Monday, November 30, 2015

So Meta, It Stasized

Attention Conservation Notice (h/t the great Cosma Shalizi): A (very, very) long, meandering, frequently digressive piece on, and an unapologetically hagiographic review-of-sorts of, Mani Kaul's Siddheshwari; featuring factionalism in Parallel Cinema, Shahrukh Khan and self indulgent navel gazing (not in the same order). To expect a cogent, critical, objective analysis from this piece would be tantamount to expecting a leg break from Anil Kumble; or anything but from Venkatesh Prasad. 

You have been warned.

(A part of NF still thinks ending the post here - right after detailed instructions on how to read it have been enshrined - would be cool (so second order meta!). Thankfully NF isn't a teenager anymore and has been declared free from cleveritis for some time now.)


Mita Vashisht as Siddheshwari

When someone asked him where they could find his films, he once said: “It’s good you haven’t seen them, but heard about them, you know; as time goes by the negatives of most of my films, which are in very bad shape, are getting worse, and there are very few prints anyway that are still alright…so, as I get more and more known, fewer people see my work. There will be a time when there won’t be any work left, and I will be gone, and people will be saying, ‘Mani Kaul, Mani Kaul, Mani Kaul’...” 
NF has whined often about discovering his heroes only after they've been dead for a while - Nirmal Verma, Manohar Shyam Joshi, David Foster Wallace were all part of this list, which now has the dubious distinction of adding yet another newcomer: Mani Kaul (the only hero who has been spared this treatment has been William Gibson - forever long may he live). Truth be told, while NF got around to finally watching his first Mani Kaul film a few months ago, he had been meaning to do so for many years now - having bought a three-in-one DVD of his films (Uski Roti, Duvidha, Nazar) from NFDC a few years back. That DVD still lies atop his bookshelf - its dust-laden cover, having never been in danger of being opened. That his films are supposedly challenging and not for the fainthearted, filled the prospect of viewing them with dread and subliminal anxiety.

In an eerie twist however, when he did finally see Siddheshwari, his universe was so jolted, so awestruck he was that he felt paralyzed to get the word out, since a post about the film, with an even remotely similar scope felt intimidating beyond belief. And hence this post has been more than two months in the making - the fact that it's finally being put to paper isn't about slaying personal demons or climbing mount impossible; but is more of a mad rush for self preservation - the sooner NF gets it out of his head, the quicker the end of his obsession with the film. It probably also has to do something with a newfound ambition NF's been suffering from, which causes him to think he can do justice to the subjects he's going to write about, making said prospect of writing filled with the aforementioned dread and subliminal anxiety. (There are some other posts several months in the making too - the utterly, utterly delightful Frances Ha being another one of them, with NF given to swooning over the mere mention of Greta Gerwig - levels hithertofore reached only by the likes of Fatima Bhutto (O heart, do be still!).)

NF finally took the plunge after watching Bollywood celebrities pay their respects to the great master soon after his demise. Rajat Kapoor, Anurag Kashyap and Mita Vashisht, straddling arthouse and commercial cinema alike, were natural candidates; but it was Rakesh Omprakash Mehra's account of stumbling on to Siddheshwari at a local theater that gave NF courage. Unaware of Mani Kaul and being a fan of Siddheshwari Devi - the legendary thumri singer from Benaras - he went in hoping to see a documentary (which the film ostensibly is); and so transfixed he was by what he saw that he watched it again and again and again obsessively - about six times in over a month!

This was the final push NF needed.

Table of Contents:

Ostensibly, Siddheshwari is a 1990 National Film Award winning documentary about the life of Siddheshwari Devi - a famous classical singer from Benaras; but this sentence might just be the most misleading description of the film ever - as Rakesh Omprakash Mehra was to discover. Mani Kaul preemptively assuages the lay viewer who is soon going to be hit with a barrage of wantonly, obscenely beautiful imagery, the meaning of which will be forever, maddeningly out of her grasp, by including a very helpful 'Table of Contents'. Urvashi curses Arjun for scorning her and then relocates to earth as a Gandharva; Siddheshwari's childhood with her mausi (maternal aunt) who trains her daughter (though not Siddhi) in classical music which Siddhi osmotically absorbs, eventually astonishing the guru so much that he takes her under his wing after Siddhi is evicted by the aunt; her musical peregrinations (literal and metaphorical) over boat rides over Ganga due to the patronage of the local ruler; and eventual fame and acclaim.

