The Indian Art Cinema

Posted on July 6, 2010

By Soumya Venugopal:

India is well-known for its commercial cinema. Almost every Indian is well versed with onscreen “running around the trees singing songs”, the fight sequences, twins meeting each other pachchees saal baad, topped with some dose of mush and lots and lots of spice. However there are other types of movies which focus purely on story- minus the masala. This genre is sometimes referred as “Pheeka” or “Bina namak mirch wala” (bland) kind of cinema. But the true admirers of cinema and people who consider movie-making as an art call it the “Offbeat” or “The Art House Cinema”.

As one seeks to identify the distinguishing features of Indian Cinema, one needs to keep in mind the main characteristics of its two main branches- The Popular and the Art movies. Both relate to the Indian reality and consciousness, but in very different ways. The techniques of the popular cinema are largely shaped up by traditional narrative whereas those of the artistic cinema are largely neo-realistic. However in terms of the experiences explored the artistic movies are much closer to Indian reality than the popular films which are mostly fantasies. There are various issues that are central to a deep understanding of Indian contemporary society, find expression in artistic cinema.

The true connoisseurs of cinema will always say that there is a certain charm in attending the independent art-house theaters. Each have their own style and programming quirks. Although usually noted for their squeaky, stained chairs, day-old popcorn, and watery coffee rather than today’s stadium seating, cup holders, and surround sound, there is a sense of adventure in seeking out the obscure films shown there–a spirit that rewards you with the knowledge that what you are watching is , if nothing else, unique!

From the 1960s through the 1980s, the art film or the parallel cinema was usually government-aided cinema. Such directors could get federal or state government grants to produce non-commercial films on Indian themes. Their films were showcased at state film festivals and on the government-run TV. These films also had limited runs in art house theatres in India and overseas.

The directors of the art cinema owed much more to foreign influences, such as Italian Neo-Realism or French New Wave, than they did to the genre conventions of commercial Indian cinema. India has produced some of the finest film makers like Bimal Roy, Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, Deepa Mehta, Shekhar Kapur and the list is endless.

The Indian Art Cinema or the New Wave sometimes called has had a humble beginning. This genre doesn’t boast of foreign locales, hopelessly expensive clothes or the big star cast. The sole strength of these kind of films is the story. The Indian Art Cinema has beautifully transformed and re-invented itself. From socially relevant topics of Child Marriage, Dowry, Female Foeticide, Widow Re-marriage to a simple love story. The Art film-makers have done it all. It’s amazing to see how some of the very talented film-makers have gifted their audiences with some of their magnificent work. There is Shekhar Kapoor who beautifully told the story of a man struggling to make his illegitimate son a part of his family (Masoom) and we got one of the all time masala entertainers Mr India from the same director. The person who gave us Zubeida, Ankur and Manthan came up with something as entertaining as Welcome to Sajjanpur and the very recent Well Done Abba.

The Gen-X today are more intelligent and open to a wide variety of topics. At the end of the day the purpose of the film and the audience should be served. The audience wants a good story and a really good way of putting it and that’s what the film makers are supposed to do. Yes masala flicks are welcome but too much of masala can cause acidity! A good mixture of masala movies and intelligent cinema is what the audience wants. Brainless comedies work, but again not always. In this new context of art-house appeal to the mainstream, “of limited box-office appeal” is striking, if not, perhaps, inaccurate. On the other hand, general conceptions of “art house” have come to describe films simply on the basis of their production outside the Bollywood system, regardless of their status as conventional dramas or slightly offbeat comedies. Surely a film with a 30-crore budget, Bollywood stars, and wide release does not fit the standard “art-house’ profile. And yet a documentary about global warming with “art house” written all over it–complete with its charisma-challenged star, Al Gore–enjoyed sold-out screenings at huge multiplex theaters across the globe.

From the very inception of this genre, there has been a difference between art and commercial cinema. However with changing times this gap has been bridged. The themes of art movies have witnessed a change. The earlier trends in Indian Art movies were more specifically related to the Indian audience, while the recent incline is towards the global concept. Quite ideally therefore the Indian Art cinema has gradually emerged itself as a reflections of the happenings in the society. Now many of these Art Movies or “small” films are grossing major profits and competing for space at the big multiplexes as well as finding their audiences at the small cinemas devoted to specialty fare. What will be ideal is an exclusive chain national art house cinema multiplexes to mark the new era of these specialized cinema.

The audiences today look out for “good” films rather than the serious or popular films. Hence once a while a multi-starrer movie bombs and a small budget movie like Aamir is much appreciated by the cine goers. The need for better subjects, the desire to watch something more feasible on the screen and the boredom that has set in with the regular candy floss cinema are some of the reasons for this apparent change. If this trend continues then the day is no far when there will be no commercial cinema or art cinema, but just good cinema and bad cinema.

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