GHASHIRAM KOTWAL (Dir. K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop, Saeed Mirza, 1976, India) – Experiments in Time & Space


Watching Ghashiram Kotwal is equivalent to a punch in the face, cinematically speaking of course, since here is a film, a belligerent work in terms of parallel cinema, antithetical to Indian Cinema. It was a film all but forgotten, salvaged from the Berlin film archive, and restored. Yet again preservation intervened in the historiography of Indian Cinema, revising the past. Ghashiram Kotwal seems like a seminal work now, a crossroads in terms of ideological and aesthetic experimentation, arriving at the peak of the parallel cinema art film movement in 1976. Although the FFC had nothing to do with Ghashiram Kotwal in terms of funding, a natural project to support really, they did help to put in place the necessary conditions for such an experimental film to be realized by a group of emboldened, agit-prop filmmakers coming out of the film institute in Pune. In many ways, Ghashiram Kotwal may not have been possible without Bhuvan Shome or more significantly Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti. The critical success of both films, part of the New Cinema Movement (NCM), and the work of the Film Divisions of India, commissioning experimental shorts facilitated an age of iconoclastic esotericism. The rules of Indian Cinema were being broken, re-written and assimilated with the influences of European cinema, chiefly the long take cinema of Hungarian Miklos Jancso, into a counter cinema that for a brief moment proposed conventions could be subverted to enunciate existing social and political torments.

Ghashiram Kotwal is a difficult film to position and would in some respects fall into the parallel cinema category. However, it is more evidently a radical work that has no ambitions to occupy a middle ground. Experiments in formalism came most boldly from Kaul in the 1970s and his involvement with Ghashiram Kotwal was critical for the film finding both financing and an aesthetic unity. The Yukt film cooperative only made two films; Ghashiram Kotwal and later Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (although this is clearly a parallel cinema film), Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s directorial debut, released in 1978. Yukt (which means strength) was merely an isolated group and the cooperative, made up of 16 members including co-director K. Hariharan and actor Om Puri, rose financing for the project through a bank manager contact of Kaul. Such creative freedom instinctively meant as a collective they could take risks. Hariharan says that Kaul was very much the creative senior, someone they greatly admired, an established filmmaker, who helped to guide and shape the project. Equally participatory was the role played by Kamal Swaroop and Saeed Mirza in developing ideas central to the film.

The collective also drew directly from the events of the time in India. The Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, lasting between 75 and 77, violated the constitution, leading to an outcry from the cultural community. Ghashiram Kotwal was originally ‘a play chronicling the Peshwa regime in western India’, featuring a plot in which the Prime Minister Nana Phadnavis appoints Ghashiram ‘as a senior police official cum espionage agent’ in an attempt to hold on to power in a territory being challenged by the arrival of the British. The parallels with Indira Gandhi’s tyrannical rule were striking; a hegemonic impulse articulated by the use of the police as a means of manifest repression found a metonymic parallel in the way Nana used Ghashiram to enforce terror amongst the Brahmins. Such timely and considered ideological engagement avoids polemicizing, instead relying on a self reflexive approach, combining some of the dance traditions of Indian culture with Brechtian devices (the omniscient narrator, title cards, direct camera address to name a few) to fuse together a postcolonial non-linear dialogue of history and politics that is both diachronic and synchronic. Just like the impact of the IPTA in the 1950s led to a more concerted ideological and aesthetic engagement with cinema, producing some affecting neorealist work, a similar precedent was clearly in work with the 1970s Indian Experimental Theatre of Badal Sircar, a major creative influence on the film.

There are instances in the film that spuriously communicate Kaul’s repeated authorial interests with temporal and spatial disjuncture, evident most strikingly in the moment when Nana (Mohan Agashe) and Ghashiram (Om Puri) meet for the first time. In a classic Kaul move, a very trivial and ordinary action, the meeting between two characters, is disrupted in terms of time and space, making us look at the meeting through a new spectatorial gaze. Thematically, Nana and Ghashiram emerge as a mirror image, morphing into one. Kaul frames this first meeting in such thematic terms, obscuring our view of both characters, denying us the predictable reaction shots used to fill in the traditional dramatic narrative space. At one point in the sequence, Ghashiram is completely obscured by Nana’s symmetrical position in the frame, producing a spatial ellipsis that creates a momentary disjuncture, instructing us of their ideological synchronicity.

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Yet by choosing to film from the back of Nana is also significant, it is the master, the one who rules, that seems to literally swallow up Ghashiram into his treachery. In many ways, this sequence violates conventional framing but its experimentational tone is very much implemented at the service of key themes: the contestation of power, and the ostensibly eternal master and slave dichotomy. Even more audacious is the final shot of the film, lasting for an uninterrupted, continuous ten minutes, and directly inspired by the cinema of Miklos Jancso, and which in the opinion of K. Hariharan is unique in film history since it ‘must remain the world’s longest shot on a standard reel of 1,000 feet to be shot by four camera operators’. In this final shot, the camera completes a 360-degree movement at least four times, capturing the way history unfolds disruptively, and also witnessing a subdued transference of power, the British coming to the fore.

Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, based in Berlin, has over 8,000 films in its archives. To date, Arsenal has restored two significant Indian films, Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? (1986) and Ghashiram Kotwal. Both of these films have been released by Arsenal on DVD (region free luckily) after receiving retrospective screenings at the Berlin film festival.


