“Duvidha”, Review: An Indie Indian Film Contains Lessons for American Directors

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The fiftieth edition of the New Directors / New Films series, co-sponsored by MOMA and Film at Lincoln Center, will take place this year, both in person (at Lincoln Center) and online, from April 28 to May 8. In honor of the monument, it will include a free online series of eleven classics from previous years, from April 16 to 28. One of the pivotal films in the retrospective, “Duvidha” (1973), by Indian director Mani Kaul, both offers an extraordinary cinematic experience in itself and offers crucial lessons, both aesthetic and practical, to independent filmmakers of the United States. world – and continues to do so. so even now.

The film, based on a story by Vijaydan Detha which tells a folk tale from Rajasthan, is a metaphysical love story that, in Kaul’s hands, produces a quietly accusing political fury. On a young couple’s wedding day, a ghost that inhabits a banyan tree is overwhelmed by the beauty of the bride and lusts after her furiously. In an ox cart that brings the newlyweds to the groom’s family home, he informs her that he will drop her there and then set off for a faraway town – for five years – to make his fortune. (Further, he declares it unnecessary to consummate the marriage before his return.) After the groom leaves, the ghost, seeing his opportunity, changes form to take on the appearance of the groom and shows up at the family home, making an excuse. the father of the groom for his early return and introduce himself to the bride.

From the start, Kaul’s aesthetic boldness is exhibited in his basic cinematic elements of visual framing and editing, sound design and dramatic composition; he tells the story with a calmly-controlled, pictorial ecstasy. There is no wedding party to start the action. The names of the bride and groom are never mentioned throughout the film. Most of the cinematic weight is placed on tight close-ups of the protagonists, and, in particular, of the bride, whose expressions vibrate with a powerful but unspoken passion that is inseparable from the very inflected angles and the complex compositions, with which Kaul films her. The bride’s highly decorated, multicolored veils and scarves are like canvas that both filter and distill her performance, like elaborate sets for a theatrical scene deprived of intimate emotional exposure. When, at her request, the real groom stops the cart so she can pick fruit from a low-growing tree, she appears through the thorny branches of the tree. Yet even this aesthetic refinement joins the action to create a dramatic and crisp emphasis. (With excessive concern for appearances, the groom says that the fruit, called dhalu, is eaten by the peasants and could make a family of merchants a subject of mockery.)

When the groom informs the bride of his intention to leave for five years, she does not protest but nevertheless clearly receives the news as a shock. As he bids farewell to his wife, he urges her to “defend the honor of the house” and not give in to temptation. When the ghost appears, he knows that, with his disguise, he can do whatever he wants with the bride, but, in a show of honor and, more importantly, love, he confesses his deception to her. Surprisingly, she welcomes him as her husband and consummates the “marriage”, with major dramatic consequences. “Duvidha” (meaning “Dilemma”) is a story of a woman’s sexual freedom; his choice is a silent but radical challenge to the dominant patriarchal order.

The sequence in which the bride kisses the ghost conveys romantic rapture with exquisite undertones and breathtaking stillness. The very inflected, very textured, but stripped-down and fragmentary images – which show more listening than speaking and attach great importance to looks and gestures, ornaments and clothing – are joined by an editing scheme as daring as the cinematography. The film’s surprisingly disparate succession of images is linked by the laconic but complex narration of the voices on the soundtrack. In addition to the spoken dialogue, the film features voiceover narration and the inner monologues of the three protagonists – in the center, that of the bride, whose free statements on the soundtrack contrast painfully with the lack of a voice of her character at the screen. In voiceover, she deplores the condition of women in Indian society: “For parents, a girl is like a weed that must be pulled up” and submissive (as she is at the age of sixteen) , with unconditional obedience, to her money-mad husband and his family.

The film’s vision of the anguished contrast between the officially sanctioned experience and the urgent demands of conscience is dramatized in climaxing moments when the bride, whose many close-ups have been her veiled face, downcast eyes, cluttered presence of clothes ornamental, his head tilted down – stares frankly and confrontingly into the camera lens. Through aesthetic refinement and empathetic imagination, “Duvidha” transforms a documentary-like attention to landscape and architecture, customs and costumes, food and artefacts, into a radical subjectivity that is at its very heart. of the movie. Kaul’s stylistic flourishes warn viewers not to confuse a bowed head with submission, silence with consent, and socially acceptable appearances for lack of power and the will to revolt.

There is a practical side to Kaul’s daring challenge at the film convention, which is revealed in the film’s production accounts. “Duvidha” was funded outside the system by Kaul’s friend, artist Akbar Padamsee. Its meager funds only provided amateur material: just the right amount of 16mm. the film for a take of everything, and the wind-up cameras (the venerable Bolex), which cannot be used to record sync sound; his very elaborate approach to dialogue, which is fully dubbed, is an inventive workaround. (Kaul also had access to an optical printer, and he made use of it for free, in scenes adorned with extended freeze frames and double exposures.) To play the bride, Kaul recruited Padamsee’s daughter, Raissa, sixteen-year-old whose performance is majestically expressive yet subtle to the point of breaking. (Raissa, now an art historian, has never appeared in another film.) Such modest resources and demanding conditions are familiar to many independent filmmakers in the United States. But, over the past several decades, the independent world has become something of a minor league en route to Hollywood, and this tempting path has encouraged filmmakers to simply replicate Hollywood styles and forms on a smaller scale. But only a few independent American directors (like Josephine Decker and Terence Nance), working in the field with very small budgets, showed a degree of cinematographic freedom comparable to that of “Duvidha”.


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