It’s been 50 years since Mani Kaul’s directorial debut, Uski Roti, released and it’s still considered to be a hidden gem in the history of Indian cinema. One of the seminal works of the Indian New Wave, it remains majorly under-exposed. Shyam Benegal regarded the film to be as much a landmark as Ray’s Pather Panchali.
The film created shock waves when it released as viewers did not know what quite to make of its complete departure from the technique, form and narrative of Indian cinema up till that point. It’s not hard to understand why. There are certain major questions that the film raises that remain as important now as they were 50 years ago.
Adapted from a short story by Mohan Rakesh, Uski Roti is about a Punjabi woman Balo (Garima), who goes to the bus stop to give her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), a bus driver, his daily bread. While Balo is restricted to a monotonous, laborious routine that consumes her entire day, all for the sake of her husband, he spends his downtime with cards, liquor, and other untoward pursuits. Balo’s outer and inner lives are represented by way of two distinct camera lenses (a 28mm wide-angle deep-focus lens and a 135mm telephoto lens), the uses of which are gradually reversed throughout the film. The sequences are static and are often relentlessly long, and Kaul mixes up the chronology, intercutting scenes from different moments in this unhappy marriage. Balo’s inner life of the woman is depicted through a constant repetition of her daily chores. The camera mostly focuses on her face, not much is articulated. Every shot is calibrated to a particular minimal, even when it is a glance or the movement of a palm.
Kaul’s words, however, appear less enigmatic than his works. He said, “When I made Uski Roti, I wanted to completely destroy any semblance of a realistic development, so that I could construct the film almost in the manner of a painter.” Like Robert Bresson, one of his greatest influences (there is even a direct homage to 1959’s Pickpocket), Kaul prefers filming parts of the body – hands, feet and head – and positions his actors such that they are facing away from the camera or are in profile, thereby disregarding the convention that the face is the centre of one’s body.
The action in Uski Roti, strikingly captured by K. K. Mahajan, search for abstraction in seeking physical correlatives – the shot in which Balo observes a stranger fade away in the dust of the field surrounding her continues even when the figure has become invisible to the eye. Thus, this activity in the scene occurs in a differentiated continuum, where space remains diversified, and not restricted to the immediate thematic concern of the narrative. Kaul explained this process of perceived object and space in films by stating that “[a] tree, for example, will stand for itself in front of a camera and nothing more, unless the filmmaker decides to invest an idea into the tree. Investing an idea into the tree (whether it makes the tree beautiful or ugly) is above all a way of ‘de-naturing’ the tree… The very tree that stands for itself will begin to reveal its own meaning when it finds a suitable position in a given set of (standing-for-themselves) images.”
It’s this inability to effectively grasp the focus of the cinematic image in Kaul’s film that put audiences off. Uski Roti deliberately obliterates the identification of theme and meaning in a scene, there’s no straightforward narrative to hold on to. It asks more questions than it answers. The audience has to work to fill in these gaps and truly make sense of the narrative.
The most important questions Kaul asks in Uski Roti is whether the term ‘alternative cinema’ should be considered part of national cinema or as a lineage of global critical response to the classic realist film? Both approaches are relevant, but which is the dominant paradigm of understanding? As far as methods are concerned, reading alternative cinema from the perspective of national cinema mainly involves historical and cultural specificities, while reading alternative cinema from global perspective involves a structuralist method of locating a text in a template of ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’ in relation to the classic realist structure.
These questions are important in approaching cinema not as an artform made secure for derivatives, but as a disciplinary approach that is rooted in a culture that is representative of its own. Uski Roti is that rare film that dared to interrogate the very form it operated upon, and has rightfully remained a film of enormous force, 50years since its release.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.