or as rigorously thought out – Intersect was completed after Mansaram’s emigration to Canada and reflects the director’s own transnational status – an autobiographical element which he explored further in his mixed-media installations.

DEVI, STUFFED GOAT AND PINK CLOTH (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1967, 16mm, 16min)

An assortment of impressionistic vignettes from the city of Bombay – a place that Mansaram calls “collage in motion” – strung together by the pervading presence of the beautiful lady of the title, her stuffed goat and a piece of pink cloth, this 16mm quasi-Nouveau Realist project tries to comprehend a city partly through its extraordinary human specimen, decrepit objects and familiar images. Some passages of the film, scored to a mix of flute, trumpet and percussions, seem straight of a René Magritte tableau in the way they piece together completely dissociated commonplace objects, even though this disruption of everyday logic seems less like an ideological intervention than a gleeful vagrancy of a mischievous imagination.

REAR VIEW MIRROR (Panchal Mansaram, Canada/India, 1966-2011, 16mm, 13min)

45 years in the making, Rear View Mirror spans the entire career of Mansaram as a filmmaker and opens with the voice of the artist reciting a piece of autobiographical information. Seen through the eyes of two young tourists entering a city on a horse cart, the film unfolds as a kind of ‘re-entry’ into and ‘looking-back’ at his life in India, especially his early years in his hometown of Mount Abu in Rajasthan, suffuse with reds, yellows and browns. The images of the convivial atmosphere at the local fete is complemented by sundry images – spiritual and profane – from the city linked together by the director’s characteristic sense of humour.

 

ARTIST PROFILE: AKBAR PADAMSEE

(Curated by Lalitha Gopalan)

 

SYZYGY (Akbar Padamsee, India, 1970, Video, 6min)

Bombay-based abstract artist Akbar Padamsee made his transition to cinema with the help of ace cinematographer K. K. Mahajan and was apparently held in high regard by Mani Kaul. A product of the short-lived Visions Exchange Workshop (VIEW) founded by Padamsee as a platform for enabling interaction between painters and filmmakers, the soundless animation Syzygy begins with basic geometric figures moving on the screen in regular patterns. With mathematical regularity, these figures morph into word grids and number lines representing distances, which in turn, gradually, give way to more complex intersection of line segments – mazes, meshes and networks. The resulting images bear similarity to the works of Mondrian and Kandinsky and serve to illuminate emotional correlatives to purely aesthetic forms such as the sense of spaciousness and liberation offered by a diagonal line slashing across a matrix of verticals and horizontals. Despite its ostensibly stream-of-consciousness approach, all the images have a regularity, harmony, and balance which throw light on Padamsee’s structured and perhaps even classicist thinking process.

Die, die, die, 2012! Besides being a period of personal lows, it was a bad year at the movies for me. Not only did the quantity of the films I watched come down, but the enthusiasm with which I watched, read about and discussed films plummeted. That the amount of good films made this year pales in comparison to the last doesn’t help either. Not to mention the passing of Chris Marker. Unlike the years before, there are barely a handful of movies from 2012 that I’m really keen on seeing (most of them from Hollywood). The following list of favorite 2012 titles (world premiere only) was chalked with some struggle because I couldn’t name 10 films that I loved without reservations. Here’s to a better year ahead.

 

1. Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, Canada)

 

CosmopolisSurely, it takes a bona fide auteur like David Cronenberg to locate his signature concerns in a text – such as Don Delillo’s – that deals with ideas hitherto unexplored by him and spin out the most exciting piece of cinema this year. Holed up in his stretch limo – an extension of his body, maneuvering through Manhattan inch by inch as though breathing – Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson) comprehends the universe outside like cinema, through a series of moving images projected onto his car windows. Why not? This world, whose master he is, is experiencing the epistemological crisis of late capitalism: the increasing abstraction of tactile reality into digital commodities. Packer, like many Cronenberg characters, is more machine than man, attempts – against the suggestions of his asymmetrical prostate and of the protagonist of Cronenberg’s previous film – to construct a super-rational predictable model of world economy – a project whose failure prompts him to embark on an masochistic odyssey to reclaim the real, to experience physicality, to be vulnerable and to ultimately die. At the end of the film, one imagines Packer shouting: “Death to Cyber-capitalism! Long live the new flesh!

