‘Bring me a dish to satiate my mind and I am happy.’
No, no one great said that, I just made it up coz I wanted to begin with a bang. But that doesn’t mean it is untrue. Kaul, a feature length indie film has had me quite, quite excited since a few days now.
It’s rare a film excites me so much, makes me think so much. So exploring, enquiring, digging, labelling, un-defining…it goes.
Kaul, in several cultures, means a call to the divine. It also means higher order or social class. It also means a man of high breed. It also means a purpose or profession. It also means a promise.
How simple is simple?
We live in a world where everything is codified perfectly into two neat brackets, cause and effect, black and white, this or that. Human existence today, is an argument of versus. But simple is a unifying agent, it is a unifying philosophy and has no place for duality. Then?
The task of our times then is to deconstruct. And integrate. To arrive at the core that is simple. Kaul is something like that.
A young man in a small town in Konkan murders a woman and moves to a smaller village. He takes up a job as a teacher, marries and is living a seemingly uneventful life when he undergoes an experience he cannot accept or reject. It is something he cannot define; it is surreal and drives him to the edge of sanity (as defined by common majoritarian understanding). He sets out seeking answers, peeling layers until he arrives at the core.
Mystical? Maybe, but this is not a saintly story of a man’s enlightenment and struggles with it. It is the story of Nietzsche’s ‘Ubermensch’, Camus’ ‘Outsider’, and the 21st century common man experiencing the dark night of his soul fraught with anxiety.
If he kills like Camus’ Stranger and goes off like a being in search of his super-hood, then like our 21st century man he veers towards the confines of psychiatric classifications, depending on the only rules he seems to be made of. ‘Shut me up if I become a threat to the society’, he pleads earnestly, believing himself to have gone bonkers; his classification of insane and normal as binary as the debate between the physical and the metaphysical. In this honesty lies the thread of his search, the honesty that compels him to ensure his road must not end in annihilation of others also leading him to explore the power that lies in that very thought of violence. Is that where ultimate freedom lies?
What if you could just snap your fingers and the world would come to an end?
And what if your redemption lay in it? Through it?
That kind of power is threatening. Life-threatening. Two moves and the torture would end. And it would be a good deed. Or would it be? We are back to polarising.
But it is touch and go, this playing with polarisation, because as is essential, one must quickly leap to integration, from linear to the cyclical, from separation to unification, if one has to arrive at the meaning of existence. In the womb of birth is the seed of death and in the heart of death the first call for creation. Something cannot be destroyed until completely built and cannot be created until it is not completely annihilated. The pendulum has to swing to both extremes to arrive at its true balance. Let me drop the ‘true’ and just say balance. It is simple.
To peel off the layers of our consciousness and definitions of art then, the film throws off layers after layers of myths and faux-labels, crystallising the knowledge, the visual and sound (literally and metaphorically!) in an attempt to integrate sensory experience with emotional resonance in the audience. As the protagonist starts his journey in search of answers we are taken into another world where the physical echoes the metaphysical. The play of day and night, darkness and light, sounds and silences create a universe that is tactile and immersive, daylight exposing the extreme dullness of the regular and darkness the mysteries of the obvious. With this, Kaul gently plays on our senses as it tantalises us to follow the protagonist to find out what is this bat-shit craziness that has descended upon him suddenly.
Do we need the Master?
Needless to say, he finds a guru; the film evoking a Campbell-like mono-myth pattern of a hero’s journey, from afar a simplistic narrative principle, from close quarters simple. As he tries to seek the tutelage of one seemingly mysterious old man another layer of polarity opens up. Along with several other myths the old man also rejects the myth of the ‘guru’, hinting at the infiniteness of the self to find its own way out of this ultra-real world. The role of the seeker as a primary school teacher suddenly gains credence. ‘This whole Guru-Disciple thing is bogus’, roars the old man in defiance, decrying the tradition of looking outward, and by that pushing the protagonist to look within.
He urges him to listen to birds for messages decoding his path.
‘And what will I find?’ the seeker asks in anticipation.
‘Nothing. You will find nothing. But only after knowing that will you be able to accept it. There is nothing to find.’
A group of philosophers, writers and artists were once asked, ‘Why are we here?’ John Cage famously replied, ‘No why, just here’. Let’s pause here a bit.
Integration is not mathematics, but then maybe it is.
From a distance, there is a danger of viewing and interpreting Kaul as a fable, it is anything but that. Rather it could almost be interpreted as a pataphysical take on the business of spirituality. With a firm belief in the power of self, the film almost cocks-a-snook at the common dialectical understanding of experiential truth and the mysterious secret of man as super-being.
