Reel Revolution: Celebrating Parallel Cinema of India

By Dr. Priyam Sinha
Figure 1: A scene from Bhumika. (Directed by Shyam Benegal)

“Oh! That movie where Smita Patil dances!” my mother exclaimed as I hung up a call, informing her that Singapore would soon be screening Bhumika (1977). Almost instantaneously and in amusement she added, “I didn’t know that Indians in Singapore watch these movies.” Her response was natural. More so, due to the relative marginality and commerciality of cinema beyond Bollywood among global audiences. Patil has been celebrated for her offbeat performances as an actress in parallel cinema. It was a film society movement that gained traction in the 1950s through filmmakers like Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, among others, who advocated a need to dissociate from Indian cinema’s fascination towards piggybacking on song and dance conventions while featuring urban and diasporic picturesque locations. But here, Patil’s dancing body is spectacularised, attracting audiences to see a different shade to her stardom as she embodies the role of a struggling actress in Bombay’s (now Mumbai) film industry. The camera zooms into a closeup of Patil, who breaks into a lavani [1] dance performance on the beats of a mridangam. It soon jump cuts into her footwork, mukhija abhanya (facial gestures), drishti bhed (eye movement in Indian classical dance) and hasta mudras (hand gestures).

Such a seemingly unprecedented film genre was garbed in foregrounding the story of a Devadasi.[2] Patil showcased her ability to embody the biographies of many actresses like Durga Khote and Kanan Devi who were either tricked or coerced into acting for sustaining their family’s expenses. By staging a tragic caste dialogue coupled with questions over women’s morality and abuse on pursuing dance in the film industry, Bhumika was eventually referred to as one of Patil’s career-best performances. It also juxtaposed a pioneering initiative in mainstreaming India as a land of chottolok (marginalised in terms of social class, caste and educational qualifications) who aspired to be Bhadralok (English-speaking and respectable elite) through its women. Bhumika’s multilayered character arcs are strengthened through dim-lit spatial frames in dilapidated houses and dingy lanes, emblematic of the emptiness in women’s personal lives even amidst stardom. Together, we see filmmaker Shyam Benegal’s attempts to mainstream women’s lives through narratives of resistance, exploitation, violence and trauma while toiling within the structural cleavages of Indian societies.

In 1983, film critic Chidandana Dasgupta (also filmmaker Aparna Sen’s father) defined ‘New Cinema’ in India by suggesting that filmmakers can be referred to as the revolutionaries of a social change and must take on such a role responsibly. In his words:

In a country like India, the sensitive film maker has to be a man of conscience . .. The new cinema expiates modern India’s sense of guilt over its persistent legacy of privilege; this gives it a purpose and a source for poignant, vigorous cinema.

Figure 2: A scene from 36 Chowringhee Lane. (Directed by Aparna Sen)

Dasgupta’s pronounced judgment of a changing cinematic grammar coincided with Aparna Sen’s directorial debut of 36 Chowringhee Lane in 1981. Set against the backdrop of post-independence Kolkata, the narrative foregrounds the everyday life of Violet Stoneham, an Anglo-Indian teacher who finds joy in teaching Shakespeare despite having unenthusiastic students. Within grave tones of monologues, Violet communicates the emptiness of her life, emblematically representing what it means to be an outsider wrestling with the ills of Indian society. By journeying into her betrayals and heartbreaks in seeking meaningful friendship with an Indian couple, the narrative ends with her succumbing to her life of reciting lines from King Lear to a stray dog. By offering a neo-colonial perspective in showcasing Bengali cinema’s fascination towards Shakespeare, Sen presents a way of witnessing the active presence of Shakespeare in the curriculum of Indian schools. But in a general sense, it symbolised that the road to auteurism relied on Indianising the references on Shakespeare within quirky remarks and choregraphed idiosyncrasies in character arcs while denoting the radical experimentations of new cinema.

Figure 3: A scene from Donkey in a Brahmin Village (Directed by John Abraham)

Donkey in a Brahmin Village (1977), directed by John Abraham was another such attempt of revolutionising a narrative imagination and filmmaking practices. It revolves around a donkey who is shunned and abused when brought to a Brahmin village in Tamil Nadu. The fear was that it portrayed Brahmins in a negative light, accusing them to be violent abusers of power by targeting an innocent animal. For such reasons, it was banned across various regions in Tamil Nadu. By offering a unique way of  saying that voiceless animals too were classified as untouchables, ill omens and targets of caste-based violence, the donkey is martyred within communal clashes. Abraham provides an allegorical layering of caste and class politics that operate in Indian villages and critiques the fragile sentiments of the Brahmins who conspire heinous crimes to establish their dominance. Abraham announced the perils of everyday life in rural India by packaging a fictional account of anti-Brahmin polemics through dialectics of subjugation and the tenacity of the lower caste in fighting for their rights. Quite naturally, a film of this magnitude was seen as a threat to the sociocultural fabric of India that was and continues to remain intertwined within casteist politics and hierarchised brutality. Abraham left no stone unturned in broadcasting his activist orientation, confessed his communist outlook towards filmmaking and urgency to revolutionise the authorial and commercial predicaments of film production.