2. Holy Motors (Leos Carax, France)

 

Holy MotorsUn chant d’amour for cinema, Leos Carax’s Holy Motors is an ambitious speculation about the total transformation of life into cinema and cinema into life – the death of the actor, audience and the camera. The European cousin to Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (2010), Carax’s return-to-zero work draws inspiration from the process of film itself – death, resurrection and persistence of vision – and takes cinema to its nascence – fairground attractions, popular theatre and zoopraxography – while opening up to its future possibilities. Uncle Oscar (Denis Lavant, the raison d’etre of Holy Motors), like Cronenberg’s Packer, cruises the streets of Paris in his limo in search of purely physical experiences – a series of performance pieces carried out solely for “the beauty of the act” – only to find that the city is a gigantic simulacrum in which everyone is a performer and a spectator (and thus no one is) and where the distinction between the real and the fictional becomes immaterial. At the very least, Holy Motors is a reflection on the passing of “things”, of physicality, of the beauty of real gesture, of the grace of movement of men and machines.

3. differently, Molussia (Nicolas Rey, France)

 

Differently, MolussiaNicolas Rey’s third feature, consisting of 9 short segments (reels, to be precise) projected in a random sequence, is a radical project that re-politicizes the cinematic image. Not only does the randomization of the order of projection of the reels circumvent the problem of the authoritarianism of a fixed narrative, it also exposes the seam between the semi-autonomous theses-like segments, thereby making the audience attentive to possible ideological aporias that are usually glossed over by the self-fashioned integrity of filmic texts. Furthermore, the existence of the film in the form separate reels is a breathing reminder of the material with which it was made: 16mm. The persistent dialectic between the visual – shots of highways, industries, farms and modernist suburban housing in the eponymous fictional city registering the sedate rhythm of everyday life – and the aural – snippets of conversations between two politicized industrial workers about the invisible tendons that enable a society to function smoothly – strongly drives home the chief, Althusserian concern of the film: the essential unity of the various, seemingly autonomous, strands of a state, contrary to claims of disjunction and autonomy.

4. Tabu (Miguel Gomes, Portugal)

 

TabuA film that is reminiscent of Weerasethakul’s many bipartite films, Miguel Gomes’ singular Tabu, too, works on a range of binaries – past/present, youth/old age, city/countryside, abundance/scarcity, modern/primitive, colonizer/colonized – and sets up a conversation between the carefree, profligate days of the empire full of love, laughter and danger and Eurocrisis-inflected, modern day Portugal marked by alienation and loneliness. The opening few minutes – a melancholy mini-mockumentary of sorts chronicling the adventures of a European explorer in Africa with a native entourage –announces that the film will be balancing distancing irony and classicist emotionality, donning an attitude that is in equal measure critical and sympathetic towards the past. In Gomes’ sensitive film, the heavy hand of the past weighs down on the present both on aesthetic (silent cinema stylistics, film stock, academy ratio, the excitement of classical genres) and thematic (collective colonial guilt, residual racism, punishment for forbidden love) levels and this inescapability of the past is also functions as (sometimes dangerous) nostalgia for the simplicity and innocence of a cinema lost and an entreaty for the necessity of exploring and preserving film history.

5. Paradise: Love (Ulrich Seidl, Austria)

 

Paradise-LoveWhat partially elevates the first film of Ulrich Seidl’s Paradise trilogy from its rather undistinguished concerns about emotional alienation and old age loneliness is the nexus of intriguing cultural forces that it brings into the picture by having a relatively affluent, 50-year old Austrian single-mother (Margarete Tiesel, in a no-holds-barred performance) indulge in sex tourism in Kenya along with five other women friends. The result is a rich, provocative negotiation along class, gender, race and age divides that upsets conventional, convenient oppressor-oppressed relationships. In doing so, the film wrenches love from the realm of the universal and the ahistorical and demonstrates that between two people lies the entire universe. Seidl’s heightened, bright colour palette that provides a sharp chromatic contrast to the bodies of Kenyan natives and his confrontational, static, frontal compositions (Seidl’s nudes are antitheses to those of the Renaissance), which make indoor spaces appear like human aquariums, both invite the voyeuristic audience to take a peek into this world and place it on another axis of power – of the observer and the observed.

6. With You, Without You (Prasanna Vithanage, Sri Lanka)

 

With You, Without YouSri Lankan filmmaker Prasanna Vithanage’s exquisite, exceptional adaptation of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Meek One (1876) aptly locates the Russian tale of matrimonial discord between a bourgeois pawnbroker and the gentle creature he weds within the ethno-political conflict between nationalist and rebel factions of the country. Unlike humanist war dramas that, often naively, stress the underlying oneness among individuals on either side, Vithanage’s intelligent film underscores how the political haunts the personal and how the tragic weight of history impacts the compatibility between individuals here and now, while deftly retaining Dostoyevsky’s central theme of ownership of one human by another. Though liberal in narration and moderate in style compared to Mani Kaul’s and Robert Bresson’s adaptations of the short story, Vithanage, too, employs an attentive ambient soundtrack that counts down to an impending doom and numerous shots of hands to emphasize the centrality of transaction in interpersonal relationships. The metaphysical chasm between the possessor and the possessed finds seamless articulation in concrete sociopolitical relations between Sinhalese and Tamils, between the army and refugees, between the poor and the wealthy and between man and woman.

