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MANI KAUL AT FLAHERTY

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Wide Angle 1995

SATURDAY---I see Mani Kaul across the room.  It is the hospitality lounge of the 40th Flaherty Film Seminar held at Wells College in Aurora, upstate New York.  We exchange pleasantries: I inquire about his room, talk about cashing travelers checks, tell him about Go Takamine, an Okinawan filmmaker from Japan, another guest at this Flaherty, I thought he would like.  I tell him Flaherty has no screening schedule.  All 130 participants see very film screened, in three sessions starting at 9 in the morning and ending around midnight.  There are lengthy and sometimes impassioned discussions after each film.  Pleasantries are good, I tell myself, before breaking to him that Federal Express has not been able to trace the prints of his films Dhrupad and Siddeshwari, which were coming in by from India.    I cannot gauge his reaction.  I realize I do not know him very well.  I had met him a couple of time before, the last in New York in the Fall of 1992 when I asked him if he would attend the Flaherty Film Seminar I had been asked to program.

There are speeches at the opening night program, and in the Flaherty tradition of paying tribute to past guests who have passed away in recent years, we screen Marlon Riggs' Tongues Untied and Sadgati (Deliverance) by Satyajit Ray.  The program brings together Eric Barnouw and Patricia  Zimmerman's retrospective of films from the 40 years of the Flaherty and my program on films and videos from Asia and the Asian Diaspora.  I am touched by Eric's recollections of the 1956 Flaherty when a young Satyajit Ray created a stir by screening his first film Pather Panchali (1955) and, for the first time, his latest film Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956).  Sadgati comes on.  One of Ray's two short films he made for television, it is rarely seen.   It is about an Untouchable who dies after being forced to do some back-breaking chores for  a Brahmin.  The film is powerful, showing a more engage  Ray.  Mani leaves the auditorium.  He has seen the film, I think.  It is also a completely different kind of Indian cinema, I tell myself, recalling Ray's negative reaction to Mani's films.

Later, Mani tells me he does not feel very well, he has not been taking his medication for the last few days.  I am alarmed.  Will he want to go back?  I tell him to rest and get an early night's sleep, but not to miss Go Takamine's film in the morning.

SUNDAY---One package has arrived in Memphis.  The papers for US customs are not in this package and it cannot be cleared.  We don't even know how many other packages there are.  Films Division, the producers of both films and Federal Express in India have given different answers.  And the computers are down in India. 

I am glad that the Flaherty does not publish a schedule.  I want to introduce Mani's films with the music film Siddeshwari.   I schedule it for Tuesday, together with his latest The Cloud Door (1994) a short film from the German series Erotic Tales to give more time for the shipping to be worked out. 

I start my program with Takamine's Untama Giru (1989).  Mani is elated by it.  A real filmmaker, he says of Go Takamine.  What a gift to his people, he exclaims When he learns that Okinawa isn't at all like in the film and Takamine had made it all up.  He is feeling much better.  Film seems to have restored him.  But still anxious about his health, I tell him he doesn't have to attend all the films, but that he should see Leaving Bakul Bagan in my first Asian Diaspora program evening, a video by Sandeep Ray, a young Indian American.  Mani seems to trust my recommendation.  He loves it. See what our young people can do, he says to me.  Listen to an older man, he later tells Sandeep Ray, Listen to what my teacher told me:  Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani... How can you make great films with timid, weak names like those?  Hear my name -- RIT-WICK GHA-TAK!  Take my advice and use your middle name, Mani goes on, From  now on you will be Sandeep BHU-SHAN Ray!  And you will not be confused with the other Sandeep Ray, the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray, I add referring to the filmmaker son of Satyajit Ray.

Most people seem to like my program so far.  But I wonder about the people who withhold their comment.  I wonder about their silence.  

MONDAY--Federal Express confirms there are only two packages in the shipment.  At least one film is here.  I hope it is Siddeshwari.  But they still cannot get it through customs.  How about opening with Uski Roti?  Mani is uncertain.  I made it twenty-five years ago; I was only 26 then!  he cries.  To make matters worse, the print has no English subtitles.

