In Martin Scorsese’s 1976 Palme d’Or winner Taxi Driver, the central character Travis Bickle (Robert De Niro) narrates his state of existential despair: “The days can go on with regularity over and over, one day indistinguishable from the next. A long continuous chain.” In Mani Kaul’s 1969 debut feature Uski Roti (His Bread), the female protagonist Balo (Garima) finds herself in a similar predicament, albeit without voicing any concern. Her monotonous daily grind entails preparing rotis (bread) at home and carrying it for miles through fields to the highway on which her husband plies a commercial bus. If Balo is fortunate enough, her partner comes home once a week. The filmmaker Kaul distorts the narrative in this seminal work of the Indian New Wave by adopting a non-linear approach, thereby destroying any semblance of coherence. But linearity hardly matters, as Balo’s daily routine remain the same. Unlike Travis Bickle, who is desperate to change the status quo, Uski Roti’s female protagonist is at peace with her life.
In Kaul’s first color feature Duvidha (Indecision) from 1973, the duty-bound housewife Lachhi (Raisa Padamsee) is luckier than Uski Roti’s Balo. She doesn’t have to wait for her husband, who sets out on a business trip for five years immediately after their wedding. A ghost in love with Lachhi takes on the form of her husband and infiltrates the household. Ironically, the alienation and suffering of Balo appear trivial when compared with the travails of Mallika (Rekha Sabnis) in Kaul’s 1971 feature Ashad Ka Ek Din (One Day Before the Rainy Season), which is based on the Hindi play of the same name by Mohan Rakesh. In three acts, the film chronicles the historical romance between Mallika and the great Sanskrit poet-playwright Kalidas (Arun Khopkar). Incidentally, the first act embodies the essence of Uski Roti, while the third act has certain elements analogous to those in Duvidha.
In the first act, Kalidas is torn between the desire for greatness and his love for Mallika. He has been conferred a State honor by King Chandragupta II, who wants Kalidas to leave his home in the Himalayas and become the royal court poet of the capital, Ujjayini. Mallika urges him to leave for the city, thereby sacrificing her happiness for the greater good of her lover. This selfless act parallels that of Balo in Uski Roti. In the middle act, Kalidas has achieved fame in Ujjayini and marries a sophisticated noblewoman, Priyangumanjari, while Mallika is heartbroken and alone. Kalidas travels to Kashmir along with his retinue, as he has been elevated to the position of the state’s Governor. While passing through his village, Kalidas avoids meeting Mallika, but his wife does. She offers to help the woman by making her a royal companion and marrying her to one of the royal attendants, but Mallika declines.
The third and final act sees Kalidas returning after several years to meet Mallika, as he has renounced his courtly life and the governorship of Kashmir. But things have changed since he left. Mallika’s mother Ambika has passed away, and she has been living in abject poverty. Mallika is married to Kalidas’ nemesis Vilom (Om Shivpuri) and has borne him a child. Even Kalidas isn’t the same as before, evidenced by a moment when he admits to Mallika that he has indeed changed. In Duvidha, such a predicament takes literal meaning in the final act as the ghost is tricked out of the house while the actual husband returns. But the man loved by the wife for four years and with whom she bore a child is actually the ghost. Subsequently, Lachhi falls into a state of silent suffering and goes about leading a loveless life, much similar to that of Mallika and Balo.
Fifty years since its release, Ashad Ka Ek Din holds on to its Bressonian and austere power. Staged as a chamber drama, almost the entire film unfolds in the dilapidated hut of Mallika, situated on the foothills of the Himalayas. Each frame has been crafted with painterly minimalism, accentuating the subject and characters to heighten the emotional impact while rendering the external environment out-of-focus in stark white. This “whitening” of the Himalayas by cinematographer K. K. Mahajan (Kaul’s batchmate from film school) creates a transcendental atmosphere and makes the hut appear like a heavenly abode. By situating every conversation indoors, Kaul attempts to transmit the claustrophobic and desolate feeling endured by Mallika for years amidst the infinite beauty of the verdant mountains, trees and clouds. However, the camera wanders outside on a couple of occasions: once, in the second act when Kalidas is seen riding a horse uphill through the mountain roads of his village. And, also during the climax sequence, when Kaul provides an aerial view of the region’s landscape that inspired some of Kalidas’ great works. Despite his wife’s futile attempts to replicate the native surroundings of his village in Ujjayini and Kashmir, Kalidas always turns to the memories of his past to write.
