Manav Kaul: The Man Who Can

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Manav Kaul, actor and author, refuses to be boxed in

IN ONE OF THE several hair- raising scenes in Patrick Graham’s recent Netflix miniseries Ghoul, starring Radhika Apte and Manav Kaul, Kaul’s character Colonel Sunil DaCunha is interrogating a terror suspect, one-on-one. At this point in the show, we already know that the suspect isn’t quite human, that he is privy to the guilty secrets being carried around by his interrogators. Soon he does the same to DaCunha (a tough cookie otherwise) with immediate effect. A far cry from his surgical style of operation, DaCunha lashes out like a wounded predator.

Kaul’s transformation within this longish scene is a thing of terrible beauty. Patriotism, duty, military pride, fascism, sadism and, yes, naked fear, are some of the things we associate with DaCunha in these crucial minutes. And much of that is down to Kaul’s effortlessly protean screen presence— DaCunha is an affable, old-school, whisky-swigging soothsayer when we meet him first, and an unrecognisable rage monster by the time the aforementioned interrogation scene ends.

“This character (Colonel DaCunha) has a lot of layers to him, as opposed to someone like a Bittu Mama,” says Kaul, referring to his character from the 2013 hit Kai Po Che, “This man is not a clear- cut bigot that way. He is motivated by things that he feels are bigger than himself, things that he is ready to go to war over.” Kaul likes to take his time, weighing possible word options before speaking in clear, crystalline Hindi sentences. After a pause, he says, “The most crucial scene for me was where DaCunha is trying to reach his daughter but is not allowed to do so by his ex-wife. Immediately afterwards, we see him gulping down a large drink. In a few minutes, we see almost everything of note about this man up until that point. As an actor these characters are always appealing because one has so much to convey in a small amount of time.”

After over a decade of the fabled struggling actor’s Mumbai hustle, Kaul’s stock has risen rapidly over the last five years. Kai Po Che opened the floodgates and since then, he has been seen in films like Wazir (2016) , Jolly LLB 2 (2017) and most tellingly, as Ashok, the titular character’s sweet-but-beleaguered husband in Tumhari Sulu (2017). The crackling chemistry between Kaul and Vidya Balan was one of the high points of this film, which earned almost unanimously positive reviews from critics as well as audiences, a happy fate that Ghoul has shared since its release.

These days, however, Kaul is awaiting a different kind of release—that of Tumhaare Baare Mein, his third work of Hindi fiction. For he belongs to a really small club (particularly so for India), being an actor who’s also an accomplished author of literary fiction (to put things in perspective, neither James Franco nor Miranda July has managed one satisfactory book despite flashes of brilliance). Our conversation is peppered with asides about some of his favourite writers, both Hindi and English—this is a man as keenly attuned to JM Coetzee and David Foster Wallace, as he is to Agyeya, Krishna Sobti and Nirmal Verma.

“ I don’ t want to be tied down by any one medium. There's so much to do and so little time. When I was writing seriously, I quit acting for over a decade”

His previous two books of short fiction, Prem Kabootar (2016) and Theek Tumhaare Peechhe (2017) had stories marked by an acute sense of existential horror: ordinary men and women plagued by the inequities of 21st century life, where the illusion of choice is far more prevalent than the real thing. Employing heightened realism, Kaul’s stories feature characters struggling to hold on to their nostalgia-fuelled realities, their dream logic and their poetic sense of justice, even as the world crashes and burns around them. As the second-wave feminist saying goes, the personal is intensely political for these characters, even if they do not express this in so many words.

While discussing the convictions of Colonel DaCunha, I point out that many of his stories feature precocious kids cocksure of their beliefs, and adults plagued by fear, doubt and disbelief (Kaul calls this “bhaari ho jaana”, to be ‘weighed down’ by adulthood, literally, a la Milan Kundera’s conceptions of ‘lightness’ and ‘weight’). “This is by design,” Kaul says with a smile. “You can call it a survival mechanism that these children use.” He adds, “I grew up in Hoshangabad, in Madhya Pradesh, and I was born in Baramulla (Kashmir). So here I was, this Kashmiri kid displaced from his homeland, growing up in a place where everybody was very different. For example, I was conspicuously fair for Hoshangabad, so sometimes I would not bathe for a few days. So you can say that my survival mechanism started very early.”

This phenomenon is also apparent in the 90-minute Hansa (2012), Kaul’s only feature film as director (available on YouTube). The titular character is a young boy, no more than 10 or 11, who has just lost his father. The late father’s debtors circle like vultures around his pregnant mother and teenage sister, but little Hansa is lost to the world in his head. The ‘grown-up’ stuff in the story is all the more poignant because we see it through the somewhat foggy, easily distracted lens of the child.

KAUL EVEN NAMED his theatre group ‘Aranya’ after one of his favourite Hindi books, Antim Aranya, by Nirmal Verma (he jokes that he would have named it ‘Nirmal Vinod’ if he had had his way, after authors Nirmal Verma and Vinod Kumar Shukla). Aranya is a passion project for which he has written, directed and acted in plays like Shakkar Ke Paanch Daane and Mumtaz Bhai Patang Waale (the latter, a kind of 21st century update of Kaabuliwala, is based on one of his short stories from Theek Tumhaare Peechhe). “I don’t want to be tied down by any one medium—or any one life, actually,” Kaul says. “There is so much to do and so little time. When I was writing seriously, I quit acting for over a decade. When I was in Mumbai, I would attend some plays here and there but largely, I was sick of the mediocre stuff out there, with below-par writing and acting. With the help of some like-minded colleagues I wanted to change this.”

There’s no predicting what Kaul might be up to next: film, theatre, literature, or perhaps something else entirely. This is in sync in with the man’s writing as well—plot often takes a backseat to atmospherics or philosophical asides. In one of his stories, the story-within-a-story even starts dissolving boundaries between the fictional and the real. Towards the end of our conversation, Kaul says, “I write what I feel like. It should be organic, it shouldn’t feel forced, shouldn’t feel like things are happening just to move the story along. Some people call that kind of writing— like Coetzee’s, for example—cold, but it’s my favourite kind of writing in the world.” After another pause, he observes, “I rebel against structure. Sometimes this makes writing very difficult for me, but it’s worth it”.

Theatre buffs, lit nerds and aficionados of New Wave Bollywood ought to be grateful for Kaul’s rejection of conventional narrative tropes. It’s worked out swimmingly for him, and us, so far.