Uski Roti (A Day's Bread, 1970) was extremely controversial when it was first seen in India.  A complete departure from anything in Indian cinema, it is a non-narrative, experimental first film made by a 25 year old Mani Kaul.  The film was almost universally denounced as self-indulgent and irrelevant.  I myself remember it as rather boring when I saw it in college twenty years ago.  Did such a film have a place in Indian cinema?  Another new cinema was emerging in India, led by Mrinal Sen/s Bhuvan Shome (1969), Girish KarnadÕs Samskara (year) and Ankur (1973) by Shyam Benegal.  Largely inspired by the realism of the great masterworks by Satyajit Ray in the 1950s and early 1960s, and reacting to the formulaic commercial Hindi film from Bombay, these films aspired to social relevance, artistic integrity and commercial viability.  Uski Roti was the complete antithesis to this New Indian Cinema.  Even Ray, whose films always broke even or made some money, came down on the side of commercial viability as a benchmark of relevance.  Would not the taxpayer's money spent on Uski Roti been better used bringing electricity to even one village in India? Mani had been asked at one point.  It was a cruel and hurtful question, Mani says to me, As if I did not want the people of India to have better lives.  I haven't seen Uski Roti in ten years, Mani says, I cannot go through that again.

I tell him, rather hopefully, that Siddeshwari might still make it in time.  Mani would rather wait another day, till Wednesday, rather than start with Uski Roti.  I consider it.  I can change the schedule as I go along.

I show some more work by young Asian artists in the US and Canada.  Mani likes Shani Mootoo's tapes and I Blink ... Three Times and The Island with the Striped Sky by the young Korean video artist Seungho Cho.  I agree with him, Mani says after the discussion, One must work with one's instincts.  But he is not entirely convinced by video.  An art form must ultimately be about itself, he says.  I tell him to wait until he sees the videos by Mako Idemitsu from Japan, to be shown later in the program. 

In the cafeteria, hallways, by the lake, I start getting some critical comments about my program.  Most seem to like to program but are missing that Flaherty experience of critical discourse leading to a group intellectual catharsis.  I am too formal; I am not directing the discourse enough; the Asian Diaspora artists selected are too young and unformed; what did I understand by the term "Diaspora"; there aren"t any second or third generation Asian Diaspora artists; there are too many gay and lesbian works.  I say the choices are very personal.  I say that I am not trying to document the Asian Diaspora but to express it through these filmmakers.  I say I am trying to give younger artists a chance to attend the Seminar that I am not interesting in regurgitating a "Golden Hits" of Asian or Asian American film and video.  I remember deliberately ands consciously programming new and relatively unknown Asian American and Asian Canadian artists alongside more mature and established Asian filmmakers.  I don't quite remember why.

I join Mani and a group of filmmakers in the lounge that night.  We talk into the night.  At 3 in the morning, I call Federal Express, pleading, threatening and cajoling, for them to bend the rules and release the package they have.  I rejoin the group.  Someone in the group has brought down a boom box.  A cassette of tanpura music emerges from somewhere.  The drone from the Indian instrument fills the room and Mani begins to sing.  It is beautiful; I feel I am one with a moment of pure creation.

 

Mani pauses.  A young Asian American filmmaker asks if he is singing for himself or for the group.  Mani is stunned.  We are all stunned.  You won't even allow me my little fantasy? Mani asks.  I am only trying to deconstruct it, says the filmmaker, a recent graduate of an American film school.  I realize he does not know Mani Kaul.  All the filmmaker guests have screened at least one film, except for him.  I decide I cannot wait until Wednesday.  I will screen Uski Roti the next day.

TUESDAY-- Good news, bad news.  The package is here.  It is Siddeshwari.  But the last reel is in the other package.  We consider our options.  Show the last reel on tape?  Show it incomplete?  We decide to stick with Uski Roti.  At least it will be chronological.

As we walk up the hill to the auditorium, Mani does not want to talk about the film after the screening.  I tell him the audience here has seen a great deal of experimental film and video.  He is still unsure.  

I introduce Uski Roti.  I give a brief story line and describe the filmÕs innovations in flashbacks, the use of lenses and the stretching of time.  Mani is up in the projection booth.  The print is gorgeous.  K.K. Mahajan's black and white photography glowed in hues of black and silver.  One or two people leave in the first ten minutes.  The rest stayed.  I watch, rapt, waiting with the young heroine of film as she waited by the roadside for her husband to pick up his lunch as he drives by in his bus.  I enter her mind as the film folds and unfolds upon itself.  Reality, imagination and memory fuse.  I do not hear Mani come into the auditorium.  He sits behind me.  ThatÕs John Abraham, the director, as the beggar, he whispers.  He was my first assistant - I took that shot - That's my voice in this shot; I dubbed it.  It is the excitement of a twenty-five year old.