7. Walker (Tsai Ming-liang, Hong Kong)

 

WalkerThere has always been something intensely spiritual about Tsai’s films, even when they seem to wallow in post-apocalyptic cityscapes and defunct social constructions. In Tsai’s hands, it would seem, an empty subway corridor shot in cheap digital video becomes the holiest of spaces ever filmed. Walker, a high-def video short made as a part of the Beautiful 2012 project commissioned by Hong Kong International Film Festival, crystallizes this particular tendency in the director’s work and centers on a Buddhist monk played by Lee Kang-sheng (a muse like no other in 21st century cinema). As the monk walks the hyper-commercialized streets of Hong Kong at a phenomenally slow pace for two days and two nights, his red robe becomes a visual anchor in stark contrast to the greys of the urban jungle and the blacks of people’s winter clothing and his very being, his eternal presence, becomes a spiritual grounding point amidst the impersonal hustle-bustle of this super-capitalist Mecca. Part performance art with a gently cynical punch line, part an exploration of the limits of DV, Walker is a deeply soothing and often moving work from one of Asia’s finest.

8. Celluloid Man (Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, India)

 

Celluloid ManMoving unsteadily with the help of a walking stick, the 79-year old founder of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI), P. K. Nair, despite himself, becomes a metaphor for the state of film archiving in the country. It is of considerable irony that, in a nation that prides itself for its rich cultural heritage, film archiving is considered a useless exercise. During the three decades that Nair headed the NFAI, he was instrumental in discovering the silent works and early talkies of Bombay and south Indian cinema, including those of Dadasaheb Phalke, the “father of Indian cinema”. Celluloid Man, bookended by scenes from Citizen Kane (1941), draws inspiration from Welles’ film and sketches a fascinating if reverential portrait of Nair constructed from interviews with international filmmakers, scholars, historians and programmers and curiously hinged on the fact of Nair’s “Rosebud” – ticket stubs, promotional material and assorted film-related curios that the man collected during his childhood. Shivendra Singh’s film is a irresistible romp through early Indian cinema and an endlessly absorbing tribute to a man who is fittingly dubbed the “Henri Langlois of India”. To paraphrase one of the interviewees, Phalke gave Indian cinema a past, Nair gave it a history.

9. Laurence Anyways (Xavier Dolan, Canada)

 

Laurence AnywaysAlthough it might appear that it is perhaps the hollowness of Xavier Dolan’s previous feature that makes his latest, 160-minute music video look like a cinematic coup, Laurence Anyways really does succeed in accomplishing more than most of contemporary “LGBT-themed independent cinema”. While the latter – including this year’s Cahiers darling – almost invariably consists of realist, solidarity pictures that use social marginalization as shorthand for seriousness, Dolan’s emotionally charged film takes the game one step further and probes the inseparability of body and character, the effect of the physical transformation of a person on all his relationships – a transformation that is mirrored in the flamboyant, shape-shifting texture of the film – without sensationalizing the transformation itself. Rife, perhaps too much so, with unconventional aesthetic flourishes and personal scrapbook-ish inserts, the film rekindles and enriches the youthful verve of the Nouvelle Vague – a move that should only be welcome by film culture. If not anything more, Laurence Anyways establishes that critics need to stop using its author’s age as a cudgel and look at his cinema du look as something more than a compendium of adolescent affectations.

10. Moonrise Kingdom (Wes Anderson, USA)

 

Moonrise KingdomLet me confess upfront that putting Wes Anderson’s (surprise!) whimsy, twee and self-conscious Moonrise Kingdom in my year-end list is less a full-hearted appreciation of the film than a confession that I find Anderson to be an important voice that I’m genuinely keen about, but can’t entirely celebrate. I don’t think I’ve seen any film that employs so many elements of industrial cinema yet feels meticulously artisanal, a film that, on the surface, seems to (literally) play to the gallery yet is so full of personality and one that is oddly familiar yet thoroughly refuses instant gratification. Moonrise Kingdom appears to have every ingredient of an obnoxious family comedy, but the unironic, straight-faced attitude and the single-minded conviction with which it moulds the material into an anti-realist examination of the anxieties of growing up, alone, is something not to be found either in cynical mainstream cinema or in the overwrought indie scene of America. Anderson’s neo-sincere film is, as it were, a classicist text couched within a postmodern shell, an emotional film without affect. Paper blossoms, but blossoms nonetheless.

