Mani Kaul’s Duvidha Shatters Conventional Film Structure and Is Among the ‘Purest’ Films Ever Made

On July 6, the auteur's death anniversary, I revisit a masterpiece that creates a new cinematic form even as it weaves other art forms into its aesthetic
Mani Kaul’s Duvidha Shatters Conventional Film Structure and Is Among the ‘Purest’ Films Ever Made
Until about 25 minutes or so, I was struggling to understand Mani Kaul's aesthetics in Duvidha. Alternating between entrancement and befuddlement, I was scrutinizing the film's inscrutable formalism even as I was drawn to some of its striking images. The freeze-frames, which held my rapt attention during the opening credits, seemed to have atrophied to a distracting pomposity intruding the film's fantastical narrative. I was longing for shots like the ethereal sun-kissed image of the banyan tree indicative of an astral presence, evoking a strange stupefaction accentuated by the staidness of the narrator. I was so enraptured by this astounding image that I expected, nay demanded, that the film revolve around or extend its ideas using this image, a fixation perhaps exacerbated by the film's synopsis where a ghost, having fallen in love with the bride, spends five years with her masquerading as her husband after the husband's departure. The film, however, seemed to defiantly ignore my wishes, irking me with its frequent freeze-frames, rendering dialogue as (mostly) a series of recollections, and periodically incorporating Manganiyar songs into the fray, preventing me from luxuriating in the lush, exotic sublimity of its ghostly images by forcing me to pay attention to its techniques.
Grudgingly intellectualizing and rationalizing its perplexing style while grumbling about its supposed detraction from the fantastical, I resigned myself to seeing another film drowned by the grandiosity of its ideas. But 25 minutes on, where the ghost confesses his intentions to the bride, I underwent some sort of a cinematic epiphany. A sequence filmed using a hodge-podge of the very techniques that drew my indignation revealed all the film's intentions with startling clarity. Kaul's dazzling array of alternating freeze-frames and still shots, overlaid with the dialogues from the characters and rife with symbolism through lamps captured in stunning chiaroscuro, suddenly acquired a visceral power which immediately arrested all my intellectualizing. The accompaniment of a near psychedelic, droning tambura in this sequence aided in the complete shattering all my parochial expectations and demurrals, and I finally succumbed to the intuitive logic of Kaul's mystical cine-realm. I was foolishly restricting the film through the lens of my parochiality and semi-conventional narratives, resisting the film's innate charms by countering it with a misguided arrogance. The film, however, patiently waited until I showed grudging signs of acceptance, immediately seizing me with a beguiling hypnotism that made me a fervent acolyte by suppressing my self-absorbed agnosticism. The only thing that could separate me from the film was its ending.
I would have liked to end my review here as a document of my conversion. But to convince myself and other stubborn viewers, I needed perhaps to interrogate my feelings a bit further. This would, of course, mean the very intellectualizing which I already said was worthless while watching the film. I might have been carried away slightly in my hyperbolic praise, as this intellectualizing was somewhat instrumental in ensuring that I did not distil the film into a profound emotion, as it certainly encompasses far more in its deliberate, yet visceral style. It probably seems that I am contradicting myself here which I don't deny, but a full appreciation of the film, like any great art, is obtained by deeper thinking.
Kaul strips the film of the burden of conventional narrative by conveying most of the plot through narration, not focusing on the details of the ghost and bride's love affair. This makes it sound like a victory of style over substance, and that would be a tempting, but a heavily reductive way of describing the film. By abandoning all narrative techniques and character developments, Kaul focusses his attention on a cinematic purity that would otherwise be encumbered by its excess baggage. Duvidha can be seen as Kaul's quest to find a "purely cinematic object". The term pure, however, is quite vague in its meaning, especially in a cinematic context, as cinema is built from the foundations established by its predecessors. Kaul clearly acknowledges cinema's indebtedness to other art forms even as he paradoxically tries to achieve purity, and this is evident in the film's structure and aesthetic, which clearly unfolds like a musical painting of sorts. The painterliness of the film is apparent through its channelling of still shots resembling still-life paintings and in the saturated sun-soaked landscape shots. In addition to its incorporation of Manganiyar folk music and a modernist background score, Duvidha also assumes the structured improvisations of a musical piece. As much as other art forms are woven into its aesthetic, Kaul's realization of cinema not being a mere incorporation but a unique synthesis arising from the collision and convergence of multiple art forms, results in the creation of a cinematic language entirely dependent on yet disparate from the other arts, and this synthesis is perhaps the "purity" Kaul seeks.
