Notes on ‘Duvidha’

By Arindam Sen

Duvidha (Mani Kaul, 1973)

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This essay seeks to take a close look at the third feature length film by Mani Kaul —the most prominent filmmaker associated with the New Indian cinema. It focuses on certain realities of production, the folk roots of the project, some aesthetic matters and its contentious reception from the time.

Mani Kaul (1942) was born in the city of Jodhpur in Rajasthan, the northwestern state of India. The setting for the film, the  small village of Borunda, belonged to the district of Jodhpur and was roughly at a distance of hundred kilometers from the city center. Prior to making films, Kaul graduated from the Film and Television institute of India (FTII) in Pune in 1966. Duvidha marks Kaul’s beginning of a long cinematic relationship with the desert landscape of Rajasthan. 

It is his third feature length film. After the two earlier films namely Uski Roti (1969) and Ashad ka ek din (1969) were financed by the national film production body that went by the name of Film Finance Corporation (FFC), Kaul relied on his friend, the renowned painter Akbar Padamsee for initially sponsoring the film. The film was later finished with the financial support of the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) once the project was already set in motion. Kaul had previously collaborated with Padamsee for a film that he made under the aegis of Films Division, Forms and Design (1968). However the following years were instrumental in the making of Duvidha — his first feature in color and one that was based on the folkloric short story of the same name, meaning dilemma, by Vijaydan Detha.

The folk legacy - through novel into film

Even prior to the making of Duvidha, Kaul had relied on literature to derive a kind of caricature to build his film upon. In Uski Roti (1969), Kaul adapted a short story by Mohan Rakesh while Ashad ka Ek din (1971), was based on a play by the same author which caught Kaul’s interest. Mohan Rakesh was a prime figure of the Nayi Kahani (New story) movement in the 1950s who was infusing a dramatic modernity into Hindi Literature. The turn to a novelised form of a folklore materialized in Duvidha. Kaul had very early on identified the ideological effects of the Renaissance mode of perspectival organization and he occupied himself to recognize and subvert the way in which this nature of organization extended itself to two basic aspects of filmmaking: narrative and framing, the former to do with the temporal order of things and the latter with the spatial order at large. To break free from this ideological stranglehold, Kaul directed his focus to various pre-cinematic Indian art forms —miniature paintings, musical traditions such as Dhrupad and disparate literary forms one of which was the novelized form of folklores— that had prior to novelization, survived largely via oral means.

In 1960, Vijaydan Detha and Komal Kothari set up the Rupayan Sansthan (roughly translated to English, a Crystallization Centre —a place where things were shaped) in Borunda, a small village in Rajasthan. The fundamental motivation behind the setting up of this  institute was to archive the oral tradition of the village’s inhabitants— the folk tales, songs, proverbs and riddles, in the written form. Kaul would summarize his interest in Detha’s writings as follows1:

“Before I proceed to explain my own cinematic pre-occupation, it must be immediately admitted that half of the possibilities I have explored in connection with the film would have remained latent had I encountered folk material in its original form. The writings of Vijaydan Detha intuitively integrate (rather articulate) both the earthly authenticity of the narration (in the sense of performance) and the original structural elements within the events”.

Kaul here clearly acknowledges the articulation and thus crystallization of the variegated folk material via the modern form of the short-story presented to him by the writings of Detha. What further fascinated Kaul is the subversion of the rational order in the tales of Detha via spectral, mythical and magical folds within the narrative.

Kaul had previously visited the village of Borunda and had made a documentary film archiving the workings and interests of the Rupayan Sansthan. Little is known about this film with one notable exception. Komal Kothari describes the film in an essay as follows2:

“In association with the National Centre for the Performing Arts, we recently made a  short film of fifteen minutes in black and white. Directed by the eminent young filmmaker Mani Kaul, the film has been produced for strictly archival purposes. We had seven artists participating, and they sang two songs: Dhumaldi, a Manganiyar song, prompted by the arid conditions in the region of Jaisalmer, extols the virtues of a Raja (A king) who constructed a water tank. Papeya pyara ri is the other Manganiyar melody sung by them. It describes the loneliness of the love-lorn heroine, Sorath.

