I sat across the street and observed a man in his early 60s standing outside the main entrance of the Osian Film Festival – perhaps lost in his thought; but somewhat, oblivious to the cacophony around him. People of all generations walked past; sometimes someone from the older lot smiled and nodded their head in reverence, but for most, he stood, just like any other man, no different from others. If, and only if, I could use even the basic layer of dissolves and freeze from his film that I saw the night before, then only, most of us, could understand the sheer greatness of the man. Mani Kaul, like his contemporary Kumar Shahaini are two of the most important filmmakers alive in today in India, and who were relegated to oblivion from film production for their sheer avant gradism, nothing esoteric, but more of, exploring the depth of mise-en-scene in cinema, and what price they had to pay. How sad it is for a medium like ‘Cinema in India’, where one has to pay a price for understanding the form better and, sadly, this is true for large part of the world.
Duvidha is based on a short story written by the Vijay Dan Detha who moved to his native land of Rajasthan and wrote more than 800 short stories. His short stories reflected the lives, dialect, problems and materialism of the people. He made the Rajasthani folklore the base of his short stories and storytelling. It is fundamentally this very aspect of the folklore with the emphasis on “narration” and “attention” that forms an important function in Mani Kaul’s adaptation of the story and mise-en-scene. The story is about a merchant’s son who returns with his new bride, only to leave her and go in search to earn money, and his place is taken by a ghost who was hiding in a tree. The ghost lives with his wife and they bore a child. When the husband hears about the news, he returns home, only to find the ghost there in full flesh and blood in his place. Finally with help of a shepherd, the ghost is lured in a leather bag. The wife in this case from the beginning till the end has a very limited objective presence or voice. She is thoroughly represented in her basic social standing of the “woman” in the “male” dominated home. Since here presence is a bare skeleton of absence throughout the film. As Mani Kaul at no point gives the viewer a chance to step into the shoes of the protagonist and observe the situation, since he is more concerned with the “head” and not “heart”. This stationary function of the mise-en-scene does take away the bare fundamental human element which Satyajit Ray talks about in his essay “Four and a Quarter”; but at no point does it makes it placid; since the emotion even when not projected, does seep in through the degrees of formal experimentation- whether its narration over the freeze frame or voice over to move narrative forward.
In a country with a rich heritage and culture, the tradition of learning from the masters of Indian cinema is completely lost. We took the basic foundation of American Cinema and made them our own- littered with kitsch and, hence, created Bollywood. While film students look up to Europe avant grade to understand cinema and formed an intelligentsia based on pure bourgeois snobbisms- no different from Bollywood fan boys. The latter is filled more with hypocrites talking half-truth and “literary agents” who could talk everything under the sun, but not cinema. Somewhere, somewhat the middle path of preservation and understanding our own tradition, our own fathers, uncles, and grandfathers- our own history is lost. Just like the scratchy print which was projected at the film festival- revealing the sad truth about most of us sitting there in the hall, sitting behind the festival desk, and even organizing the festival. How long can we just sit there as poseurs: sipping wine, wearing fab-india, talking art and neglecting the preservation and promotion of Indian Cinema. It echoes to the images of the bride in Mani Kaul’s Duvidha who is more of a stoic figure seen in fragments, freezes, and actions in dissolves. Even when the film begins we see her in a fixed tableau broken down into shots of her: feet, hand, and face – a clear abstraction of space and time. When the tableau of such expression shifts to her veil and finally to her face which is represented in very demurely manner, as if, all her emotions from the beginning till the end are buried- first under her veils and when exposed, under her blank expression. In other words, her presence does not guarantee her path to self-expression or freedom, even if, the illusion of freedom actually exist- symbolized more in the film through the presence of the ghost with whom she shares a physical relationship. A similarity to the diegesis base which the film fundamentally explores, where the basic foundation of the narrative is build on the idea of “ narration” of the ongoing action(plot) of the film- usually shifting in into three actions of plane- the husband, ghost, and wife. Each of these elements especially the usage of sound and time affects the space, and such experiments within the mise-en-scene structure is unheard, even today, in Indian Cinema. Where most Indian new films come out with loud proclamation, but have the same clichéd mise-en-scene, the only new idea is a different story, but stories don’t make cinema.
