Last night I had the opportunity to see Mani Kaul, one of the key figures of the New Hindi Cinema of the late-’60s and ’70s, present his first feature, Daily Bread (Uski Roti, 1970), at the REDCAT theatre in Los Angeles. Kaul’s career has been associated with somewhat experimental and documentary films. “As for autobiographical, experimental or otherwise self-reflexive strands [in documentary], these are almost nonexistent in India,” writes Tom Waugh in Cine Action. “Virtually the only exception is Mani Kaul.” Although Kaul studied under famed Indian director Ritwik Ghatak, his primary inspiration came elsewhere. “I think I was his favourite pupil,” Kaul has said, “but I betrayed him. When I saw Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket, my outlook changed completely.”
Bresson’s influence can be seen in Daily Bread, a dramatic film full of silences, gestures, near-stoic expressions, and offscreen sounds. But Kaul is far from a simple imitator, and Daily Bread has a remarkable aesthetic all its own, particularly in its emphasis on time. Shots are extended beyond their usual limits, sometimes even incorporating flash frames where the exposure ceases to exist. Telling the story of a traditional housewife who waits at a bus stop for her working and often absent husband, the film artfully transitions between the present and past in a way that accentuates the woman’s subjective experience of time more than a traditional narrative structure would. Kaul has said that he wanted to make a film about waiting. At our screening, he referred to the film’s polarized audience reception in 1970 and joked about the people who hated its pace. (Reportedly, a member of the Indian parliament once said the film was so boring that she would never forget it in all her life. A criticism or a praise?)
Unfortunately, none of Kaul’s films have been distributed in the US, and the print screened at the REDCAT didn’t even contain subtitles. Not that it detracted from the film; on the contrary, there isn’t a lot of dialogue in it and not having to read the words allowed me to immerse myself more fully into the film’s lulling, evocative rhythms. (Kaul pointed out that Bresson often considered the various tones of a film’s dialogue as being more important than the actual words being expressed, anyway.) As the housewife stands beside a tree in the shade, flies buzzing around her, the sun-dappled foliage swaying, her thoughts drift through recent events and conversations, merging memories with the present moment in a fluid, seemingly unordered path.
Daily Bread is a highly impressive feature that makes me enthusiastic to seek out Kaul’s other work as well, and yearn for the day when some of his films might be released on DVD. His mastery of the medium, even in this debut feature produced at the age of 26, is readily apparent. In recent years he has lived in Rotterdam and is currently a visiting artist teaching classes on Bresson and cinematic sound at CalArts.