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The Magic of Mani Kaul

By Sudipto Chattopadhyay
July 06, 2011 16:29 IST
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Noted filmmaker Mani Kaul passed away on Wednesday after a prolonged illness. Besides making New Age cinema, Kaul was also a gifted teacher at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII). His student Sudipto Chattopadhyay --  a filmmaker and writer -- pays a tribute to the legend:

Kumar Sahani (who was very close to Mani Kaul, and also taught at FTII) I hear is ailing and now Mani Kaul is no more. They were the last two teachers who gave us the vision of cinema.

When I was a student at FTII, the community was sharply divided between those who ardently followed Mani and Kumar and those who made fun of their cinema. But as a raconteur Mani had the undivided attention of the entire student community.

Kumar was more taciturn and sage like, Mani was the exact opposite, always melodramatic and larger than life. Almost like a flamboyant film star.

It was said that even the likes of Manmohan Desai would be entertained by hearing Mani speak.

Those of us who were die-hard Mani acolytes would often joke about whether cinema was Money Making or Mani Making. That was the extent of Mani's charm.

He strode like a colossus and shaped our cinematic consciousness. Whether or not you liked his brand of cinema, you could not but be charmed by the effervescent spirit of the man. The witticisms, the twist in the phrase, the innate ability to scoff at his own brand of cinema. He taught us to throw caution to the winds and be self deprecatory, a trait that most Indians lack.

The then Mohican of Indian art house cinema, Satyajit Ray, had rubbished Mani Kaul's brand of cinema calling it anaemic in his famous book Our Films, Their Films. Ray belonged to a certain tradition of narrative cinema from which Mani's work was a distinct departure.

With all due respect to Ray's brilliance, I suspect the apathy to Mani's work stemmed from the fact that Mani was the favourite student of Ritwick Ghatak, possibly Ray's biggest rival. I think Mani inherited his irreverent spirit from Ghatak who showed him life from the gutters to gloss.

There will undoubtedly be much academic debate and dissection about Mani's work now that he has passed away to become a legend. I will not dwell on that.

I still vividly recall the most important lesson Mani had taught us as our Master. He emphasised the need to identify our own "Swabhaba" which loosely translated and correctly understood meant identifying the truth that is essentially our own, or the nature that is innate to each individual.

It is this distinct individuality that separates us, our thoughts and our expressions from others and creates our individual and unique consciousness. He helped us evoke nature that is innate in us as an amorphous mass. He taught us to give that amorphous mass shape and form.

Today, I recall that precious pearl of wisdom that Mani shared with us while talking to us about the tradition of Dhrupad. That was Mani Kaul for me. That will always be a rare gift that I shall hold close to my heart till my dying day. That is precisely how I remember him as flames consume his mortal remains.

I trust no flame can destroy the legacy he passed on to us.

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Sudipto Chattopadhyay in Mumbai