Remembrance of Things Past- Duvidha

Duvidha.( The Dilemma)
Mani Kaul

I sat across the street and observed a man in his early 60s standing outside the main entrance of the Osian Film Festival(2008) - 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- gardism, 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 her 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 European aeuteurs to understand cinema and formed an intelligentsia based on pure bourgeois egoism - 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 clich├ęd 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 dimensions over spatial boundaries. 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.

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Anuj Malhotra said…

Just a few random thoughts.

"We write a few lines under the influence of a never-ending supply of caffeine and tobbaco, with a lonely desolate typewriter all but I had forgotten, the keys rattling with the echoes on the heels of the rattles which so brilliantly encapsulate the emptiness of the room we are in. One page is typed. We see the results, soothe our ego, massage our pride. We think we have created legend. We think fate created another. Then we see what's been done before, and we are humbled."

The past is brilliant. Its romantic. It is a distant image which we can see, but we cannot touch, like the portrait of the 'mother'. Its a dreamy blur that seems like a mirage. So near, yet so far away.
We have a glorious history, and we mourn at its loss, never realising that a new history waits to be created. Who will take that responsibility?

P.S - What Joyce is your favourite?

Indranil Sir,
The distinction is too easy to accuse. Blame it all on commerce. Its almost like the murder mystery trope, "The butler did it."

Why is commerce evil? Ever since Prof. Welton made the 'Boxing Cats' in 1894, cinema, by its qualities which need not be mentioned here, became the medium of the masses. Ofcourse, commerce should not guide an intention of film. However, cinema, unlike any other art form(except music), should assume the responsibility to unite. To be able to serve to a mass audience, and should not take pride in its ability to be niche. No art form ever aims at segregation, not in terms of an audience. Ofcourse, in the context of opinions and interpretations, definitely. There is that old devil of subjectivity.

Me, well I am an post-modern film-lover. I am fascinated with formal experiments and I am enthralled by the possibility of the filmic medium more than the film itself. Guess that makes me a cinephile. But give me a good story told well and I would grab that.

We are heading to doomsday. We are obdurate enough to not stop even after Greenaway's constant ringers. We are heading to a stage where films will stop releasing in theatres, will release for a period of 7 days on multimedia display devices like mobiles and i-pods, and will then dissolve into thin air. The era of 'classics' is gone, and unwillingly, we rely on our past so much so that we cannot rid ourselves of convention, no matter hard we try to.

P.S - "We must sit and first understand the fact that why we want to make films."
I think I have heard this line somewhere before. Someone said it to you? In good note. :)

nitesh said…
Thanks for your comments Indranil and Anuj.

@ anuj, never read Joyce.
Anuj Malhotra said…

I am of the humble opinion that you make a misunderstanding of the Ray denouncement of the 'formal experiments' as they obliterate the human element.

The 'human element' he so fondly talks about here exists WITHIN the diegetic framework of a film. It is basically his emphasis on the maintenance of the fourth wall, or the illusion. Throughout his rather illustrious career, Ray seeked to soak his fourth wall, or illusion with a human element, and relied more on the active involvement of a viewer than a passive one. Very simply put, Ray wanted his audience to be involved in the film and not be objective analysts of it, and therefore for him, breaking the fourth wall through these formal experiments meant the discontinuation of the emotions, which were a part of the fourth wall, and as such the elimination of 'the human element'.

Now his 'human element' and the 'human element' that you noticed so succintly in Duvidha, vary/differ on two counts-:
a) In their existence in relation to the diegetic framework.
b) Who does the human element belong to?

a) In Ray's opinion, as I have elucidated earlier, the human element exists WITHIN the film, while in the case of Duvidha, the dissolves and the freeze, and the consequent generation of the feeling of absence or something amiss, exists in the AUDIENCE's DISTANCED PERSPECTIVE of the film, or the Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt, i.e it exists OUTSIDE the diegetic framework.

b) In the first case, i.e of Ray, the emotions are felt by the character, and THEIR emotional rides are the human element. Note, in such a case, the audience might/might not feel what the character is feeling. For example, we feel sadness at Durga's death in Pather, but we will never feel Sarbojaya's loss. But atleast, the tremendously created illusion makes us feel for people within the diegetic framework. In the second case, however, when we are made to adopt a distanced perspective through constant breaks in the illusion, WE feel for the framework itself, rather than the elements within the framework. Thus, our attention is deliberately attracted towards the film and the filmic techniques, rather than the stories or illusions they render. A point, as you must have noticed, that forms the central core of the French New Wave alongwith Les Politiques des Auteurs ofcourse.