The performers played on six instruments. The movie camera managed to capture the playing position of the artist and the way he handled the instrument, in a manner no static picture could”.

It is not difficult to comprehend how the idea of Duvidha, particularly the non-narrative aspects of the film might have started to take shape during the making of this fifteen minute film on location. Kaul for example uses the Manganiyar music non-diegetically in Duvidha.

The Vision Exchange Workshop and Akbar Padamsee

Akbar Padamsee established the vision exchange workshop (VIEW) in Bombay in 1969. This was a year after he collaborated with Mani Kaul on Forms and Design. The workshop remained functional for three years, until 1972 and brought under its roof, artists and intellectuals from diverse vocations such as painting, psychoanalysis and filmmaking. After receiving the Nehru scholarship from the Indian government, Padamsee’s initial plan was to set up the workshop in New Delhi and to involve fellow painters, film-enthusiasts and occasional filmmakers —M.F.Hussain and Tyeb Mehta in the workshop3. Padamsee noted little enthusiasm among Hussain and Mehta for it and hence he decided to set up shop in Bombay instead. Mani Kaul and his batchmate from Film and Television institute of India (FTII), Kumar Shahani were part of the workshop. Another member was painter Nalini Malani who joined the setup in 1969 but later left for Paris in 1970 on a scholarship. Malani returned from Paris in 1972 and assisted Kaul during the making of Duvidha. Various cross-disciplinary themes were discussed as part of the workshop, Color theory for example was one of them- something that was influential in how Kaul perceived the color tonalities in Duvidha. During the course of these three years, the relationship between Kaul and Padamsee consolidated. Kaul later expressed his admiration for Padamsee in the following lines:

“Akbar, apart from being an exceptional painter, is perhaps the only genuine artist-theoretician we have and naturally the fertile environment of the workshop (which springs both from his work and thinking) means a great deal to all of us”4.

Padamsee decided to financially assist Kaul in making Duvidha, some decades later he recalled:

“I bought a cinema projector, three 16mm movie cameras and editing equipment. I gave Mani Kaul Rupees 60,000 worth of film stock, a camera and editing facilities and told him he’d have to make a film with a ‘tailor ratio’ of 1:1. He wanted to make a film on the story Duvidha, written by Vijaydan Detha, about a ghost who falls in love with a newly married woman. The film was later shown at Eros”5.

Pertaining to the use of 16mm Bolex camera, Kaul had to part ways with K.K.Mahajan who was in charge of the cinematography for the two feature length films completed prior to Duvidha and had even won a national award for the first film. For Mahajan, Bolex was symptomatic of amateur filmmaking. Kaul instead entrusted Navroz Contractor, a known still photographer with the job. Among the equipment handed over to Kaul by Padamsee was also a 16/86mm Switar zoom lens. The film stock consisted of rolls of Kodachrome film, 16mm, daylight (ASA 25) and Type A (ASA 40)6. The film on completion was blown up to 35mm for possible theatrical distribution. 

A detour; another film in Borunda: Nalini Malani’s Taboo (1973)

While assisting Kaul during the shooting of Duvidha, Malani borrowed a Bolex and decided to explore the village of Borunda where the film was being shot. She carried the camera along with her and made various observations such as how caste determined the politics of space in the village. She directed the gaze of her camera towards the woman weavers in the village, the opening shot of the film is a woman shutting a door to the presence of the camera. The woman later reappears in the film but her identity remains hidden. In the second half of the film, we see a portrait of a man who is working on the loom, the camera records this from various angles. It is only in the end that we are able to grasp the meaning of the title where the film’s inability to identify the woman is a metaphor on the abstraction of female labour that remains unacknowledged. The women can only participate in the preliminary stages of the loom production but are barred from touching the finished fabric.

