Mani Kaul's Nazar, made in 1989, was shown at Osian's Cine Fan festival at Siri Fort in New Delhi on July 29, 2012
It is interesting that Mani Kaul along with Kumar Shahani, was one of first two graduates from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune, and he looked up to Ritwik Ghatak, along with Robert Bresson as his mentors in film aesthetics. Ghata's movies are all vibrant narratives done in his own sometimes quirky way but there was never a dull moment. In the case of Bresson, he manages to bring intense beauty of image. The problem we confront in Mani Kaul's Nazar then is the still frame which tries to fuse intensity and beauty, despair and loneliness, the interior world and the exterior. The inner noise interrupted by the noise of the outside world as doors and windows open and close. The film is an adaptation of Fyodor Dostoevsky's The Meek Creature. The story has a clear narrative and there is a clear psychological dimension of alienation and people trapped in their own inner worlds. The psychological abyss is played out in the external world. The confrontations and agonies are not silent and inarticulate mutterings in Dostoevsky. And the most important thing in Dostoevsky is the intense beauty of suffering. In Mani Kaul's frames, there is drabness of suffering. In wanting to keep tragedy mute and focus on the aesthetics of the still frame, which is his way making a film, he fails to infuse life into the suffering human beings.
Kaul has also an indifferent attitude towards casting. He thinks the composition of the frame should tell it all and that actors and actresses are mere details in the frame. But the joys and agonies of the characters can only be expressed through actors and actresses. In Nazar, Shekhar Kapoor, the self-confessed bad actor, just fails to convey the dullness and harshness of a self-absorbed man. While in Dostoevsky's film, the character is a pawn-broker, in Kaul's telling he becomes an antique dealer.
Kaul's camera slowly hangs around the antique pieces, the vases and other things and the character's weave in and out. In the flat too, the spaces are handled with care. Here is a man who gets the artefacts all right but fails to deliver the punch. Kaul perhaps does not want to deliver the punch at all. He is just interested in the spaces of the frame. Kaul aims at still life paintings -- he is a painter -- and the only meaningful and resonant factor in this space is the musical notes, in this film that of the rudra veena.
This is film of one kind. There is no point in quarrelling with Kaul for not doing this or that. He does not do those things because he chose not to do those things. We have to fight and differ with Kaul on his own terms.
Here is one of the few Indian filmmakers who dares to do close-ups and stretch them through the film. And he shows the actors and actresses -- the three main ones are Shekhar Kapoor, Shambhavi and Veena Sikri -- occupying the space of the frame and moving around and across it. But Kaul does not deliver a fine study of close-ups. He seems to stop short somewhere because he does not to disturb or exclude the composition of the frame. So, you may get the different profiles of Kapoor, Shambhavi and Sikri within the confined space of the flat on a top floor, but their faces do not communicate anything. The problem is this: Kaul is not interested in the story, in the people. Not even in the internal monologue. There is a hint of desire and sensuality in the Sikri character but he lets it simmer. That is the only achievement. The main protagonists are not shown to be the agonising and isolated and locked-up within themselves individuals they are. The restlessness is shown in fits and starts. It is the restlessness and the confrontation that this creates that is the soul of the story. Kaul is not interested in the story. He is thinking of getting the composition of the frame right. And he does not make much of an impact because the composition lacks spark. The beauty of the composition lies in the beauty and soulfulness of the actors/actresses and the tables, chairs, the curtains, the windows and the antique pieces in the shop. These elements do not seem to form a pattern which will create the beauty.