 

Special Mention: The Queen Of Versailles (Lauren Greenfield, USA)

 

Mati Manas (1985) (The Mind Of Clay)
Mani Kaul
Hindi/Marathi/Tamil

 

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

 

 [Capsule added to The Films of Mani Kaul]

Interview: Girish Kasaravalli

[The following is an interview of Girish Kasaravalli I did for the latest issue of Projectorhead magazine. Talking in person to the director whose films I deeply admire was a rather revelatory experience in that it not only cleared me of many misconceptions about these works, but also exposed interesting differences between how a filmmaker conceives his films and how a viewer receives them. Heartfelt thanks to founders/editors Gautam and Anuj for giving me this opportunity]

 

Your films are rife with rituals, ceremonies and legitimization games. This is perhaps most apparent in Ghatashraddha (1979), your debut feature. What interested you in dealing with such conservative constructs?

Although they are present in the later films as well, rituals and ceremonies are central only to Ghatashraddha. I wouldn’t say I am interested in rituals or castes as such. I liked the scenario of Ghatashraddha, which is about this pair of people Yamunakka and Nani who are marginalized and outcast by this religious institution. She is a young woman who naturally feels the need for male companionship. Nani, otherwise rather sharp, finds it difficult to learn these scriptures. Both of them are ridiculed and outcast by the establishment.

Your direction of Meena Kuttappa in the film is highly stylized. It is not exaggerated, but it is not natural either. It is almost Bressonian. This kind of acting is not found elsewhere in your filmography.

Yes, we were familiar with Bresson’s cinema that time and Meena’s performance is similarly very stylized. It was a de-dramatization gesture. Much of our acting assumes that emotions are to be expressed. I wanted the emotions to be expressed not through the acting but the events of the story. Throughout the film, Yamunakka stays in a single register of suffering. Nani, on the other hand, undergoes a marked change. He realizes that he has to help Yamunakka. While he cannot do a whole lot, he does what his strength and age allows him to. That is why, his performance, along with other characters, is more naturalistic. Even the lead performance in Thayi Saheba (1997) is stylized the same way.

 

(Full interview at Projectorhead)

Mani Kaul
 

An enormous void has been created in world cinema landscape with the passing of Mani Kaul, one of the greatest Indian filmmakers. The least we could do is to cherish his works, spread the word and discuss about them and keep his grand legacy alive.

Here are some writings by and interviews of Mani Kaul. A heartfelt thank you to everyone who helped bring these pieces on to the internet.

 

Writings

Interviews

Tarang (1984) (Wages and Profit)
Kumar Shahani
Hindi

 

Kumar Shahani’s Tarang (1984) is located startlingly far from the intense stylization and abstraction of his previous feature Maya Darpan (1972), with its conventional, accessible, (overly?) fleshed out and faithfully realized story, generous score (including songs!), impressive cast and naturalistic acting. Taking off from the template narrative of class struggle, Tarang tells the tale of an internally fragmented family of industrialists and the equally divided body of workers at his factory, the link between them being the upwardly mobile wife of a dead worker (Smita Patil) who begins an affair with the manager of the factory (Amol Palekar). A staunch Marxist, Shahani examines the class struggle on multiple fronts: in the writing that nearly recites the labour theory of value, in the densely layered soundtrack where various voices vie for power and the casting, where the star value of the actors is in conflict with the characters they play. In fact, Tarang is presented as a film within a film and we are regularly shown that Patil and Palekar are famous actors who are playing these characters. Shahani realizes that his film is born of the same system that it rails against (Reporter: What do you think of this? Policeman: The crime or the film? Reporter: What’s the difference anyway?) and foresees the impossibility of any satisfactory resolution to the conflict. Like the films of Eisenstein, who no doubt influenced Shahani as is evident crowd scenes at the factory, there is so much happening – much power struggle – in the frames of the film, as it is in the deeply metaphorical text.

