Mani Kaul: Versatile, genre-hopping film-maker

Ken Hunt
Sunday 23 October 2011 08:06

Mani Kaul was a genre-hopping film-maker whose success came the hard and hard-line intellectual way, via India's so-called "parallel cinema". Like Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen and Kumar Shahani but more so, he never espoused the popular route to success, even though he enjoyed critical and some commercial acclaim. Not in the mainstream, not quite an outsider, his oeuvre embraced serious, non-commercial cinema – frequently based on books or dramas – documentary film, especially on musical subjects, and the culturally daring. Sen lauded him simply as "one of the finest film-makers in India."

Of Kashmiri stock, Kaul's uncle was the actor and film director Mahesh Kaul. Having graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where he studied under the Bengali film-maker Ritwik Ghatak, in 1966, Kaul knew full well the importance of the cineaste audience interested in serious film. Film societies up and down the country screened his 1969 debut Uski Roti ("Our Daily Bread"). It won the 1971 Filmfare Critics Award for best movie. (These awards had been inaugurated in 1954 by the Bombay magazine Filmfare.)

In 1972 Kaul won for Ashadh Ka Ek Din ("One Day Before the Rainy Season", 1971), adapted from Mohan Rakesh's 1958 modernist Hindi play of the same name. In 1974 he won for Duvidha ("In Two Minds", 1973), based on Vijayadan Detha's retelling of a traditional Rajasthani ghost story. In 1993 he won again for Idiot (1992), his retelling of Dostoevsky's tale.

With the National Film Award-winning Siddheshwari (1989) he turned his attention to the classical thumri- singer Siddheshwari Devi. This Hindi-language documentary broke with conventional representational biographical narrative, blending music and fiction.

Earlier had come his full-length film on another genre of Northern Indian classical music. Dhrupad (1982) featured vocalist Zia Fariduddin Dagar and the rudra vina (stick zither) virtuoso Zia Mohiuddin Dagar. Its closing roofscape sequence juxtaposed the everyday modern city and dhrupad's ancient relevance. The documentary also included ZM Dagar's son, Bahauddin Dagar. Kaul brought him, the by-then leading rudra vina player of his generation, back into the fold for his "chapter" in the German producer Regina Ziegler's series exploring international takes on erotic tales.

Ken Russell did it the British way with The Insatiable Mrs Kirsch. The Cloud Door (1994) did it the Indian way, with Kaul melding Hindu and Muslim literary traditions in his tale.

Kaul also spent periods overseas: he was on the jury of the 1971 Berlin International Film Festival, and lectured at Harvard, Berkeley and at FTII.

Rabindranath Kaul, film director: born Jodhpur, Rajasthan 25 December 1944; married (two sons, two daughters); died Gurgaon, New Delhi 6 July 2011.

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