Duvidha, the film itself, inherits certain feminist tones from the story of Detha, principal among them is the feudal order that predetermines the destiny of a woman and confines her to the whims of the males in her lifeher father, husband and father-in-law. Introducing Duvidha on German TV network NDR in 1984, presenter and journalist Navina Sundaram noted how the film dealt with the position of women in India, the restrictions imposed by tradition and how choice is a privilege that is either absent or severely suppressed7.

Taboo clearly expands upon this gendered domination of and restriction to spaces and contrasts the confinement in domestic spaces to that of the heavily exploited workplace.

The soundscape in Duvidha

Part of the narrative in Duvidha is forwarded through dialogue and narration. Raisa Padamsee, daughter of Akbar Padamsee who plays the bride in the film didn’t speak a word of Hindi. Rather than dubbing her voice, Kaul switches alternatively between narration and dialogue. The narration sometimes acts as a description of the action, revealing to the audience something beyond what is self-evident in the images. However it switches to a dialogue between the characters without any discernible warning. For most of the dialogues, lip-synchronization is dispensed with since the characters do not always face the camera while speaking. However Kaul does not use this as some form of template for the film, some of the dialogues are lip-synched to the male protagonist. The male and the female voices establish some indexical relationship to either the internal states or the spoken word of the characters on screen in terms of their gender, but even there the illusionistic naturalism of sync-sound is de-emphasized by a conscious destabilization of this relationship like in using the female voice to complete a man’s dialogue.

The general experience of the soundscape in Duvidha is horizontal, attributes like timbre, pitch or volume are not mobilized to create a more dynamic sonic terrain, Kaul’s disengagement from the narrative is such where these aspects do not feature as a means to add dramatic or psychological depth. Instead his use of the Manganiyar music as a background score is telling. Its use is fairly conventional in that it functions as an accompaniment to passages in the film where perceptible narrative progression is kept on hold in favour of the purely visual. In fact Kaul favours his narrative to jump almost in an episodic manner instead, allowing for various temporal interludes.

Duvidha (Mani Kaul, 1973)


Architecture as meaning

Aside from determining how sound shapes our experience in Duvidha, Kaul allows architecture to operate as an anchor for the motion of bodies in the film and a blocking device for the camera’s field of view, outgrowing its expected function as a mere container of bodies. The characters define the inscribed spaces by walking through them. We never get an objective view of the mansion in which Duvidha is shot, hence we are forced to construct the links between different rooms, courtyards, terraces and passages based on how they are navigated while never quite arriving at something concrete or definitive.

Kaul allows the architecture to intervene into the frame in a way that counters the optical organization of space along the lines of perspective projection. The architectural details within the frame resist the definition of a vanishing point, the foregrounding of the details prevent the eye from seeking the illusion of depth in the frame. The passages of doors and windows allows for the reframing of figures, altering the aspect ratio of the positive space. The primary framing limits the horizon and establishes a field of focus, the architectural details within the frame then function as protrusions from what is left out allowing for a secondary reorganization of the field of focus. This mode of spatial (re)organization is something Kaul has worked with in most of his other films. The walls of the mansion in Duvidha guide the movement of the figures in the intermittent spaces. Often Kaul sets up the framing with the columns, walls and the pillars of the mansion before a figure enters into a shot and the duration of the shot lasts beyond the exit of the figure from the frame. A sequence of such spaces are sutured with the aid of montage for a figure to navigate through them, the fragments allows the viewer to define the perimeters and the links between these spaces for himself. The figures are constantly in a state of negotiation with these imposing architectural forms, the bodies’ presence sometimes feel trapped in contained spaces defined by the frame limiters. The central courtyard becomes the site of interaction between the feudal order embodied by the protagonist’s father and the village commoners. Kaul deploys all the expressive qualities of the architecture- the wall engravings, the concrete arches, the circular facades to characterize the inhabited spaces. The verandahs and sit-outs play host to the meetings between the family patriarch-the father and the son/ghost.