 

(Image Courtesy: The Case for Global Film)

Mani Kaul

Mani Kaul 
(1944-2011)

Mani Kaul is undoubtedly the Indian filmmaker who, along with Kumar Shahani, has succeeded in radically overhauling the relationship of image to form, of speech to narrative, with the objective of creating a ‘purely cinematic object’ that is above all visual and formal. He was born Rabindranath Kaul in Jodhpur in Rajasthan in 1942 into a family hailing from Kashmir. His uncle was the well-known actor-director Mahesh Kaul. Mani joined the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune initially as an acting student but then switched over to the direction course at the institute. He graduated from the FTII in 1966. Mani’s first film Uski Roti (1969) was one of the key films of the ‘New Indian Cinema’ or the Indian New Wave. The film created shock waves when it was released as viewers did not know what quite to make of it due to its complete departure from all Indian Cinema earlier in terms of technique, form and narrative. The film is ‘adapted’ from a short story by renowned Hindi author Mohan Rakesh and is widely regarded as the first formal experiment in Indian Cinema. While the original story used conventional stereotypes for its characters and situations, the film creates an internal yet distanced kind of feel reminiscent of the the great French Filmmaker, Robert Bresson. The film was financed by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC) responsible for initiating the New Indian Cinema with Bhuvan Shome (1969) and Uski Roti. It was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with standard cinematic norms and equally defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia. [Image & Bio Courtesy: Mubi]

 

I guess Mani Kaul could be called, with qualifications of course, the invisible man of Indian cinema. The home audience might find his films too ‘European’, too alien, and too cryptic, and might prefer instead the realist-humanist works of an artist like Ray. Foreign viewers, on the other hand, might complain that they are too culturally-rooted, too alien and too cryptic, and instead opt for a ‘universal’ filmmaker like Ray. Indeed, neither Kaul nor his pictures make any claim to ‘universality’. They are, undoubtedly, steeped in Indian classical art forms like how the Nouvelle Vague films were, with respect to the European classical tradition. Many of these films are adapted from literary works in Hindi, have a profound relationship with Hindustani music and exhibit an influence of representational forms from the country. In fact, his cinema, if not much else, is about these very forms, both in terms of subject matter and their construction. These films, to varying degrees, are literature (The Cloud Door), painting (Duvidha), architecture (Satah Se Uthata Aadmi), poetry (Siddheshwari) and music (Dhrupad). Right from his early documentary Forms and Design (1968), which sets up an opposition between functional forms of industrial age and decorative ones from Indian tradition, Kaul makes it, more or less, apparent that is he is interested in the possibilities of a form itself more than the question if it can convey a preconceived thesis. Like Godard, Kaul starts with the image and works his way into the text, if any.

Perhaps it is classical music, and specific strains of it, that exhibits strongest affinity with Kaul’s cinema. The director has mentioned that the trait that attracts him to it the most is that there are elements that just don’t fit into a system, notes that slip away and could find themselves elsewhere in the composition, Similarly, Kaul, admittedly, edits his films like composing music, moving a shot along the timeline, beyond logic, meaning or chronology, till it finds its right place, in terms of mood, rhythm or whatever parameter the director has in mind. (“And I know that when the shot finds its place, it has a quality of holding you. The position is its meaning”). He has, time and again, spoken elaborately on the systematization of fine art by European Renaissance and the need to find out alternate modes of expression free from its constraints. Convergence, be it in the perspective compositions of painting, the three-act structure of literature, or the climaxing of motifs in music, has always been an area of concern and investigation for him. (He admires Hum Aapke Hain Kaun (1994) for its insistence on spending a quarter hour fretting about a pair of shoes, at the expense of plot). Consequently, fragmentation becomes the central organizing principle of his aesthetic. Like Robert Bresson, one of his greatest influences, Kaul prefers filming parts of the body – hands, feet and head – and positions his actors such that they are facing away from the camera or are in profile, thereby disregarding the convention that the face is the centre of one’s body. (Kaul’s sketches, in that sense, are direct antithesis to the portraits of Renaissance). Accordingly, because the face is tied to the notion of a unique identity, Kaul’s actors are stripped off all natural expression and behaviour and de-identified. Many of his shots are ‘flat’, without any depth cues or perspectival lines. (He traces this to ‘perspectiveless’ Mughal miniature paintings and cites Cézanne as another major influence). None of the characters are Enlightenment heroes having a firm hold on their world. The narratives are decentered and distributed across multiple perspectives.