The film ends.  The audience applauds.  Mani stands up and says he would like to discuss the film later.  Questions start anyway.  I give in. This, after all, is the Flaherty Film Seminar.  What was the story about, shoots George Stoney.  He is pacified with a written synopsis.  Then the other comments start:  I didn't understand a word of it but I felt I understood it - I don't care if I did not understand it, it was so beautiful -  I was mesmerized by the film  -  It was like poetry.  Mani is still apologetic.  He recounts the negative recption the film received in India twenty-five years ago.  He notes that his film did not make it into Eric's book on Indian cinema.  He even ends with a self-deprecating joke.  Mani leaves amid applause.

One young writer approaches me, furious at Mani's joke.  It was unnecessary, the film was beautiful, he says, defending Uski Roti from its creator.

In the lounge that night, I see Mani surrounded by young filmmakers, artists, teachers.  I do not know what they talked about.

I call the shipper at 2 AM.  The second package will be here in the morning.

WEDNESDAY --  Both Dhrupad and Siddeshwari are here.  I decide to screen Dhrupad next and close the seminar with Siddeshwari. We screen more work by Go Takamine and Mako Idemitsu.  My program has begun to take a shape, an organic character as a whole.  The Flaherty catharsis has not happened yet.  I feel I am not delivering.  According to Flaherty folklore, a film or video maker cries about this time after presenting a work.  Maybe the programmer will weep at this seminar, I say.  That will be a first, says Kathy High.

I decide to move The Cloud Door to a late night screening by itself.  It is short, but I can't believe it took a year to make, says Mani.  
There has been some comment that the retrospective and the Asian programs are working like two different programs.  Patty, Eric and I move films and videos to form a new program drawn from the retrospective, Asian Diaspora and Asian short works.  If some issues need to be discussed still, we decide this will be the chance.  This will be for Thursday night.

I talk with all the filmmakers.  Nick Deocampo advises me that I should direct the discussion and elicit responses with a defined goal in mind.  I go to bed early, convinced.

THURSDAY--I wake up, sure that this was not what I wanted to do.  I felt films had too much mystery for me to try to fit them into an intellectual discourse with an objective that I was very unclear about.  I also learn at breakfast the Flaherty experience had happened the night before, much like a birth after very long labor.  It was during one of the retrospective programs.  I feel a burden lift from me.  And I had slept through it.

We screen Dhrupad.  No subtitles again but it is even less of a problem.  The music of the Dagar Brothers enthralls the audience.  The camera sweeps through the deserted halls of the Gwalior, expressing the curves of the architecture` of the ancient fort of Gwalior.  Mani discussed his camera techniques and color theories.  He sings for the audience, illustrating the music he has tried to capture on film.  One person points out the resonance of the receding pillars with the scales of Indian music.  (get comments)

FRIDAY --- I am about to introduce Siddeshwari.  Eric motions me over and asks about Mani's earlier comment about being excluded from his book on Indian cinema.  I point out that the book was written in 1963 before Mani made his film.  But I did mention him in the revised version, he says.  Later in New York, I look it up and discover it is in a footnote.  Siddeshwari unfolds quietly.  Watching this film about Siddeshwari a legendary singer of thumari I recall ManiÕs earlier comment and realize it is also a film about film.  It is perfect. 

The audience loves the film.  Mani discusses his film.  (Bresson?)  I remember Spottiswoodes's textbook on cinema from my student days, now terribly outdated, he says.  But I remember something from the preface, he continues, and that is ÒAn artist does more than he knowsÓ.  It seems to me now young artists know more than they do.  A young filmmaker says, I know I will not make your films.  They are very different from the  work I do, but there is something beautiful, something  in your work that I want very much.  She trails off, unable to find the words.  You donÕt need my permission, Mani says to her.  If you feel you need it, you have it.  Later, I go up to the filmmaker who had asked that question and she bursts into tears.  So, a filmmaker did cry after all, I say to myself, but from inspiration, not from having her work savaged in critical discourse.  And I remembered why I had programmed young emerging filmmakers with great experienced artists. 

I would like to repeat something Mani told me earlier this morning, I begin to say.  But Mani jumps in.  My films have been shown in almost all major film festivals.  But today, after twenty-five years, he says, I feel I have finally found my audience for my films.  But I am a little frightened, he adds hastily, for it is good for a filmmaker to have a little bad reputation.   Mani gets a standing ovation. 

Only two Indian filmmakers have been so honored and received at the Flaherty Film Seminar.   One was Satyajit Ray, the other is Mani Kaul.   In India, Mani's films have been criticized by many people including Ray, all these years.   Ray came to Flaherty in 1956, the year this Flaherty programmer was born.  It seems fitting yet ironic that the 1994 Flaherty Film Seminar opened with a tribute to Satyajit Ray and ended with a standing ovation for Mani Kaul.  But I still wonder what happened to film discourse in those 38 years?
 

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