“ ‘Koodal’ is a Tamil word which means a meeting point, the union, an assembly of images.” Typed on a gray title card, these words set the stage for Tyeb Mehta’s 1970 short film Koodal. The 16minute 16 second piece is Mehta’s only short film. He is most known for his bold modernist paintings depicting Indian life and culture through the use of cubism and expressionism. Although he spent much of his life painting, he began his career as a film editor in a cinema laboratory in Mumbai, India. He returned to film in 1970 when the Government of India Film Division, most known for their documentary and news segments, commissioned Mehta to make a film. He shot Koodal on 35mm in black and white, creating a unique experimental documentary filmed entirely in Mumbai.
Mehta combined imagery of the city, people, and cattle. Sleeping civilians, workers, merchants, rugby players, dancers, and hijras are present in the film. There is no dialogue or narration, only a composed score featuring chants, drums, and a surreal sitar. The combination of instruments creates a hypnotic soundscape and rhythm. Fast paced edits give the impression of a bustling city while slower paced edits reveal moments of daily life without interruption. The intercutting between people and animals unifies them as living creatures populating the city. Perhaps the most striking image of the film comes in a long exposure long shot of a slaughtered bull falling to the ground. By witnessing the bull fall in blurred, repeated frames, Mehta invokes a sense of terror. Juxtaposed against the images of living cattle and the final dolly shot of a Nandi Bull, the slaughtered bull serves as a metaphor for Indians’ fear of restriction and lack of control in their daily lives.
Koodal is literally “an assembly of images” as the film’s collection of imagery combine to reveal the diversity and realities of everyday life in Mumbai.
In India’s profitable film history characterized by Bollywood, masala, and entertainment, Koodal stands out for its realism and provocative imagery of daily life. When Koodal was released in 1970, Indian cinema was transitioning from its golden age, influenced by the French New Wave and Italian Neorealism, to an era of commercialization. Moving into the 1970’s and ‘80’s, films no longer focused on realism or epic storytelling as Indian film companies began to privilege marketability and entertainment over art. Additionally, the censorship boards grew tighter, refusing to certify films for release if they were too revealing or too political towards social issues. Film, believed to be a cheap art yet powerful tool for mass media, was meant for pure entertainment.
With few documentaries being produced and the dwindled appreciation for film as art, Koodal existed as a rebel to popular Indian cinema, an experimental documentary, and a poetic glimpse at the realities of Mumbai life that popular film rarely revealed. Although today’s filmmakers increasingly push for more serious film work, Koodal still stands out as the antithesis to popular Indian cinema.
Experience a different kind of Indian cinema by watching Koodal on YouTube!