Kaul's de-emphasizing of the human face in favour of the gestural is reminiscent of Bresson, whom Kaul also shares his focus on cinematic purity with. This especially comes into prominence when money is involved, where the hand assumes greater significance in the transaction between two people. Even in certain moments of emotional heft, Kaul focuses on the person's hands, adding greater intimacy by paying greater attention to meaningful gestures. Following the footsteps of Bresson, Kaul also minimizes (doesn't strip entirely like Bresson) the emotions of his actors to enshroud the film in the atmosphere of their internal struggles, refuting notions about the external being tied to identity. The use of freeze-frames in Duvidha brought to mind Marker's La Jetee rather than Truffaut's The 400 Blows, especially in the exquisitely edited moments where the stillness of the freeze-frame transitions to motion, and back to stillness again. The influence of Ritvik Ghatak, Kaul's mentor at the Film Institute, is also apparent in the film's layered sound design. The film's cinematic language might be influenced by its illustrious predecessors, but the originality of its aesthetic arises from the singularity of its vision.
Nowhere is this more apparent than in its spatial dislocation and temporal dissonance. Kaul rallies against the carefully constructed frames and the symmetricity heralded by conventionality by displacing his characters away from the centre of the frame and shuffling between multiple perspectives, imposing what he terms as the "accidental" over the "ideal". But the "spatio-visual aspect" is not Kaul's main concern, where he criticizes most filmmakers for focusing on the spatial alone. The temporal explorations of the film are especially prominent in its usage of ellipses and length of its sequences, where the film unfolds according to a Bergsonian personalized time rather than the dictates of conventional narrative, whose eschewal leads to the emphasis on the intensity and immensity of particular emotions and incidents rather than plot and actorly prowess. This usage of time can also be likened to the length of each phrase in Indian classical music, whose influence Kaul has readily acknowledged.
This deceptively whimsical exploration of temporality serves to create a temporal dissonance, one where the past and present are constantly conversing. The usage of narrative, especially where the dialogues seem like recollections, only exacerbate this dissonance further. Duvidha's use of jump-cuts as disruptive forces linking its freeze-frames and shots of motion dissolve all boundaries between stillness and motion, and this is exactly where the Bergsonian time comes into the fore, where the dwelling of powerful moments is disrupted by incidents from the external world. It isn't surprising that Duvidha embodies the synthesis of music and painting, since both these art forms, especially music, are known for being intensely visceral. Through the collision of past and present, stillness and motion, and the fantastical and the real, Kaul suspends the film (and the viewer) in a bewitchingly permanent daze of indecision. The failure of my initial intellectualizing points to the failure of the recognition of this profound feeling of indecision the film is imbued with, and its usage of all its techniques to cinematically portray this indecision.
The choice of this particular folk story coupled with Kaul's modus operandi allows his artistic, sociopolitical and feminist concerns to creep into the narrative as well. The aforementioned cinematic rendering of indecision is a translation of the bride's simmering internal tremors. Kaul's sympathy for the bride manifests through his female narrator, devoting considerable time to her thoughts and how marriage, family and the rigmaroles of honour burden the bride, curtailing her ability to express herself. This isn't explored further, but Kaul's shifting of narrative voice allows a nascent feminism to lurk in the film's margins.
Among Kaul's critiques of contemporary film narratives and his ripostes through his films (which, alas, barring this, I haven't seen. I look to rectify that as soon as possible), the one that immediately stands out from Duvidha is the shattering of conventional film structure. He found Indian cinema's adherence to the confines of the Renaissance structure troubling, especially since modernity has rendered them inadequate. Duvidha can be viewed, literally and figuratively, as a parable about modernity being thrust into the traditional landscape, leaving the victims shocked in a dazed stupor. Marriages without love seem meaningless, fetters that bind women to honour suffocating and the lack of choices deadening. The emergence of such thoughts come across as an unrelenting force threatening to dismantle all notions of traditionalism, and Duvidha showcases the perpetual conflict between these two forces. Kaul, with his multi-layered depictions of indecision encompassing both internal and external conflicts, has shown the inability of traditional narratives to cope with modernity effectively, and this is especially true viscerally.
Of course, all this innovativeness will be duly accompanied by claims of anti-Indianness. If even a Tagorean humanist like Satyajit Ray had to undergo accusations of aestheticizing poverty and westernising Indian cinema, it's no surprise to see Kaul get similar treatment. There is an undeniable European influence, but the uniqueness of Duvidha is how it defies any form of nationalization and categorization. I imagine that the usage of Indian music interwoven into its structure would be hard to understand for a European, and Duvidha is inconceivable without Indian art forms. Strangely, these questions of Indianness aren't accorded to mainstream Indian cinema influenced by classic Hollywood, so why the double standards for what is possibly not just the greatest Indian film, but among the greatest films I have ever seen? Duvidha consistently challenges and confronts us, reinventing the Indian narrative to encompass problems inherent to modernity, all while never losing track of its source. I would happily bask in the film's ethereal atmosphere for a long time, but the prevalence of marketing forces ensure that I have to make money. I suppose that's how Duvidha becomes a Paheli to solve.

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