Accompanying DVD Booklet by Arsenal; featuring an interview with K. Hariharan conducted by Shai Heredia, filmmaker and curator.

The Films of Mani Kaul: USKI ROTI (A Day’s Bread, 1970) – ‘The film is about waiting; it is deliberately slow.’

The opening shots of Uski Roti: the outstretched hand – a Bressonian idiom.

‘The environment of my kind of cinema, which is not experimental because I’ve always known what I’m doing and what the result will be, does not exist.’

‘I am opposed to story-telling’
Mani Kaul in conversation with Sameer Shah

The Sunday Observer, 11 July 1982

This is the first in a series of posts on filmmaker Mani Kaul who passed away in 2011. Kaul is a filmmaker who has alluded me for a long time, largely because his films are so difficult to get hold of. However, three key works including Uski Roti, Duvidha and Nazar have been restored and released on DVD. Additionally, more of Kaul’s work has been cropping up on either YouTube or as Torrents. Since his death, more has been written on Kaul and hopefully we will get to see more of his work appearing slowly on DVD. One of the sharpest and most comprehensive overviews of Kaul’s work has come from cinephile writer Srikanth Srinivasan on his blog The Seventh Art.  Mark Cousins also interviewed Kaul on Indian cinema for his epic voyage through film history.

Of all the foremost Indian filmmakers to materialise from the Indian art cinema movement of the late 1960s director Mani Kaul is conceivably the one who endeavoured to modernise the language of Indian cinema, daringly shifting the focus from ideological study to cinematographic formalism. Although Robert Bresson also influenced Mrinal Sen it is Kaul’s work which demonstrates the sharpest realisation of Bressonian ideals such as introspection, ellipsis and delayed minimalism. Uski Roti, released in 1970, was Kaul’s debut and deservedly ranks alongside Ray’s Pather Panchali and Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara as a work that offered something innovative to Indian cinema, in this case facilitating to open up a new space for temporal and spatial poetics. In terms of aesthetics, most striking is Kaul’s repeated emphasis and foregrounding of objects, landscapes, faces and most notably hands. In fact, Uski Roti is a photographic compendium of hands, all strikingly captured by the eloquent black and white camerawork of K. K. Mahajan. The emphasis on hands in many of Bresson’s films was a signature motif and Kaul employs the same technique. In Uski Roti, hands tend to enter the frame with a poise and mystery that transforms communication into something metaphysically graceful and vividly abstract. What is most iconoclastic about Uski Roti is the way Kaul wholly rejects the traditions of narrative cinema by not only dispensing with plot but also inventing a radical ‘organic’ space that elongates the passing of time. Unlike Ray, Sen and even Ghatak who firmly drew narrative ideas from various established genres to manufacture melodramatic situations, Kaul allows the chosen locations to nurture and create the narrative, however negligible it is.

What follows are some quotes from Kaul, taken from various sources, on his filmmaking approach juxtaposed to screengrabs and key shots from Uski Roti.

‘When I made A Day’s Bread, 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.’
A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald, University of California Press, 1998

A discernible style emerges immediately. Our view of characters throughout are obscured by the positioning of people and objects, creating a cinematographic ellipsis within the frame itself.

‘I constructed A Day’s Bread shot by shot, in this second way, so that the “figure” of the narrative is almost not taking shape in realistic terms. All the cuts are delayed, though there is a pre-empting of the generally even rhythm sometimes, when the film is a projection of the woman’s fantasies.’

A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald, University of California Press, 1998
The foregrounding of objects such as a tree in this instance deconstructs traditional cinematic space.

‘I believe the camera is not something you’re seeing through; it’s the way your body extends into life. You have to learn to hold the camera with your rhythm, and not just have an idea in your head and try to illustrate that idea.’

A Critical Cinema 3: Interviews with Independent Filmmakers
By Scott MacDonald, University of California Press, 1998


‘Now, do you think Bresson was visual? That will be a ridiculous statement! The man used one or two lenses all his life… 

Mani Kaul on Robert Bresson 
Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913 – 2006
Eds. Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, London, 2006

…Most shots were static or had minimal movements. The models always stood at a medium distance from the camera. The eye-level was of an average human height – neither low nor high. No sharp angles. There was never a question of zooming in and out…

…The lighting was evocative of an overall environment and the philosophical context he was elaborating upon but never ever expressing something stridently individual – there is nothing in Bresson that can make us call him a visual artist… 

…His shots were ‘ironed’ out as he himself declared. There were no visual creases that could get our attention for their pictorial detail.’

‘The suggestion of time in Bresson, of what Deleuze described as the realisation of the time-image in his work, is of the greatest importance to the history of cinema. It will take time before we can grasp significance of Bresson’s work. People wrongly imagine that we have left the Bressonian vision behind and gone beyond, that he is old hat by now.’

Mani Kaul on Robert Bresson 
Cinema of Prayoga: Indian Experimental Film & Video 1913 – 2006
Eds. Brad Butler and Karen Mirza, London, 2006
Uski Roti (1970) 
Pickpocket (1959) 
Here is a final montage of shots from Uski Roti demonstrating Kaul’s repeated emphasis on hands:
Channel Four will be screening Uski Roti on Sun 13 May as part of a season on Indian cinema.