Director: Mani Kaul
Production: Mani Kaul Productions; colour, 35mm; running time: 81 minutes. Filmed on location in Rajasthan.
Producer: Mani Kaul; screenplay: Mani Kaul, based on a short story by Vijaydan Detha; photography: Navroze Contractor; editor: Ravi Shankar Patnaik; music: Ramzan Khan, Hammu Khan, Latif, and Ski Khan.
Cast: Ravi Menon (The Husband); Raisa Padamsee (The Wife); Hardan (The Father); Shambudan (The Shepherd).
Variety (New York), 19 November 1976.
Singh, Madan Gopal, "The Cinematic Exploration," in Filmikon, volume 5, number 1, December 1976.
Ray, Satyajit, "Four and a Quarter," in Our Films, Their Films, Orient Longman, Calcutta, 1976.
Kaul, Mani, "Towards a Cinematic Object," in Indian Cinema Superbazaar, Vikas Publishing, 1983.
"Mani Kaul (Interview with Indian Film Director)," in UNESCO Courier, July-August 1995.
Roy, L. Somi, "Mani Kaul at Flaherty," in Wide Angle (Baltimore), vol. 17, no. 1–4, 1995.
Roy, I.Y., P. Chatterjee, and M.G. Singh, and U. Vajpeyi, "Mani Kaul," in Cinemaya (New Delhi), Winter 1995/1996.
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Mani Kaul's third feature, his first in colour, continued his path-breaking experimentation with what he called the "cinematic object." The film is very much a part of the director's early work (which has changed remarkably over the decades, e.g. his latest, the big budget multi-cast Idiot, 1919). His first two, Uski Roti (1969) and Ashad Ka Ek Din (1971), and then Duvidha, posed the question with great rigour—and for the first time in the long history of Indian cinema—of what the cinematic form itself was, and what it could do.
For him, at the time he made these films, cinema was explicitly not a composite of disciplines arriving at a specificity. He argued that whereas most forms preceding the cinema attempt transformations into specific modes, in film in sharp contrast, the extreme particularization of image/sound denotation inhibits any finite cinematic linguistic, and furthermore, that it is only when the specificity of the image/sound formation is treated as substantial and unique that a violation of this specificity becomes disciplined and positive: open to development (1983).
Towards that end he attempted a process of self-conscious specificity, emphasizing the particular, in order to be able to bracket it and eventually open it out. In Duvidha the location of the film's plot itself is significant to the formalist effort: it tells a Rajasthani folk story of a merchant's son who returns to his village with his new bride. He has to leave the village on business, leaving her alone. A ghost, hiding in a tree, witnesses his arrival and departure, and impersonating the husband, starts living with the wife. In time, a child is born to the woman and her ghost-husband. When the real husband returns, this causes a major dilemma, solved when the ghost is trapped by a shepherd in a leather bag. The socializing of the crisis and its neat solution, as the real husband is reinstated, of course, takes place without anyone taking the wife's feelings into account. Her silent desolation, at the end, leads the film itself to conclude with a strongly stated feminist position, one usually ignored by critics in favour of its more obviously stated formalist experiments.
Kaul himself presents in his cinematic object essay a hypothetical example that evidently relates to Duvidha:
In feudal social formations it was adequate to respond to oppression as an internal phenomenon, since the external social structure was absolutely fixed. An internalized violence totalized the imagined and lived world of mythos. With the disappearance of the feudal order a violent reality externalized solidly, upon the social landscape. The course of the individual in society suddenly appeared hazardous. The older, subtler myths now appear meaningless with the collapse of an outmoded world . . . the solid mass is not able to will: nothing moves. A new abstraction.
It can be reasonably argued that in the film, the totalized internalized violence of the woman is "solidly externalized" by the ghost's physical presence. The trapping of the ghost into a bag in the end, like the trapping of the world of "mythos" by a new social system appears to be a solution, but its utter inability to solve the hazardous journey of the wife's attempt at individuation eventually means that it is no solution at all.
The film intervenes into the process of looking, of taking in that process, but instead of replicating its specificity, tries instead to seek for that abstraction which may allow for a frozen historical situation to find its mobility again.
The frozen nature of the film is of course its most critical aspect: attacked, above all by Satyajit Ray ("Four and a Quarter" in Our Films Their Films) for its unrealism, its exotica and its sparse visual and sound, contrasted as it was especially by the full-throated songs by Ramzan and Hammu on the title track. Into that historical freeze, however, Kaul brings in a variety of historically contradictory, till then considered hierarchical languages. The woman—especially as she enters the village in a palanquin—clearly evokes the Basohli and Kangra miniature forms, extended into the framing, editing and the colour schemes used. Contrasted by the folk nature of the tale itself, and the music that represents the form in which it is traditionally told, Kaul also orchestrates with extraordinary skill the way that classical and folk forms apparently contradict, eroticize and freeze each other, both refusing to let the other go beyond apparent specificities and into a form that can develop and adapt to historical change.
Duvidha was made with the informal support of a multi-arts co-op led by the noted painter Akbar Padamsee. Although this film was extensively screened and telecast in Europe (to a point where Kaul, nearly a dozen films later is still associated with this relatively early work), it may be added that the apparent commercial failure of this film forced the director to make only non-fiction for over 15 years, a genre to which he has returned only in the 1990s, with his explorations of Dostoevsky (Nazar, 1989 and Idiot, 1991).