Indecision (Duvidha) Mani Kaul (1973; India) Raisa Padamsee, Ravi Menon
viewed 10 July 2020; Mubi Streaming during the great plague – it is also on youtube
Films are made from within the ambient influences in which the culture of any production is immersed. The influences of advertising, electronic games, the velocity of communications and high tempo resolutions all play significant roles in conforming the structure and content of contemporary Western films. In ‘Indecision’ Mani Kaul has absorbed into the flow of his imagery, into his characterisation, sound, colourisation and story something of the traditions of the shadow puppet theatre of Rajasthan. It is a film grounded in the popular culture of its time.
The core to ‘Indecision’ is Kaul’s conceptual rigour and the discipline with which he has put together in film his rendering of an old folk tale. The film comprises a singular expression of this style of Indian story telling. It retains the integrity of the tradition and creates something new enduring and magical. The imagery drawing on the interplay of startling bright sunlight and shadow is an expressive painted canvas against which the ideas implicit in the film play out.
One of the key ideas played out in ‘Indecision’ is the notion of story. Today the idea of story is conceived as something personal that has particular role in the construction of individual identity. But there is an older literary tradition both oral and written, in which stories are a collective resource that challenge and open out developments of the psyche. Western film scripts have mostly latched onto modern usage, many scripts simply designed as accounts that justify the subjects action providing a rationale for outcomes. Fairy tales and stories such as told in ‘Indecision’ are in James Baldwin’s terms, real stories. There function is not so such to resolve particular situations or to provide answers to an individual dilemma. The point of these stories is to open the psyche up to questions that do not necessarily have answers, and both questions and the answers to these questions always lie somewhere within the insights of the self not the mechanics of the narrative.
It seemed to me that Kaul’s film owes something in form and structure to shadow puppet theatre. As in shadow puppetry the pacing of Kaul’s shots is slow and the movement smooth; every shot in the film is a carefully contrived statement as in shadow theatre; in shadow theatre as in folk tale, the characters are types rather than individuals; and lastly, as in Rajasthan shadow puppetry, there is a vibrant interplay between sound and picture. This latter relationship is key to the energising of the film. Kaul’s sound track breaks the deliberate visual pacing with upbeat intense rhythmic folk music or alternatively a cacophony of sounds from the natural world: mostly bird call but also insects. The dynamic between these irruptive sounds and the paced back shots is key conceptual idea underlying ‘Indecision’, and in Kaul’s hands this device is used to wonderful sparing effect and never overplayed.
The main setting of ‘Indecision’ is a huge white villa, a sort of house of bones and its presence looms through the film as a presence in itself. Its exterior walls and facets brilliantly reflect the sunlight, dazzling and disorienting, challenging the viewer’s perception. This setting alternating with Kaul’s shot selection comprising densely coloured big close-up’s with unexpected overhead shots seems to be part of the design adopted by Kaul to keep the audience off balance, to break up their cognitive patterns and working through disruption of image to challenge perception and understanding.
‘Indecision’s’ narrative may in some respects be a simple folk tale but within Kaul’s telling there are multiple layers of meaning and alternative psychic perspectives demanding a flexibility of mind that is alien to the rigid psychic structures of many contemporary films that carry the banality of one message.