This table of contents is absolutely key to understanding the film - so much so that its exclusion will result in complete and utter bafflement - and yet its importance is easy to miss on a first viewing, as NF was to discover. In fact, NF strongly suspects that this table of contents was the stand-in for a screenplay - Kaul's untethered, rich, insanely imaginative visuals seem impossible to be tied down systematically in a detailed script. If so, he wouldn't have been the first - Wong kar Wai - another example of an ultra-stylish director prioritizing lush visuals over plot, relies only minimally on detailed screenplays.

The film is a radical inversion of what a documentary supposedly is and arrogates to itself the right to reimagine the idea of being Siddheshwari. More a montage of exquisitely beautiful images in motion tied only loosely by chronology, mythology and musicology, it feels like a plotless, surreal dreamscape propelled only by the powerful voice of Siddheshwari Devi; and an impenetrable-at-first internal logic that begins to make more sense on repeated viewings. NF has no hesitation in acknowledging it as the most formally inventive, authentically avant garde Indian film he's ever seen, with its slow-swooping camerawork, cinematographical wizardry and all round technical excellence putting to shame even current films - commercial and arthouse.

Fact, fiction, myth, music, the impossibly narrow gorgeous alleys of Benaras, whispers, oblique dialogues - all meld together in a jumbled, impressionistic collage to induce a state of mind that affects you viscerally - on a level so low that conscious thoughts find the gates barred for entry. The camera lingers on its subjects' profiles, then languorously shifts its gaze to the ghats and steps of Benaras and the richly hued doors and windows it houses, acquiring sepia tones when transgressing reality; donning rich colours when merely accentuating it. Mita Vashisht is impossibly ravishing and looks every bit the Urvashi whose curse would turn Arjun into a eunuch. The style is dazzling; the effect, hypnotic.

The sheer density of visual poetry per frame in the film is unprecedented. It is gloriously, glacially, majestically, powerfully, stunningly beautiful. It looks the way Nirmal Verma reads. NF finds it useful to think of Siddheshwari as a ninety minute long thumri music video with visuals so lavish and style so breathtaking that it'll turn Tarsem Singh, Chris Cunningham and their ilk green with envy. 

And what an inconceivable, perfect, even subversive ending that inverts, yet again, the identities of subject and object. The only other equally satisfying, artistically impeccable ending that shook NF to the bone was Kieślowski's Three Colours: Red's. Indeed, in terms of technique, the only valid comparisons to be made are those with Tarkovsky and Bela Tarr; and heavily biased as NF is, he feels the former's Stalker and Kubrick's 2001... to be the only films that are as visually powerful and formally accomplished. The magnitude of the achievement is every bit as stratospheric as Ray's Apu Trilogy - among the greatest that Indian cinema, arthouse or otherwise, has ever produced (though on an artistic spectrum, the farthest possible from Ray's Indian neorealism - quite self-consciously as it turns out; for Ray was famously dismissive of Kaul's "anaemic" and "aesthete" brand of filmmaking).

(For those who would think that Indian parallel cinema was a monolithic movement against formulaic, popular cinematic traditions will be sorely disappointed. Not only were there several parallel movements, there wasn't much love lost between them, though it is said that there were two towering masters - Ray and Ghatak - who along with their numerous disciples (Kaul and Shahani were supposedly in the Ghatak zone) dug themselves in two camps: neorealism (Ray) and non-neorealism (!) (Ghatak). Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani despaired over Kaul and Shahani's branding as 'parallel' filmmakers, Kaul thanked Ghatak for curing him of the 'disease' of realism.)