Figure 4: A scene from Duvidha (Directed by Mani Kaul)

Mani Kaul’s Duvidha (1973) offers a rather novel take on neorealistic cinema by featuring a narrative of a newly married couple and a ghost that takes the place of the husband while he is away on a business trip. Such a light-hearted yet poignantly constructed satire in criticising the feudal and modern societies through a women-centric narrative sets it apart. At the face of it, it appears as a fictional account of a doppelganger ghost that replaces Lachchi’s husband. Though a ghost, she chooses him over her husband and consummates their marriage by bearing their child. As one delves into her dilemma and decision, Lachchi canonises a way to portray the life of every woman who wrestles with performing the role of a dutiful wife across patriarchal societies in rural India. Lachchi’s decision carves a ray of hope as she finally prioritises her agency and basks in the joy of reciprocated love, even if by a ghost. Reflecting on such a fictional account also propels one to think of love beyond heterosexual,  monogamous and arranged marriages. In the end, it denotes that there are no obvious ways of seeking companionship.

Figure 5: A scene from Subarnarekha. (Directed by Ritwik Ghatak)

While quoting filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak’s filmography and contribution towards regionalising film production cultures and filmmaking practices in Bengali cinema, media studies scholar Anustup Basu asserted, “a culturally situated, earthy cinema identifiable to the world at large was possible only when it came with distinct regional flavours.” Ghatak’s emphasis on region shooting, people and place detailing by drawing esoteric references from Bengali literature and poetry are suggestively choregraphed in Subarnarekha (1965). Grounded in projecting a panoptic project that incentivised minimalism in imaginary constructions, the narrative features the story of a Hindu refugee from East Pakistan after the 1947 partition of India. Mired within tyrannies and clutches of caste, class, nation, state, citizenship and abduction, Ghatak offers a window into realising that India’s partition meant violence and brutality in the everyday life of the common man. By foregrounding a story on aspirations of pursuing university education in Germany, it forays into a tragic tale of forced migration and precarity of labour. In a poetic sense, the film ends with a longshot of the Subarnarekha River, signalling that, like a river, life is about traversing twists and turns that could be difficult to navigate. The river symbolises hope in times of partition and precarity. By invoking the serene cadence of a river’s flow, the film delicately unveils the intricate tapestry of human experience, where the tranquil surface belies the turbulent undercurrents of a semiotic universe ensnared by the trials of displacement and longing. In such rhythmic montages of surreal and calm frames, Ghatak evokes the paraphernalia of temporality and unpredictability in India that wrestled with Bhadralok  narcissism. Fractured by violence, Subarnarekha echoed the tussle of anti-imperialism and the urge for internationalism among many subaltern Indians. In a sense, this new cinema culture provided a fictionalised form of purporting its audience to the hidden life of a historical field through the life of a refugee.

Figure 6: A scene from Thamp̄ (Directed by Govindan Aravindan)

Similarly, Govindan Aravindan’s Thamp̄ (1978) offers a satire on human life through the prism and shackles of a circus. Through an esoteric gaze on the existential crises in human life, Aravindan invites audiences to a real world of circus performers by painting a spectacle that captures the tapestry of unspoken sorrows. By crafting a symphony of reflective moments, lyrical visuals and candid reflections in essaying alienation, Aravindan curates a poignant tale of alienation fraught with introspection, longing, resonance, and quest for self within an overarching commentary on rootlessness. At a factual level, the narrative evokes the tragic lives led by circus performers and unfolds to signal that we are all humans bounded by the world and relations we are trapped in. In addition, the skilful camerawork conveys that light can often strengthen the process of storytelling while making a fictional narrative come to life. The seemingly handheld camera movement attempted to purport one into feeling a semiotic universe that abandoned utopian imaginaries. Thamp̄ serves as a timeless ode to human connection, fluidity of relationships, fleeting moments of despair and an eternal search for belongingness in a dynamic and self-indulgent world.

Figure 7: A scene from Bhuvan Shome (Directed by Mrinal Sen)

Although cinematic experimentation and postcolonial references were a pioneering initiative in the Indian New Wave of cinema, cinematic realism signalling India as a land of marginality, feudal power and oppression was evident across most films. Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome is an avant-garde experimental film that delves into the complexities of social injustice, orthodoxies of bureaucratic practices and subjugation of ethical men deemed powerless in a postcolonial nation. As the narrative unfolds, Shome realises that his position and power do not help him in overcoming his everyday drudgery and succumbs to his fate. Sen’s skilful use of jump cuts, panorama, close body shots and freeze frames in picturising the lanes of Saurashtra (a region in Gujarat) suggests that the New Wave in Indian cinemas radically differs in narrative orientation and spatial characterisation. Sen’s satirical prowess also symbolised a departure from mainstream and commercial cinema, rejecting its emphasis on spectacular locations and melodrama. Instead, it offered an expressive art form that strived for a more realistic portrayal of India and Indianness.