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Inspired by Robert Bresson, the director Kaul sparingly used background music in his films to underscore the changing moods in scenes. An admirer of Indian classical music much like Ritwik Ghatak — his mentor at the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), the filmmaker employed Ratan Lal to score a few scenes in Uski Roti using the santoor. In Ashad Ka Ek Din, Kaul consciously engaged only percussion instruments including the tabla from legendary composer Jaidev. In Duvidha, folk music adds to the natural environment of the story set in Rajasthan. Kaul would go on to further explore his love for Hindustani (Indian) classical music by creating two documentaries: Dhrupad in 1983 (which delves into one of the oldest genres of music) and the 1989 National Award-winning Siddheshwari (based on the life of the titular classical singer). Kaul was enamored by art. He was fond of describing himself as an “aesthete.” This deep appreciation for art and beauty inspired immaculate shot compositions in his films. The photography and spacing in Uski Roti were modeled on the distinctly post-Impressionistic depictions of Indian womanhood by avant-garde Indian artist Amrita Sher-Gi. Akbar Padamsee, another Modernist Indian artist (and Raisa Padamsee’s father) was the financier of Duvidha, and his trademark use of rich hues of red, yellow and orange receive an homage in Kaul’s film. But in Ashad Ka Ek Din, words take precedence over images, as is the basis for theatrical adaptations.
The potency of Ashad Ka Ek Din lies in its philosophical, psychological and reflective dialogues that build tension and also elevate the love story between Mallika and Kalidas into a spiritual realm. Since sync sound was expensive, Kaul pre-recorded the dialogue track. The psychological conflict in the film is generated mostly from the character of Vilom, whose periodic needling feels intrusive to Mallika. “You see your desire in my eyes,” he tells Kalidas to remind him that they are, after all, versions of each other: “What is Vilom? An unsuccessful Kalidas. And Kalidas, a successful Vilom.” In the third act, when Mallika explains in a soliloquy how she managed to carry on with life in Kalidas’ absence, one can fathom the purity of her devotion and selfless love for him. She grieves, “Even if I did not remain in your life, you always remained in mine. I never let you wander from my side. You continued to create, and I believed that I too am meaningful, that my life is also productive.” Kalidas also reveals how he had never forgotten Mallika and always missed her: “Whatever I have written has been gathered from this life. The landscape of Kumarasambhav is this Himalaya, and you are the ascetic Uma. The Yaksha’s torment in Meghaduta is my own torment and you are the Yakshini crushed by longing. In Abhijnanashakuntalam, it was you whom I saw in the form of Shakuntala. Whenever I tried to write, I reiterated the history of your and my life.”
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The poetic depth of this tragic love story is summed up beautifully by Kalidas in a single sentence when he learns about a blank book created by Mallika, which she had planned to gift him on his return from Ujjayini. She wanted him to pen down his greatest epic on the book’s pages. But since Kalidas avoided visiting Mallika (as seen in the second act), she had forsaken all hopes of him returning. Over the years, she took out her frustration on the pages by biting them, her countless tears had dissolved in them and the wear and tear of time had taken its toll on the book’s form. Along with Kalidas, the audience may realize that no quantum of words could possibly capture the endless agony and longing of Mallika. Looking at the blank and battered book, Kalidas exclaims, “This is the greatest epic ever written!”
Arun A.K. (@arunusual) is a communications professional based in Mumbai, India. He feels indebted to MUBI for renewing his interest in cinema and also helping him explore the world of experimental cinema. Besides writing about films, Arun likes to occasionally dabble in creative writing as well.