Duvidha is an interplay between classic and folk both elements growing in its temporal aspect, which in turn, gives rise to a visual language, but the film is built primarily on the manipulation of time over space- temporal-visual over spatial-visual aspect. This is evident in the wide use of dissolves in almost all aspects of the actors movements, gestures and even expression, these elements are again condensed and fixated with the pulsating usage of the freeze. Interestingly such formal experimentation gives rise to interplay between its elements of folk (content) which the film is built upon, and at the same, grows in aspects of time and space. Furthermore, the repetition of dissolves, freezes, overlapping sounds, dissociation of images and sound actually gives the film its narrative drive- as it forms the basic force of absence. It is this very absence in the narrative, present due to the repetitive resonance of the forms of cinema over the content that makes this film remarkable. Because even by limiting it to its bare minimalist core, it achieves its stationary function of fulfilling its narrative cycle. It is like when you walk out of the theatre after seeing the film it is the images in the film which will create that tension within you, and hence – last, and create an everlasting human bonding, which most film cannot achieve even when conveying a linear story and this movie does on the fringes of plot device.
Similarly sound too plays an important function in the mise-en-scene and equally important aspect in helping form the “image which we carry”. The sound in the film is usually narrated: spoken through overlapping dialogues, presence in the form of music or exaggerated depth of synchronous sound- like the juggling of coins, or the shuffling of people’s feet. Then within this structure there are gaps, absence, or abrupt cutting of sound, this too gives this film its integral energy and drive. Like the image of the bride simply looking at a fixed gaze in total silence is absolutely haunting. The silence here works in reflecting varying degrees of emotions without a single exchange of dialogue or facial expression. Mani Kaul’s camera observes the ongoing action but it’s the editing(rigid) which gives the film its varying rough textures and feelings, the smoothness is cut off due to the rigidness in the film editing techniques. And this works in unison with the overall aspects of the mise-en-scene, and gives this film its detached Brechtian outlook.
Mani Kaul had maintained a decree of formal experiment within the mise-en-scene even from his first film (Uski Roti) where he used the “lens” effectively in conveying subjective terrain and perspective of the wife usually shifting between “wide” to “tele” to communicate the passage of such action or movement. In Duvidha, the mise-en-scene when deconstructed; forms an axis of space, image and sound into three different realms and explores each one of them on their fulcrum of condensed time (freezes) and movement in time (dissolves) with the latter shortening the dissociation of different spaces. Each of this element form an important function within the mise-en-scene to give the film its rigid structure, and narrative framework, which painted with a beautiful color schema- representing the large ethic color of the region, with its saturated hues of yellow, reds and whites. It is this schematic usage of the mise-en-scene that gives the film its verisimilitude of a folktale. Interestingly Satyajit Ray in his essay titled “Four and a Quarter” denounced such formal experimentation in favor of representing the “human element” going a step ahead in condemning the color schema as a mere advertising gimmick and breaking down the gestures and expression as mere blokes. This, to me, is not quite true if one looks at the film at its current juncture or even when it was released. It is the dissociation of sound and image in construction of the mise-en-scene that gives the film its coherence and the basic “human element” – due the absence of expression and gestures .As it’s due to the “absence” of emoting that allows one to look “into” without being manipulated to empathize and create a certain connection between the audience and characters or the characters and their own filmic interaction in space. Perhaps it was because of their different approach to cinema that made Ray condemn such formal experimentation in favor of completing disowning the narrative.
To see the screening of Duvidha was like witnessing the Concorde touching the Heathrow airport for one last time. One does not need exemplary cinematic, literary or philosophical baggage to see the film. All one needs is to be in touch with life, and watch the film with “ free” mind and “ spirit” then only the “ absence” could be felt, else the film would just seem to strange, rigid and boring to lot of people even now. This is one film which deserves to be seen, deserves to be understood, and implemented within our cinematic idiom and, explored, to further build our own syntax of Indian Cinema. It took almost 600 years for literature to develop from Chaucer to Joyce, it took Cinema close to 60 to do so from Griffith to Godard and it has taken almost less than 110 years for Indian Cinema from its first short film in 1907 till 2008 to keep using the same popular convention in the name of masses, money and entertainment and ignore all the important exploration of the cinematic juncture- Sad but true.