By Astha Agarwal:
Let’s play rapid fire. Tell me what immediately comes to your mind when I say, ‘Indian Cinema’? Did you say Bollywood? And regional movies? Blimey! What images do ‘parallel cinema’ or ‘art films’ beget? Too intense and serious (therefore not-entertaining)? Grim subjects? Oh! I hear something, “IÂ don’tÂ really watch art films because cinema is about entertainment. I go there toÂ shed my worries off, not to wear more of them.” Interesting.
To be honest, I had not paid much attention to Indian parallel cinema. Not that I was averse to watching it but it never surfaced on my mind the way mainstream movies did. Like most people, I had a vague idea of what it was and hadn’t heeded to its importance and potential. What really made it stand ‘parallel’ in contrast to mainstream commercial cinema, and why do we need it? A friend of mine took me on a journey of this prayog. It was in the course of those thirty minutes when I heard him passionately speak about the beauty, artistic splendor, imaginative leaps, and erudition of emotions that I felt a longing to embark on one, on my own.
Parallel Cinema Movement began in 1950s and 60s, initially especially from West Bengal through the works of Satyajit Ray (Pather Panchali), Mrinal Sen (Bhuvan Shome), Ritwik Ghatak (Nagrik), Bimal Roy (Do Bigha Zameen), also Mani Kaul (Uski Roti) and Malayali film creators like Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Swayamvaram), Girish Kasarvalli (Ghata Shraddha) and others. Influenced by Italian neo-realism, these movies quintessentially derived from realism and naturalism, almost always reflecting and critically questioning the socio-political climate of their times (winning it the tag of ‘cinema of compliant’). They were not always grim, and moments to cheer, for instance, in Kundan Shah’s Jaane bhi do yaron, did strike a chord. Keeping their canvases far from being larger than life they tried to escape the escapism of mainstream melodramas by showing the side of Indian societies that were avoided by commercial movies for the lack of ‘popular appeal’. There was honesty in creating what one felt ethically, and personally bound to, rather than to answer the call of the market. It gained momentum in 1970s (to an extent 1980s) with Shyam Benegal (Ankur), Govind Nihalani (Ardh Satya) and others joining the cadre. Today Mira Nair, Deepa Mehta, Anurag Kashyap (more commercialized presently), Aparna Sen, and so on continue the legacy. The films gave us a unique creed of actors like Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Farooq Sheikh, Deepti naval, Nandita Das and others.
Towards the end of 80s, due to India’s exposure to LPG, colour TVs, and private satellite networks, ‘the movement’ died. Nevertheless, art films were made; they were dependent on government funding, and film societies, which only helped in production, not marketing and distribution — that key step which would take them to viewers. They had also lost their only source of reaching out – Doordarshan. The result was that most films were either never released, or screened only during film festivals to win international accolades, and the Indian audience, except those who made an effort, never got to learn about them. It is paradoxical because the IT revolution should in fact open new vistas for film making, providing newer techniques at disposal, with internet proving to be a medium of dispersion and distribution. The success of Udaan, Lunch Box, Dhobi Ghat and Ship of Thesus is refreshing, generating hope about their future. These movies were not only made available to wider audience but were accepted by them! However, it also underlines a critical aspect of what I call ‘filmography’. Produced by big banners and production houses, attached with popular names they could manage to make their presence felt. Also, their settings were urban to relate to the audience implying a crucial role of the setting.
It is ironic that while art films dealt with the marginalized sections of our society they seldom reached their ‘subjects’. The audience of art films is urban educated elites and intelligentsia who already understand the issues and therefore can appreciate them. Therefore, while it took the role of cinema as a catalyst of change seriously, its endeavor was restrained by its limited reach — an obstruction they are never able to compass.
For all of those who are ranting about degeneration of Indian cinema into a mad race for club Rs. 100 crores, distraught by having served with mindless violence, plot-less presentation, vulgar story-line and dialogues immersed in stereotypes, and begging-to-be-forgiven acting, venture out of the murky waters of the mainstream, into the sea of human emotions, through a different gaze of the camera, where film-making is as real an art as living life is! What will make the line of division between commercial movies and art films blur (without having the content of latter unchanged) is their viewership. The wider the better. “Cinema should make you forget you are sitting in a theatre.” said Roman Polanski. I think we need that to happen more. We need to be transported to reality, through the art of capturing it in motion like the way art films do, to be able to see it. That would be ‘entertaining’. What started as a resistance warrants resurgence. As a true act of homage and redemption to 100 years of Indian cinema, and in the hope of a more transformed cinematic landscape, I have made a list of movies to set my eyes, ears, minds and hearts on. What about you?