We all relate to cinema as a mode of storytelling. What happens when a film is made without a story? What happens when nobody in the film is acting, but just standing in a place or walking? Mani Kaul, pioneer of experimental cinema in India, makes such a film in Siddheshwari. The film is guided not by a story but by music. It is the music of Siddheshwari Devi, a well-known singer of Thumri who lived and worked in the first half of the 20th century in Banaras. The 90-minute film is essentially a collage of various musical performances recorded by Siddheshwari Devi which play in the background. In the foreground, we see Siddheshwari herself, played by different actresses to portray her at different ages – and most of all by the very beautiful looking Mita Vasisht. Siddheshwari walks around in the narrow, unimaginably ancient alleys of Banaras, sits at the ghats, swims in the holy river, lies down and relaxes on a boat. Night is when she sings most often. It is all dark, before the days of electricity, and the only light comes from the moon and from the traditional oil lamps. The camera lingers at the architecture of ancient Banaras, at times Hindu, at times Islamic. One scene floats into another, making the visuals quite purely musical.

The result is an experience that is alluring yet unengaging. The music, for anyone who likes classical music, is beautiful. Siddheshwari Devi was certainly a major singer of the 20th century. The sights are beautiful. Somehow, for a 90-minute film, the visual telling does not quite do justice to the depth of the music. While one admires the film for its artistic innovation and its cinematographic beauties, one is also left somewhat unaffected by the total experience. Mani Kaul’s other film on classical music – Dhrupad – is a more powerful film than this one.

~ by tdcatss on May 23, 2014.

One Response to “Siddheshwari”

  1. Hi Kaif:

    As usual, very well written. I too have seen films that could have achieved more than what it really does. Swapaanam, in Malayalam, is one such recent film like this.

    I watched this film at the Indian Habitat Centre Film Fest; by the way, were you there?

    By the way, have shifted to Delhi.

    Would like to meet up with you. My cell no. is +91 7042070380 and my email ID is You can call or mail me…

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