Architectural column separates the bodies, wall paintings bridge the alteration of framing while transitioning between spaces. Sometimes bodies only reveal themselves partially, feebly abstracted by a door contained in the magnificence of an architectural dome. Kaul exhaustively employs pans and tilts of the camera to scan and register the geometric details in the architecture while constantly reconfiguring how we look at the bodies. The architecture impresses upon us as something leading to visual and dramatic resignification. Kaul expands upon the meaningful role of architecture by alternating between a tighter figural framing and a wide shot angle that reveal how the bodies are located within a broader framework.

These suggestive aspects of the architecture are further augmented by the careful nurturing of the chromatic hues in the film.

Sensations by other means: some formal idiosyncrasies in Duvidha

One striking aspect of Duvidha is the fashion in which color is used in the film. Jean-Luc Godard and Michaelangelo Antonioni in their first color films in the 1960s (Une femme est un femme [1961] and Il deserto rosso [1964]) were among the firsts to realize the spectrum of possibilities that a filmmaker could explore by using color as a leitmotif and by directing its use in a certain manner. Duvidha was Kaul’s first feature length film in color following on from the monochromatic odysseys of Uski Roti and Ashad ka ek din. It is in Duvidha along with Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972) where film audiences in India first encountered the use of color in film with any degree of sophistication. The use is more ambitious than a mere symbolic denotation of the situational moods or emotional states, in short Kaul is not interested in cultivating any form of narrative depth by his use of color. Color however does strongly impact in defining the overall visual character of the film. The walls of the villa where the film unfolds is white, has a neutral character and is operative as a warm background. The male characters in the film are mostly dressed in white as well and so they tend to dissolve in the background. Their presence is accentuated by their turbans, which are often in analogous colors of red and orange. The garments worn by the woman protagonist in the film are bright, depict volume and contrast the male presence which is predominantly in white. Lighting is not used to specifically introduce warmth by flattening out the physical presence of the colors which in turn brings about a non-naturalism of its own, allowing for the colors to fully express themselves. In Kaul’s words, the colors would be meanings without becoming or representing meanings8. Kaul in his use of color aspires for something truly radical —a color film which is about the autonomy of color— its use neither for vague ornamentation nor for pre-determined signification. 

Perhaps less radical but nonetheless unmistakable is Kaul’s frequent use of freeze frames and superimpositions in Duvidha. L.V.Prasad, the owner of the Prasad Film Laboratories in Chennai allowed Kaul to use an Oxberry animation film stand which has similar capabilities as that of an optical printer through which the 16mm Kodachrome film was duplicated to 35mm, frame by frame. It is in this phase that Kaul, rather than making a 1:1 transfer for each individual frame, prints some of the frames a sufficient number of times in order to induce the effect of freeze frames. The freeze frame interjections in Duvidha last typically between 2-4 seconds which basically means a single frame is duplicated 48-96 times for a running speed of 24 frames per second of the projector. These interjections are another way to arrest the natural flow of narrative, a way to underscore the non-simultaneity of cinematic and real time, a way to comment on the dialectical knot of motion and stillness that lies at the structural core of filmmaking.

The superimpositions present in Duvidha linger in a way that ensures that their use is deliberate. They do not function like they do in Classical Hollywood which in its durationally shorter form as dissolves-  allows for the transit from one space to another. The fade-out/fade-in that dissolves classically substitute, imparts an episodic sense while dissolves allow for continuity or concurrency of events. What Kaul instead does in Duvidha is to nominally shift the contents in the frame denoting instead a short temporal shift. A vertical montage replaces the conventional horizontal montage allowing for the material realization of memory as opposed to some metaphysical variant of the same, a literal collision of past and present within the confines of the frame. Bolex is particularly conducive for achieving double exposures of this kind. 

Duvidha (Mani Kaul, 1973)


Gestures- outside the narrative syndicate

I think most of our gestures, and even our words, are automatic. If your hand is on your knee, you didn't put it there. Montaigne wrote a wonderful chapter on this, about how our hands go where we don't tell them to go. Our hands are autonomous. Our gestures, our limbs, are practically autonomous. They're not under our command. That's cinema.