Normals and Tangents

This brings NF to the curious case of Amit Dutta who's fast become the Ted Chiang of avant garde filmmaking - a bona fide freak as far as prizes per unit artwork is concerned. His short FTII thesis film Kramashah (tr. To be continued/In sequence) was introduced to NF by Somnath Pal - an old friend and budding filmmaker whose fan NF's been for years. By the end of the film, NF sat thoroughly destroyed and completely bewildered by its sheer brilliance, being totally unable to get a handle on what the fuck it is and how the fuck is that even possible. 

Not many can take out 90 minutes to watch the dazzling brilliance that Siddheshwari is. But to not take out 20 minutes to sample how truly path breaking Kramashah is, is simply inexcusable. Here is the full film, with subtitles:

Siddheshwari however, is the rosetta stone that helps unlock Kramashah. While substantially original, it bears Kaul's distinct cinematic stamp - gorgeous shot selection; exquisite camerawork; a preoccupation with Indian folk tales and myths; elliptical, oblique dialogues and slightly out-of-phase whispers with their curious mix of literary and folk Hindi; and an unabashedly (for lack of a better word) avant garde sensibility that remains obdurately, authentically Indian. Kramashah could not have been possible without Siddheshwari in the same way Smells Like Teen Spirit would've been impossible without Surfer Rosa. This is not to deny Amit Dutta his fiery originality but to underscore that flying off a rooftop to aim for the moon often ends with you legs up in the garbage dump, as Rajat Kapoor's short Tarana (Kaul's Dhrupad's bad copy - that it won the National Award is a scandal!) reminds us. It took Rajat Kapoor twenty more years to craft an homage that is true to the spirit of his mentor in Ankhon Dekhi. NF admires his tenacity and persistence since most ordinary mortals would've jumped off a cliff after the embarrassment that Tarana is.

Amit Dutta (in general) and Kramashah (in particular) are spiritual successors of the legacy of Mani Kaul (in general) and Siddheshwari (in particular).

On a somewhat tangential note, Shahrukh Khan produced and Amol Palekar directed the remake of Mani Kaul's 1973 Duvidha, in turn adapted from the cult Rajasthani writer Vijaydan Detha's short story. The same SRK was no stranger to Kaul's art by the way. Back when he was a mere mortal, his repertoire of films comprised an incredibly artsy portfolio - ranging from Pradip Krishen's oddly titled (and somewhat pretentious, though don't just take NF's word for it) In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (starring Arundhati Roy as the protagonist Annie), Ketan Mehta's Maya Memsaab and Mani-fucking-Kaul's Ahmak - an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's Idiot (no NF hasn't seen this yet). Here is a completely unbelievable news item from 1992 (archived from 2012) on Shahrukh Khan's then incipient rise and features this golden gem from SRK: 
"Yaar," he says, laying bare his carefree air, "shooting for Mani was something else. I didn't understand the movie but I loved the art film environment..."

Watch Kramashah, it's only 20 minutes long and is gloriously, unforgivably gorgeous. If it's up your alley, be fearless and take the plunge, for Siddheshwari is a high risk high return proposition - if it's a miss, you'll know it after having watched Kramashah, if it's not, it'll be a film you will never forget for it will paralyze you with its beauty. It will make a fan out of you of Mani Kaul, of his vision of avant garde cinema; and not least - of Siddheshwari Devi's mesmerizing art which you, like NF will begin listening to on a loop. Of so much ink that NF wasted in this post, not one sentence was about how Kaul uses Siddheshwari Devi's divine thumri to devastatingly good use. NF just hasn't developed the vocabulary for that. If you don't think you can watch Siddheshwari, just to sample what you've missed, watch this stellar, stellar scene where the guruji lays supine on this bed and plays the sarangi; and just observe how slowly, lovingly the camera moves around the room, as if sculpting in time.

For the brave and fearless, here is the full film (no subtitles though). Viva friggin' la!

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