This realist project was not limited to fictional constructions; it also played a crucial role in circulating an auteurist expression of national history and imagination. In fact, such films began being addressed as the “good cinemas” of India (Prasad 1998), suggesting a need for filmmakers to prioritise a distinct cinematic imagination that can be pivoted as thoughtful in dislodging the Bollywoodisation of Indian cinema. In recent times, South Asian media studies scholars like Ashish Rajadhyaksha (2003), Amit Rai (2009), Iftekhar Dadi (2022) and Swapnil Rai (2024) insisted that most conversations around Indian cinema have been led by Bollywood, which further marginalises these seemingly unprecedented, radical and experimental film genres of the new wave of Indian cinema.

Director Mrinal Sen had once quoted in an interview in 1979, “Indian cinema was all rubbish”, and hinted at his desire to make art form a way to generate social, moral and political awareness by echoing what it means to be born disempowered and underprivileged in India (Deccan Herald 2019).[3] It is easy to presume that filmmakers like Sen were keen on pioneering a non-Bollywoodised India, one that promised its increasing global and local audiences of experiencing what it means to be mired within the clutches of caste, gender, postcolonial influences, fractures of geopolitics and other forms of structural inequalities in a non-urban India. Additionally, interdisciplinary scholarship on the Indian diaspora in Singapore by Rajesh Rai (2004) and Vineeta Sinha (2009) has increasingly hinted that religiosity and assumed urbanity take precedence in shaping everyday lives of almost all Indians who migrated to Singapore. Drawing upon such reasonings, one can presume that caste and many such preoccupations mentioned above, atrocities and region-centric intersectional identity markers are not as prominently discussed among the Indians in Singaporeans. In a sense, it would be quite interesting to note how a multiracial, multicultural, multireligious, and multi-ethnic audience in Singapore makes sense of caste-based violence, women’s abduction, sexual exploitation, slavery and corruption in postcolonial India. This new wave of Indian cinema, often called an “Artistic Revolution” that prioritised inward-looking India, symbolises not just dismantling the sustained and commercialised fascination towards Bollywood as Indian cinema in Singapore. In a broader sense, it also promises audiences  a flavour of India and Indianness that is cut off from the everyday lives of Indians in Singapore.

 

Footnotes

[1] A dance form in Maharashtra that is often characterised by erotic themes and sensual dance moves done by women performers as a part of Marathi folk theatre.

[2] Young girls who were dedicated to the “service of the god” in temples, which led to their exploitation and forced prostitution.

[3] https://www.deccanherald.com/india/karnataka/bengaluru/auteur-mrinal-sen-indian-712015.html

 

Suggested Further Readings

Basu, A. (2020). Filmfare and the question of Bengali cinema (1955–65). In Popular Cinema in Bengal. Routledge., 74-91.

Dadi, I. (2022). Lahore Cinema: Between Realism and Fable. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Prasad, M. (1998). Ideology of the Hindi Film: A Historical Construction. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.

Rai, A. S. (2009). Untimely Bollywood: globalization and India’s new media assemblage. Duke University Press.

Rai, R. (2004). ‘Race’ and the construction of the North–South divide amongst Indians in colonial Malaya and Singapore. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies27(2), 245-264.

Rai, S. (2024). Networked Bollywood: How Star Power Globalized Hindi Cinema. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Rajadhyaksha, A. (2003). The ‘Bollywoodization’ of the Indian cinema: cultural nationalism in a global arena. Inter-Asia cultural studies4(1), 25-39.

Sinha, V. (2009). ‘Mixing and Matching’: The Shape of Everyday Hindu Religiosity in Singapore. Asian Journal of Social Science37(1), 83-106.


 

About the author

Dr. Priyam Sinha just completed her PhD in South Asian Studies at the National University of Singapore. She is a cultural anthropologist and creative media industries scholar, and her wide-ranging research interests include digital media, disability, affect, production culture, audience, diaspora, gender and film studies. Some of her work has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals like Media, Culture & Society and South Asian Diaspora, and has also written for media outlets like Economic and Political Weekly and FemAsia, among others. As a host for New Books Network podcast, she is committed towards prioritizing public education. She was also one of the authors of “Hidden Heritage: A Series Exploring Singapore’s Minority South Asian Communities”, a project funded by the National Heritage Board, Singapore.

 

 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Asian Film Archive.

About the Writer