This resistance to convergence principles of Renaissance has also led him to radically reformulate his relationship to the spaces he films. He believes that filmic and social spaces have been conventionally divided into ‘the sacred’ – the perfect realization of an ideal, carefully framed and chiseled, with all the undesired elements out – and ‘the profane’ – accidental intrusions, random fluctuations and irreligious interruptions; that the moment a filmmaker looks through the viewfinder, he ‘appropriates’ the hitherto ‘neutral’ space to compose based a set of principles, polishes it and turns it into a ‘sacred’ space. Kaul, on the other hand, has increasingly been resistant to ‘perfecting’ an image or space, instead treating space as something neutral and unclassifiable in itself and concentrating on the tone, feeling and emotion of a shot. (This is also what Godard does in his latest work, where spaces and images of all kind are given equal importance). In his later films, he has asked his cameraman not to look through the viewfinder while filming. (This does not mean that one shoots blindly. The director has elaborated in his writings on how this could be practically implemented. “What needs to be determined by the director and the cameraman is the act of making the shot: attention being that aspect of time that deeply colours the emergent feeling in a shot”). He has, admittedly, been open to intrusions and one can see stray elements, like cat mews appearing unexpectedly, in some of his shots. Likewise, none of his “stories” converge, or even have a linear progression, and, in fact, keep diffusing and opening up new possibilities.

 

[There are numerous features not covered in this post. The entries will be added if and when I see those missing films. All short films are omitted here.]

 

Uski Roti (A Day’s Bread, 1969)

Uski RotiMade when he was 25, Mani Kaul’s first feature Uski Roti (1969) is what one might call a poetic film about waiting. Kaul takes a simple premise for the film – a woman who goes to the highway everyday to give lunch to her husband, whom she,  oddly enough, addresses using his full name – and strips it down to its skeleton, diverting our attention from what is represented to how it is represented. (Kaul likens this process to a painter emphasizing his brush strokes). Bresson’s influence is palpable in many aspects of filmmaking here: the delayed editing of shots that parenthesizes action, the de-dramatization of scenario, the atonal, unaccented line delivery by actors without forced expressions, the emphasis on objects rather than concepts, the numerous shots of hands and faces that have a grace of their own and, of course, the central, suffering woman. (There is even a direct homage to Pickpocket (1959)). Additionally, Kaul’s own training in short documentaries seems to have made its mark here, given how keen the film is on documenting purely physical activities such kneading dough, which becomes the central gesture. (This would be elaborated upon in the short A Historical Sketch Of Indian Women (1975)). Utilizing plethora of Ghatak-influenced wide angle shots, in high-contrast monochrome (if only the film had used European film stock, Pedro Costa would applaud), a hyperreal sound mix and a highly idiosyncratic grammar (horizontal asymmetry, characters facing away from camera, no reaction shots), Kaul makes an arresting if not totally underivative debut.

Duvidha (In Two Minds, 1973)

DuvidhaKaul’s most acclaimed film Duvidha (1973) opens with a rather flat, Godardian image of a woman in a red saree standing in front of a white wall, staring determinedly into the camera, as high-pitched Rajasthani ethnic vocals grace the audio. Like the frozen image of Truffaut’s juvenile delinquent, it suggests a predicament addressed to the audience. Based a folk tale, Duvidha speaks of a love that is beyond time and space. The presence of the ghost, which falls in love with the new bride, is not an exotic delicacy served to us but a given. And so is the ‘story’, which is read out verbatim to us by the narrator, freeing the film from the burden of storytelling, so to speak, instead allowing it to experiment with the imagery. Employing a number of photographs, freeze frames, jump cuts and replays, which illustrate the film’s central notion of temporal and geographical dislocation (and save on the budget) and manipulating time like an accordion player, Kaul weaves a narrative where the past, the present and the future are always in conversation. (The ghost is simply referred to as ‘Bhoot’ (ghost), which is, of course, the word for ‘past’ as well). The predicament of the title, then, involves a choice between the spiritual and the material, the bride’s past and future, her childhood and adulthood, her freedom and honour and her love and security. Bewitchingly shot like a Dovzhenko film (and composed like Cézanne‘s still lifes), and impressively designed, with a simple yet striking interplay of red and white, Duvidha builds on both Kaul’s feminist leanings and highly personalized aesthetic.

