Thursday, August 02, 2012

Mani Kaul's 1969 film, 'Uski Roti', brilliant, not great

'Uski Roti'was screened at the Osian's Cine Fan Festival at Siri Fort 2 on August 1, 2012

Mani Kaul's 'Uski Roti' was made the same year as Mrinal Sen's 'Bhuvan Shome' and Basu Chatterrjee's 'Sara Akash', and which marked the arrival of what seemed to be the New Wave in Hindi cinema. Apparently, Mani Kaul did not like the term "New Wave" and wanted it to be called "Parallel Cinema". "Bhuvan Shome"was delightful and eccentric. "Sara Akash" was touchingly straightforward. "Sara Akash"was based on Rajender Yadav novel of the same name. Mani Kaul's "Uski Roti" is based on Mohan Rakesh's story. Mohan Rakesh is a complicated modernist Hindi writer. It is interesting that Kumar Shahani's "Maya Darpan"was based on the other modernist Hindi writer, Nirmal Verma's story.
Mani Kaul did not mean to convey the intent and tone of Mohan Rakesh's story which was more about the emptiness of rural life. Mani Kaul has tried to make into a cinematic presentation, his own cinematic presentation. He is not too bothered about the characters and what they convey. The woman who comes to the station to give roti to her bus-driver husband and waits endlessly as the man leads a life of his own in a nearby town with food, liquor and woman and gambling. The woman's sister is stalked and that worries her. Mani Kaul transposes all these into images, isolated images and tries hard not to tell a story. He wants the images to speak for themselves. And he almost succeeds in his subversive anti-narrative project. The isolated images and the laconic dialogues and the beauty and poignancy lent by the back-and-white film, which transforms kneading of the dough into a poetic image and the impassive faces of all the characters, as though they are part of the minimalist Noh play, gives the film a rhetorical touch of its own. For once Mani Kaul's experiment with pure cinema comes to the brink of success.
"Uski Roti" fails to be a great movie because Mani Kaul despite his devotion to isolated images seems a little indifferent to the individual scenes. He seems to believe that it is the total impact of all the scenes that should create the magic. The camera shows the fields, the mud walls of the home, the empty bus stand on the highway, and the room in a garret in the nearby town. The montage should have created a powerful impact as do the scenes from Sergei Eisenststein's "Battleship Potemkin". If there was just the crowd scene on the stairs and the pram with the child rumbling down and the woman with the cracked eyeglass would not have been as memorable as it is now because it fits into the rest of the images so well.
You come away from "Uski Roti"with the feeling that this is a movie with the potential for greatness and that it does not realise its potential. Of course, Mani Kaul was a mere 25 years old. The stand-alone cinematic images he specialises in seem drab as in "Nazar" because of the colour film. What makes "Uski Roti" superb is the back-and-white film on which it was shot. Mani Kaul must have been aware of the magic of black-and-white film.  

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