Therein, I claim my belief that Ray's denouncement of formal experiments in the context of the continuation of the human element is absolutely right. Because there, I repeat, the human element exists within the diegetic framework. Why, think, would Godard(everyone's favourite) not play too much with technique in Le Mepris, and why would he want us to analyse the framework from a distance in La Chinoise?

As an afterthought, in some cases, these filmic/formal experiments are infact used to convey WHAT the character is feeling, even to the narcisstic extent of trying to get us, the audience to feel in the same way-:

a) Kieslowski's brilliant Trois Couleurs : Bleu, fades to black at critical moments to feel the complete 'emotional blanks' that Julie Vignon feels.

b) Miike breaks the 30 degree rule deliberately in Odishon during the Shigeharu and Asami restaurant conversations to make us feel the same disorientation that Shigeharu has begun feeling.

More later.

nitesh said…
@anuj, You bring out interesting point on Ray and his dissection of the film, But have you seen this film? If so, where?
Anuj Malhotra said…
I haven't had the good fortune of watching this film, and I sincerely hope that this fact does not render my previous post and me, obsolete. :)

BTW, Watched 'Anatomy of a Murder' tonight. Fantastic. Preminger's brilliant.
nitesh said…
@ anuj, not quite, since I like how you bring forth the dimension, but sincerely hope that watching the film would give you a better perspective and could make the judgment more concrete.

Beside, have you read the Ray's essay from I have got the excerpt?

Never had the fortune of watching Anatomy of Murder. Going back to Kurosawa-san works this week for an essay for a magazine. Will get in touch with you to know your views on his cinema.
Unknown said…
Whats is wrong if a medium [Cinema] is used in different ways by different people...
Why should we consider Cinema a extention of theatre...telling a story using conventional norms - Narrative...
Symbolism - which is very difficult to use in theatre, can easily be used in cinema.
Why is it so important for a film to manipulate viewer's emotions all the time.
Why mass audience's lowest common denominator always determines what should happen in art...
Why Objective analysis should not be praticed.
Is there no space for anyone who wants to be different - Minority in arts - Mani Kaul,Kumar Shahani,Sergai Parajanov,Quay brothers...

1. Comment on your blog:-

"cinema, unlike any other art form (except music), should assume the responsibility to unite. To be able to serve to a mass audience, and should not take pride in its ability to be niche. No art form ever aims at segregation, not in terms of an audience. Ofcourse, in the context of opinions and interpretations, definitely. There is that old devil of subjectivity"...
"Me, well I am an post-modern film-lover. I am fascinated with formal experiments and I am enthralled by the possibility of the filmic medium more than the film itself. Guess that makes me a cinephile. But give me a good story told well and I would grab that"...

Talking about Satyajit Ray, the Great filmmaker - why he always found stories from his native Bengal & not from any other parts of india.this is a typical behaviour of most Bengalis [Filmmakers] - they consider themselves to be superior to other indians and when it come to art,literature & cinema - either they have stories from their native bengal or Shakespeare or some bengali writer who has written in english.
they talk of equality & mass audience yet their own views are marred by regionalism...
the GREAT Satyajit had found a formula for the west - Consider pather panchali - shows india's poverty to the west - with subjected realism - this film was made to titillate the western audience,[mind you, India got independence from the Britain six years ago (1955)].

