I cannot say whether our relationship with the death of others, loved ones or distant, has fundamentally changed over the past decades. On one level, our eternal stranger who comes knocking once has now gained such extensive media coverage that a certain immunity feels to be setting into the collective human consciousness regarding the passing on of others. Once upon a time to read about a car accident killing a family of three would demand us to think, reflect and maybe care. Today, even the passing away of hundreds elicits minor mind-space. Unless a loved one is involved we are becoming immune. Maybe a ‘celebrity’ linkage creates a few tears of endearment and a sense of loss, but even then the inner dialogues are superficial. To some extent we all dream to live a long life and recent genetic manipulations will probably give us extra decades in years to come. Yet, sooner or later we all also yearn for death to visit, especially when the physical pain reach unbearable highs or the monotony of existence wishes to see no hope.
The passing away of Mani Kaul this morning, eminent film maker and a dear friend, again brings to boil one’s daily dialogue with Death and its joyous inevitability. Mani was in pain not only because of the cancer, but also because of the general public apathy towards certain values. That this material world does not sufficiently respect intellect, integrity, creativity and honesty with anything tangible had made his life, as with most intellectuals, a continually joyous struggle in many ways. It is obvious that we are creating a world which is by and large respectful of the popular and mediocre, the superficially glamorous and the inane far in excess of what history will feel just in years to come. That the standards of history themselves are being manipulated so as to allow ourselves greater comfort and complacency with our current beliefs is another ongoing deceit in motion. Human institutions are re-calibrating our standards of excellence so low, that the aspirations and idealism essential in every young mind are being choked before given a chance to breathe, let alone live. Mani loved nurturing and sharing ideas with young minds, trying to make them question in that ancient philosophic sense which today few teachers even bother to explore. He seemed lost in his world of ideas and like with most thinkers found it difficult to come to terms with the harshness of the systems we are creating on our daily binge of action. His journey of nurturing one’s freedom so as to continue to ideate and not having to find any acceptance from the general public was an inspiration to many.
Generations of film makers during the 1960s to the 1980s considered Mani this iconic director, who did it his way and implicitly scorned the mediocre majority. That the popularity and adulation of the majority path was somewhat missed, was a hiccup which no original thinker can avoid. I was introduced to Mani with much laughter and in those moments the deepest of intellectual burdens appeared graceful as a result of existentialist humor. Thus his humor, wit and jokes remain clearest in my mind. Mani was a master on telling his own jokes on himself. Unless you have heard one of the great Mani Kaul film jokes, narrated by him, you have not tasted the best of self-deprecating humor. One classic goes like this: Mani’s new landlords, an elderly couple invited him upstairs to dinner one night. The husband was very keen to introduce Mani to his wife, proud of having such an iconoclastic film-maker as his tenant. During conversation the husband told his wife “Did you know that Mr Kaul’s new film is about this man waiting at the bus-stop…” “No, no, please do not tell me the story and spoil my joy.” she immediately tells her husband. Mani calmly smiles at both and says “I am sorry he has already told you the story.” How we both laughed when he first told me this anecdote as an introduction to his work.
Another nugget suddenly emerged, seeing my receptiveness to the black humor. Mani begins: “My uncle used to be this famous actor Raaj Kumar, and one day we met at some filmi party. He shouts out from across the room and calls me to him and his friends: “Heh Jaani, Mani, what is this I am hearing? You want to join films and that you are making a film, and that it is called Uski Roti. What is this? A film on roti, woh bhi uski roti, no one will see it. Come with me, join me, we will make a film together, we will call it Apna Halwa. What do you say?” Mani mimicked the famous Raaj Kumar voice so beautifully you forgot about all the subtle tones, all the art cinema and mainstream differences, the choice to pursue happiness or wisdom, the lone struggle or the group orgies, the triumph of success or integrity, on and on you could read meaning in the mundane.
In a way these two anecdotes best summed up the essence of the great intellectual. His ability to create something from nothing, to dwell on the simple act of waiting, like many before, to concoct a creative energy from just understanding the moment: why are we here, what is our purpose? That it is all within us; that nothing of consequence lies beyond, that the outer are but minor triggers to dig deep into one’s infinite inner angst which can be as joyous as destructive. Yet it can liberate if it possesses a deep empathy with humanity. If we genuinely feel their pain, our pain, we will find purpose to move forward, even if it becomes a most selfish and lonely journey. For in sustaining that journey compassion does emerge, and death indeed becomes our long lost friend found knocking the door besides and so happily invited to visit us tomorrow or whenever convenient. Maybe the dispassion which is entering humanity has selfish roots, and maybe our inability to feel for too long the loss of strangers transforms itself into a deeper love for our loved ones. Constantly we all search for such resolutions. That the search is no longer feverish enough is a bit sad. The distractions of life are doing their job well.
We believe that there will be plenty of time to think of death in later years, and yet that is so untrue. Death should be our daily companion, our friend with whom we dialogue on all matters, so dissolving any fear of meeting this dear tourist. In those moments there is nothing but love with all around and all within, there is a deep sense to share and communicate, there is that unity that we all are here only to elucidate that eternal inner spirit, omnipresent for centuries, and will continue to be, and is trying to extricate itself with daily joy, with humor, for humor alone must outlast all else. Humor alone takes integrity home.