Robert Bresson9

A simple tilt of the head or movement of eyes is sometimes all there is in the shot. Raisa's entire presence in the film is constructed by the agglomeration of her gestures —walking, moving, turning, stopping, sitting and so on. These gestures are further carried by a certain staleness in facial expressions. A hand rests on a shoulder to signify an affirmation, the emotive emptiness of the facial muscles allows the gesture to act out its autonomy in the creation of meaning without any distraction. This way of working performs a reversal of how communication is articulated in conventional narrative cinema where the face itself acts as the storyboard while everything else works to sustain or elaborate on the primary expression held by it. Kaul even goes further to emphasize a precise gesture by alienating it from the surroundings by using expressionistic lighting close to the figures instead of relying entirely on the zoom lens.  A hand puts money in the pocket, this action is isolated by a few frames before and after and illustrates how Kaul is attentive to the radical possibilities of sovereign gestures in what is probably also a metonymic nod to Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket (1959). Like his use of color, gesture is not enslaved by the urgency of meaning, it embraces grace, perhaps even something cultural —particular to the landscape and the people, existing as language on its own.

Critical reception of the film at the time

Fifty years on, the formal aspirations in Duvidha probably do not stand out just as much. However at the time of its making in the early 1970s, both film criticism and film making in India operated with a great degree of conservatism. An art-critical reception was something unheard of in the domain of film and film theory was nascent with only Ritwik Ghatak, filmmaker and Kaul’s teacher at FTII showing some degree of interest in theoretical aspects of film. The critical and ideological discourses around representation that were prominent in the 1960s had not made their way to India and what passed for political criticism in the pages of film society journals and newspapers were basically some volleys around rhetorical political elements imbibed within the narrative. In this absence of any wider critical arena, Kaul successfully ruffled a few feathers while famously drawing the outspokenly conservative criticism of prominent filmmaker Satyajit Ray.  Ray’s criticism of Kaul in general and Duvidha in particular were not on totally unexpected lines. He accused Duvidha of being self-indulgent and anaemic10. This followed from his previous critique of Kaul’s Uski Roti for not showing ‘enough concern for social issues’ and for ‘reducing human element to faces and minimal gestures’11. The marginalization of narrative didn’t sit well for Ray either.

With the privilege of hindsight, one can safely say that Duvidha at the time embodied radical aspirations for an attritional cinema that refused to co-opt a seductive exceptionalist paradigm of non-western art and simultaneously resisted being subsumed into the Euroamerican category of art cinema. Instead it uniquely points to the heterogeneous yet challenging possibilities of film production and criticism in India that had till then been largely untapped.

January, 2021.

1. KAUL, Mani. 1973. “Exploration in New Film Techniques”. Quarterly Journal, National Center of the Performing Arts, Vol. 2, No. 1.

2. KOTHARI, Komal. 1972. “The Folk Legacy of Rajasthan”. Quarterly Journal, National Center of the Performing Arts, Vol. 1, No. 2.

3. Nalini Malani recounts this in an interview: “Building on a Prehistory: Artists’ Film and New Media in India, Part 1”, Shanay Jhaveri, 2014. Accessible here.

4. Ibid., 1.

5. SHEDDE, Meenakshi. 2010. “Art in the River of Life”. PADAMESE, Bhanumati and GARIMELLA, Annapurna (Eds.). Work in Language. Mumbai: Marg Publications., p. 311.

6. CHATTERJEE, Patha. 2011. Master of the visual. Frontline print publication, July 29.

7. Thanks to Mareike Bernien and Merle Kröger of Pong Film who are working on resurrecting Navina Sundaram’s films and moderations from the depth of NDR archives for allowing me to access the transcript of her introduction of Duvidha in 1984 for the German TV network.

8.  Ibid., 1.

9. From a French television interview with Robert Bresson by Roger Stephane, 1966.

10. RAY, Satyajit. 1974. “Four and a quarter”. 2009. Our Films Their Films. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.

11. RAY, Satyajit. 1972. “Satyajit Ray writes”. Filmfare. 25 February.

Duvidha (Mani Kaul, 1973)