Born Rabindranath Kaul, in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, in a Kashmiri Pandit family, Kaul first joined FTII, Pune as an acting student and later shifted to the direction course, where noted film director Ritwik Ghatak was a teacher, graduating in 1966.
He was the nephew of actor-director Mahesh Kaul, who made films like Raj Kapoor starrer Sapnon Ka Saudagar (1968).
His first film Uski Roti (1969) has been described as "one of the key films of the New Indian Cinema or the Indian New Wave". It marked a drastic departure from earlier Indian cinema technique, form and narrative. It was one of the early formal experimental films in Indian cinema.
Ashadh Ka Ek Din (1971), his next film, was based on a play by Mohan Rakesh.
Duvidha, his third film, was his first in colour. It grew out of a short story by Vijaydan Detha and tells the story of a merchant's son, who returns with his new bride. When he departs on a business trip, a ghost falls in love with the wife. It was widely shown across Europe. He was awarded the prestigious Jawaharlal Nehru Fellowship in 1974.
Kaul was one of the co-founders of the Yukt Film Co-operative (Union of Kinematograph Technicians) in 1976, leading to avant-garde films. Critics opined in "Mani Kaul's cinematic conception, fiction and documentary films have no clear demarcated dividing line." He also taught music in the Netherlands, and was Creative Director of the film house at Osian's Connoisseurs of Art, Mumbai.
In 1971, he was a member of the jury at the 21st Berlin International Film Festival.
He was a visiting lecturer at Harvard University for the 2000–2001 school year.
Mani Kaul died on 6 July 2011 at his home in Gurgaon, near Delhi, after prolonged battle with cancer. He is survived by two sons and two daughters.
According to a tribute from Prabha Mahajan on the Indian documentary film discussion network Docuwallahs2 , Mani Kaul's significant body of work included both feature films and documentaries. In an interview Mani stated: "The dividing line from my films and documentaries is thin. Some of my films like Siddheshwari are like poetic documentaries." Mani Kaul's fellow alumni from FTII intend to put together a collective tribute to Mani Kaul and his work, and interested persons were invited to send in their thoughts on Mani as a film maker, teacher/ mentor, colleague, and as a person.
Indian film critic Khalid Mohamed commented, "As a film director, he discussed the status of women (Uski Roti, Duvidha), crafted visually seductive documentaries (Arrival, Before My Eyes, A Desert of a Thousand Lines) and went through a spell of interpreting Fyodor Dostoevsky’s masterworks. The Russian writer’s short story A Gentle Creature inspired Nazar, shot in low, chiaroscuro lighting."Uski Roti (1969)
Ashadh Ka Ek Din (1971)
Puppeteers of Rajasthan (Documentary) (1974)
A Historical Sketch of Indian Women (Documentary) 1975
Chitrakathi (Documentary) (1977)
Ghashiram Kotwal (1979)
Arrival (Documentary) (1980)
Satah Se Uthata Admi (1980)
Dhrupad (film) (1982)
Mati Manas (Documentary) (1984)
A Desert of a Thousand Lines (Documentary) (1986)
Before My Eyes (Documentary)(1989)
Siddheshwari (Documentary) (1989)
The Cloud Door (1995)
Naukar Ki Kameez (The Servant's Shirt) (1999)
Ik Ben Geen Ander (I Am No Other) Nederland 2002
A Monkey's Raincoat Nederland (2005)
Signature Film for Osian's Cinefan Festival of Asian and Arab Cinema (2006)
1974: Best Direction: Duvidha
1989: Best Documentary Film: Siddheshwari
Mani Kaul won Filmfare Critics Award for Best Movie four times.1971: Uski Roti (1970)
1972: Ashad Ka Ek Din (1971)
1974: Duvidha (1973)
1993: Idiot (1992)
His film Idiot, which was released as a four-part TV series on Doordarshan in 1991, will be screened at the upcoming 18th edition of the Mumbai Film Festival that will take place from October 20 to 27, 2016, with the title 'Ahamaq'.