[Comment - In the first case, i.e of Ray, the emotions are felt by the character, and THEIR emotional rides are the human element. Note, in such a case, the audience might/might not feel what the character is feeling. For example, we feel sadness at Durga's death in Pather, but we will never feel Sarbojaya's loss. But atleast, the tremendously created illusion makes us feel for people within the diegetic framework..].

Let me cite an example - my friend was watching this movie, which revolves around a cancer patient's life.he was able to empathize with the patient in the movie. but when his neighbour who was also suffering from cancer, asked for help, he was reticent...

Objectivity is missing. we want Illusion...
We only react, when subjects are packed in a certain manner & we have simple solutions for them.we are afraid of complexity.

3. Oxymoron - Satyajit Ray - who most of his life stood for quality & creativity in cinema - wants to define the boundaries of creativity - Narrative is allowed & Non-Linear is not...

if a person receives a Oscar & is a Bengali [deadly combo] then he/she is the greatest person on this earth.
you have every right to whatever you want to say or believe...
but please comparing Mani Kaul to Satyajit Ray, is like comparing apples & oranges...
Unknown said…
Corrigendum - by mistake logged - "mind you, India got independence from the Britain six years ago (1955)"
it should be - "mind you, India got independence from the Britain Eight years ago (1955)]"
nitesh said…
@ Satyam, well couldn't have put things more simpler than what you talked on Ray, Satyam. Firstly, since you aware of both Mani Kaul's and Satyajit Ray works and aesthetics of Indian Cinema in general. So, its always gives us a new insight into that domain. I believe that is what a good discussion on a blog should be all about- to learn.

Beside, Anuj, quite dint get things right, after all, not having seen the movie or films of Mani Kaul, and to dismiss and prove points is not quite plausible.

This comment has been removed by the author.
Anonymous said…

I have read the essay sir, and I am also in the process of reading the book which contains it. Which leads me to the point, why do you love denouncing me at all quarters?

I do not have to watch Duvidha in order to be able to appreciate Ray's denouncement of the formal experiments and his meaning by 'human element'?

I mean, not having read either Chaucer or Joyce did not stop you from mentioning their names, and using it in a didactic context, right? Simply because you understand the development that Ray refers to in the book from which you take the sentence, and hence its absolutely justified for you to use it. In a similar manner, I can see where Ray is coming from, and in any case, I talk more about Ray's love for the illusion, than about Duvidha. Have a heart, and do not forever be offended by me. :)


You write based on a rather hasty presumption. Ray did not realise the relevance of an international audience until AFTER the first two films of the Apu Trilogy had been made, so the question of his exploiting a rural setting to please the west does not exist. Simply enough, Pather Panchali is a great film and deserves all the accolades it got. Why the west is fascinated with the orient is another matter altogether and merits a long discussion. Perhaps Nitesh will take the initiative.

Indranil Sir,
You are always welcome sir. :)

nitesh said…
@ anuj, From the very beginning I think I’m saying the same thing, and I guess will be repeating my self again. I said, that I found your whole notion interesting, but obviously it does not have a fundamental base- here you were not quoting( as I use the Ray’s quote on Chaucer and Joyce), but further illustrating your facts to form a conclusion per se, which officially does not materialize since you haven’t seen the film. Similarly, had I used the quote to further talk about the decay in the writing styles and development of aesthetics in writing it would be dumb. So, as you mentioned in the comment, that Ray’s denouncement is absolutely right- This conclusion can never come if you haven’t seen the film. How can you denounce something that you have never seen? Ray, saw so he wrote, similarly I saw, I read, and I further said it exist in the film. I mean, it’s important to watch the film then only could one better illustrate their judgment and give a more informed perspective and derive a conclusion. Else the conclusion is hollow atleast in the context in which the article is talking about- Duvidha.

Well, let me get another fact correct, I’m not offended by you, and welcome your comments and judgment. Because its is the last thing that could happen. I’m open to learning form everyone and that is what cinema is about along with discussion.

Anonymous said…
About Kurosawa, ANY discussion is welcome, because it is so rare in any case. Initial food for thought - The entire cinema of Kurosawa can be understood by the fact that he was a painter.

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