Even though interpreting Kaul as a fable would be reductive, there is a certain temptation to do so, given the structure and form it chooses to take. It’s magic realism is Kafkaesque, dark, mysterious and anxious, very anxious. It is mystical and formless, evolving as we go, but it is in enquiry that our existence and the film lies, as embodied by the seeker and that which is being sought. That is the spirit of the film hence its fable-like veneer dismantles before it is fully built as the Kafkaesque intensity deepens, unshackling the viewer from the fluff of fantasy immersing him in the surreality of reality instead. Enquire don’t accept, seek don’t give up, trust your power do not let go of it; some of the ideas the film seems to be urging us to follow with little cushioning.
While merging the hero’s mono-mythical external journey with his internal one, the film adapts and adopts from several theisms and philosophies. Rooted in ancient Hindu philosophy is our mysterious old man, who suggests neti neti is the only path for the insane. In a caustic sweep he derides the modern-day formalist man steeped in illusory materialism and its limited definitions. Neti is a yogic path to enlightenment, propounded in Gnana Yoga and Advaita Vedanta, which emphasises on the rejection of all that is not the Soul and thus coming in touch with it. It is a path of deconstruction, one that nudges the shedding of layers of illusion and belief that we are mere mortals, to reach that germ of immortal within us.
‘Do what you feel like’ is the only answer the old man has for our angst-ridden protagonist. Hear the calling of honesty. From songs of experience the return to innocence.
It is believed that knowledge or ‘gnana’ was handed down through the alleys of memory, both physical (smriti) and divine (sruti). The Vedas, believed to be central canon of Hindu philosophy, are said to have been written through the assistance of divine memory. The oral tradition of India, (where sagely as well as worldly wisdom was disseminated through stories), and the guru-shishya codification of the same task, then seem to be derivatives of a deeper tradition born of the belief in sruti and smriti.
It is from these traditions that director Aadish Keluskar draws his narrative, borrowing a phrase T S Eliot used to describe the style of metaphysical poets, ‘yoking together’ the content with form in a meta-fictive universe. True to the oral tradition the old man hands down ancient knowledge to the protagonist. Is it from sruti or smriti? The film, like the old man, (its spokesperson almost), gives no ready answers. But there are answers embedded within, for which enquiry is required.
Kaul, bases its world-view, or rather other-world view on prominent philosophies and beliefs, collecting them together to make a base, a context. It then plays within this context of beliefs, pitting one against another to find a middle way. It’s almost like an examination, or experiment rather, of mating the best DNA of Nietzsche’s nihilism, Camus’ absurdism and Hindu spiritualism to free their core and it’s own. What emerges is the distilled idea of the Self. And the absoluteness of its power. From a dot we emerge and into the dot we dissolve, ending where we begin. Again and again, we just need to know it.
The atmosphere of darkness lies like a heavy pall on the film. It is full of bated breaths, the frames holding still in limbo, as anxious and paralysed as its protagonist who doesn’t know where to go from here. Just like neti neti, the structure of the film to arrive at its point is not this, not that. A constant negative reaffirmation. In an admirable example of metafiction, the physical form the film takes is to reflect the essence of its content. In many ways it subverts what we popularly know of the relationship between form and content and how it is practiced. In other ways it is the distilled approach of marrying both, the essence of simple. The old man refuses to provide easy answers to the protagonist pushing him on the path of neti neti and the film does the same to the audience. It is exciting to say the least, to catch clues and link up a path to the centre of the film.
When I reached there, the deepest I could, I found something interesting at the centre of the film. It pretends to be dystopian while it is very utopian and optimistic. Behind the obfuscating mystique, behind the nihilistic violence, behind the weariness of regular life, the film thrusts forth a strong belief in personal power, almost urging us to claim ours. Using violence, it liberates it from the baggage of destruction, leaving only the creative force behind.
Perhaps, the richness of the form and content is what I find so exciting in Kaul. The boldness of night photography allowing darkness to rule, the image crystallising as though in response to the call of plot, the soundscape reverberating with enigma, hinting at larger mysteries while guiding through them. It is with a certain intensity that the soundscape plays on the subconscious, informing the world of the film through vibrations, through variations, through space and vacuum, through noise and silence and through the gross and fine. This intensity and vastness of variation melts in with the world of the film, creating a supra-natural, almost physical experience of the protagonist’s journey for the audience.
‘Truth is rarely pure and never simple’ proclaimed Oscar Wilde. Neither is Kaul. It isn’t pure, it isn’t perfect and it isn’t simple. But it wins in nudging us to ask, in our lives and in films, what is simple?
(Kaul will be playing at this year’s edition of Mumbai Film Festival and will compete in India Gold section)