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The Indian Art Cinema

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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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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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