Satah Se Uthata Aadmi (Arising From The Surface, 1980)

Satah Se Uthata AadmiSatah Se Uthata Aadmi (1980) begins with a shot of a serene lakeside landscape being abruptly shut off from view by a closing window, following which camera gradually withdraws deeper into the eerily empty rooms of a dilapidating house where the central character of the film – a poet – resides. This notion of the artist being far removed from reality, and retreating further into himself, resonates throughout the film. Based on the deeply personal texts of Gajanan Mukthibodh, Satah Se Uthata Aadmi presents a world where the revolution has failed, idealism has died out in the name of practicality and the role of intellectuals and artists has been vehemently questioned. Rekindling the question of theory versus practice, the film attempts to examine if residing is certain social frameworks to make a living amounts to a sellout of oneself. (Like Godard-Truffaut, Ghatak-Ray, does Kaul have anyone in mind?). This fragmented, post-socialist state of society that the film depicts – through its vignettes of urban Indian individuals – is reflected in the Malick-like disunited voiceover which spans three characters and which conversely, unites the narrative together. A remarkably sustained tone poem, with brooding surreal passages (including a hypnotic documentary sequence inside a factory and an unabashedly allegorical finale) and minor experiments (sections from Muktibodh’s texts displayed on screen), reminiscent of Godard’s work of the 90s, rife with strong verticals and perspective compositions (which is odd, given Kaul’s resistance to it), Satah Se Uthata Aadmi is both Kaul’s most stringent and most affecting work.

Dhrupad (1982)

DhrupadDhrupad (1982) finds Kaul studying the eponymous classical music form, specifically the Dagarvani variation of it practiced by the Dagar family, with whom the director has close associations with. Apparently, the music the film examines is one without any form of notation since, reportedly, many of the tones don’t fit into existing notational systems and the transmission of tradition is done purely orally. (The vocal performances that we hear exhibit such malleability of human voice that one is convinced that no instrument can aspire to emulate its timbre). This trait of not conforming to the systematized models of Renaissance is of special interest to Kaul, who has long been aware of the need to discover non-reductive, discursive modes of expression. Likewise, Dhrupad, like many of the director’s pictures, eludes categorization or compartmentalization. Part historical study, part religious documentation of performances, part experiment with cinematic time (the sublime shot that spans a sunrise invokes contemporary ‘landscape filmmakers’ like Benning) and part exercise in thematically conglomerating classical Indian art forms – music, sculpture, architecture, painting and cinema – the self-referential film gives a vivid picture of what makes Dhrupad so striking, with its numerous mise en abymes and fractals. Like in the films of Resnais, with whom Kaul shares an affinity for ‘fragmentation’, the camera glides through the Mughal style corridors and courtyards, in which the veteran artistes of the Dagar family perform and teach – while the soundtrack takes off on its own – evoking a sense of history that is living and breathing.

Mati Manas (The Mind Of Clay, 1985)

Mati ManasCommissioned by NFDC and the handicrafts division of Ministry of Textiles, Mani Kaul’s Mati Manas centers on potters and terra cotta artisans located in and around Rajasthan and unfolds as a fictionalized version of Kaul’s journey into the region as an outsider and a documentary filmmaker. We have documentary passages that elaborately detail the art and business of terra cotta making and the way of life that revolves around it interspersed with sections where we see the in-movie documentary crew shuttling between museums showcasing earthenware from the Indus Valley civilization, excavation sites and various potter villages while narrating to us the various myths, legends and folk tales of the region that reveal how mud/earth has become, for these artisans, an element inextricable from imagination and practice and has gone on to develop maternal associations with its capacity to nurture, shelter and produce. Suffused with Cezanne-like still life and images of potters at work, especially the weary, skillful hands that lovingly, spontaneously shape raw earth into little, wondrous artifacts, Mati Manas comes across as a tribute to the dignity and grace of human labour. Perhaps more importantly, Kaul’s return-to-zero film unveils a society where people’s relationship to art is still habitual and tactile, a pre-reflective, non-reductive, phenomenological way of experiencing art that stands in opposition to modern, appropriative, optical approaches – a split that is reflected in the chasm between how ancient pottery is exhibited in museums and sketched in textbooks as icons of heritage and triumph of archaeology and how it might have been perceived by people of its time.

Siddheshwari (1989)

SiddheshwariWith Siddheshwari (1989), Kaul turns the typical artist-profile film (produced by Films Division) on its head. Not only does it eschew straightforward documentation of the titular singer’s artistry, but it almost completely does away with basic biographical details to arrive at something more exhilarating and revelatory. Instead of presenting music, the film presents the idea and experience of music. A bona fide avant-garde feature that amalgamates multiple timelines, geographies, realities and narrative modes, Siddheshwari brings together various art forms like literature (the chapterized film opens with a table of contents!), music (shifts in ragas, reflected in the filmmaking with hue and rhythm changes) and theatre (both in its production design and its emphasis on role-playing throughout). The camera is perpetually moving – dollies and cranes galore – as if reading an ancient scroll and acts like a force of time that moves Siddheshwari Devi through landscapes and times. The soundtrack, similarly, is a dense network of speech, whispers, vocal and instrumental music ad recited poetry. Siddheswari Devi is portrayed by a number of women, including some who enact her biography, some who depict her sensorial experiences and Devi herself. (This is only one of the reasons I’m reminded of Hou’s The Puppetmaster (1994)). One of them is Mita Vasisht, whom we see at an archive, at the end, watching tapes of Devi singing, possibly to prepare herself for the role. Like The Taste of Cherry (1997), fiction and reality bid adieu, with Kaul restoring things back to their original places, as though returning what he borrowed to create his greatest work.

Nazar (The Gaze, 1989)

NazarAdapted from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s short story, Nazar (1989) bears natural resemblance to Robert Bresson’s shining adaptation of the same, A Gentle Creature (1969) in its characteristically stylized direction of actors and the sacrificing drama for rhythm, mood and an intensity of observation. Kaul replaces the generally bright interiors of Bresson’s version of the couple’s high-rise housing, which cordons them off from the rest of the world and which is emphasized continuously in the film, with a low-lit (barely any artificial light) semi-dungeon marked dominated by black-blue and brown shades, suggestive of the moral malaise that marks both the psyche of the male character and the space the pair lives in. The ever-wandering camera hovers over characters who appear to be stationed in space – with barely any movement – as if frozen in time. Kaul’s ultra-minimal chamber drama, too, starts off with the suicide of a woman (Kaul’s daughter Shambhavi, an avant-garde filmmaker herself), although it is only alluded to by her husband (noted director Shekhar Kapur), who tries to recollect to us what might have moved her to commit this act. Kapur’s stream-of-consciousness delivery of lines is exceptionally fragmented, as if he’s trying to wrestle information from deep recesses of ‘actual and ’‘convenient’ memories. This narrative within the narrative is the man’s way of vindicating himself; of blinding himself to the fact that ‘ownership’ is what that mattered to him all along and that he is, like the antiques that he sells, a man stuck in time.

Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant’s Shirt, 1999)

Naukar Ki KameezNaukar Ki Kameez (1999), as it appears, is a ‘conventional’ narrative film, by the director’s standards, with that generally-revered ‘naturalistic’ acting and speech, its relatively generous use of musical score and a general willingness to present a string of events, if not a plot. However, it is also one of Kaul’s most experimental features (Kaul couldn’t ideally be classified as an experimental filmmaker) and employs a fragmented narrative structure (which keeps spreading out to new directions) with constant chronological jumps back and forth, an absurd, magic realist tone (which reveals a tenderness towards his characters and his geography) and a potpourri of filmmaking modes (including canned laughter of sitcoms and internal monologues of low-end TV dramas). Set at the fag end of the 60s, Naukar Ki Kameez, which centers on a lower-middle class clerk, Santu, in a government office, and his wife, for most part, is a simple metaphorical tale of upward class mobility and its psychological and social impediments. Santu is a bundle of contradictions; he is conscious of class divisions and the need for revolution and yet harbours hope for social-climbing, he recognizes the need to respect the other, yet casually oppresses his wife, whom he genuinely loves as well. Like Aravindan’s Oridathu (1986), it gives us a nation with an identity crisis: one caught between extreme Westernization and dreams of a revolution – between tradition and modernity – posing a question to itself: To wear or to tear?

Een Aaps Regenjas (A Monkey’s Raincoat, 2005)

A Monkey's RaincoatMore fascinating than the fact that A Monkey’s Raincoat (2005) revitalizes the age-old question of purpose of art and its relationship to the real world is that low-end handheld DV, which the film is shot on, helps put nearly all of Kaul’s theoretical principles and inclinations into practice: the idea of not looking through the viewfinder while shooting, the rejection of the dichotomy between “sacred” and “profane” spaces, the notion of camera as an extension of one’s body and movement and a deep-seated interest in the experience of filming over filming itself. Adopting a loose, instinctive and continuous mode of shooting, Kaul inquisitively records an assortment of young painters at work at two places – Biennale, Venice and at their residency in Amsterdam, Netherlands – often interacting with them as he works. We see that Amsterdam is something of a dream destination for budding artists, a melting pot of cultures, where they can at least hope to find an audience. Though never taking potshots at art or its reception, Kaul’s film gently mocks an art scene where artists seem to be fond of ‘playing’ artists, with a set of personalized eccentricities and self-imposed clichés. As he samples their creations, he wonders in the voiceover if there is any purpose to art at all, given that it has been able to solve not one of the world’s problems. Kaul realizes that the question is moot and questions if art for humans is what a raincoat if for monkey: it might not stop the rain but at least it helps you to recognize it and shield yourself from it.

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