Movies | Meet the frownies

‘The Good Road’ is only the latest milestone in parallel cinema’s journey
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First Published: Sat, Sep 28 2013. 12 06 AM IST
Ketan Mehta’s ‘Mirch Masala’ (1987)
Ketan Mehta’s ‘Mirch Masala’ (1987)
For over two decades, Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman was a movie that was more remembered than seen. Memories of Gaman survived mainly through fleeting images from its memorable songs, featuring a very young Farooq Shaikh driving a taxi through a then uncluttered Mumbai and Smita Patil sitting alone in a half-lit room in a faraway village.
Made in 1978 and largely out of circulation for several years, Gaman has finally emerged from hibernation through the release of its DVD on the National Film Development Corporation’s (NFDC’s) Cinemas of India label. NFDC classics have popped out of the cans with welcome regularity over the past few months, along with others whose existence we knew of only through entries in Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, the monumental guide by Ashish Rajadhyaksha and Paul Willemen. The re-emergence of several art or so-called parallel films poses interesting questions for followers of this unique stream of Indian cinema. Was parallel cinema all it was made out to be? Had their absence made the heart grow fonder? Have the movies that have been re-released—or released for the first time ever in some cases—aged well? Were critics of parallel cinema justified in describing many of the movies that attempted to interrogate the social, economic and political issues facing India as boring, slow-moving, tacky or that uniquely Indian slur, “pseudo”?
Muzaffar Ali’s ‘Gaman’ (1973)
Gaman comfortably passes the test. Ali’s debut feature, which features Nana Patekar and Protima Bedi in a walk-on part, traces the journey of a young Muslim (Shaikh) from Badaun in Uttar Pradesh (the ancestral village of Ali’s mother) to a slum in Mumbai. Ghulam Hasan learns to drive a taxi but never saves up enough to return home, where his wife, played by Smita Patil with customary sensitivity and no make-up, patiently waits for him. Gaman has many of the markings of parallel cinema—it is shot on location, has convincingly realist performances, contains a social message (migration doesn’t solve anything), and links an individual’s fate to circumstance rather than chance.
Apart from NFDC productions, Cinemas of India has also brought out films made by other sources, such as Doordarshan and individual producers, and is streaming them for free on its website . Recent NFDC productions, such as the Malayalam period piece Bioscope and Gujarati film The Good Road, which the Film Federation of India named as India’s official submission for the Foreign Language Film at the Oscars, have a much shorter gap between completion and exposure. However, the DVD route continues to be the best possible way for such films to reach their audiences. The struggle to release such films in cinemas clearly hasn’t eased one bit.
A still from ‘The Good Road’, India’s official entry to the Oscars, produced by NFDC. Photo courtesy: National Film Development Corporation
For years, the state financed its own critique in pursuit of the noble mission of using cinema as a tool for social change, which could be achieved, it was felt, by training Indians to develop a taste for a different kind of cinema. It had different descriptors—parallel, art, offbeat, Indian new wave, socially relevant—but one consequence: an escape from the relentless escapism of mainstream film-making. Even though not everything that wasn’t a song-dance-action-comedy hotchpotch was part of parallel cinema, but convenience trumped reason. Satyajit Ray famously distanced himself from the movies produced by the NFDC and its previous avatar, the Film Finance Corporation, in his book Our Films, Their Films, in 1976 itself. Ray and his peers Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen got lumped together with later film-makers like Shyam Benegal (many of whose films were not financed by the NFDC), Ketan Mehta, G. Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan.
Despite the confusion in classification, it is safe to say that there were scores of films being produced far away from the dream factories of the country’s major language cinemas. These films often found their audiences through the Indian drawing room rather than the movie hall. The NFDC’s failure in setting up a chain of art house cinemas across the country meant that several of its productions circulated between film festivals and returned to the vault, only to be dusted off on special occasions. Numerous Indians knew of the existence of this alternate universe only because of Doordarshan’s Sunday afternoon slot. Among the many joys of the pre-satellite era is the “regional movie” screening on the state-run channel, which taught generations of Indians to accept often badly subtitled films and introduced them to a rainbow coalition of film-makers, actors and technicians—not to mention the rules of Indian art cinema.
Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha’ (1978)
Parallel films rarely had songs. Their characters didn’t often smile, and why would they, since they were confronting the challenges posed by caste, religion, blind faith, gender imbalance, poverty, bondage and violence? The leading women didn’t know the existence of lipstick, although they did have an extensive collection of handloom saris. The men had unkempt hair and, often, beards, and they smoked an awful lot. Many of them were set in villages, while others trawled the slums and chawls of Mumbai much before Bollywood discovered these spaces. The films made for heavy watching, and often ended on an open and ambiguous note that, depending on the film-maker’s skills, represented a slap in the face or a running out of ideas.
Cinemas of India represents a small segment of the Indian art cinema that was produced from the late 1960s onwards, but it’s a fabulous start. Film nostalgia isn’t only for popular cinema, and feelings towards the art cinema on which us Indians grew up can be as mixed as our regard for the legacy of Sridevi or Rajinikanth. There are duds and gems, embarrassments and riches. Experimental films by Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani sit on the same shelf as rural realist dramas. One of the greatest gifts of the label, in fact, is the release of DVDs of Kaul’s long-forgotten early achievements Uski Roti and Duvidha.
Awtar Krishna Kaul’s ‘27 Down’ (1974). Photo courtesy: National Film Development Corporation
27 Down by Awtar Krishna Kaul, who died in an accident soon after its completion, is one of the great Mumbai films, featuring unforgettable journeys on the local train, a lustrous Raakhee, and some of the best black and white vistas of the city, including an unforgettable sequence of commuters spilling out of a train as it pulls into a station. Celebrated cinematographer Apurba Kishore Bir, who shot 27 Down and several parallel films, also directed a handful of titles, including Aranyaka, a Rules of the Game-influenced tale set in a tribal part of Orissa and featuring an ex-royal, his guests and a hunt that goes badly wrong. Aranyaka isn’t wholly successful in its depiction of the tensions between the ruling class and indigenous people, but it’s a curio nonetheless, on a par with Aribam Syam Sharma’s Manipuri film Sanabi. The story of a stolen horse and the role it plays in a budding romance is less interesting than the rural Manipuri landscape, lovingly photographed by renowned Malayli cinematographer Sunny Joseph.
Fareeda Mehta’s ‘Kali Salwaar’
Cinemas of India has given a new lease of life to several neglected films, among them, Fareeda’s Kali Salwaar, featuring beautiful camerawork by Avijit Mukul Kishore, compelling performances by Sadiya Siddiqui, Irrfan Khan, Surekha Sikri and Sheeba Chaddha, and evocative Central Mumbai locations. Kali Salwaar is set in the Mumbai imaginarium constructed through the stories of Saadat Hasan Manto (the writer also wanders through the narrative)—a world of elegant prostitutes, pathetic dreamers, flim-flam artists and flamboyant neighbourhood criminals.
Konkani film-maker Laxmikant Shetgaonkar’s prodigious film Paltadacho Munis is the portrait of a forest guard’s unconventional relationship with a mentally challenged woman, which brings him in opposition with the rest of the village and causes him to retreat further into the woods. Paltadacho Munis is a rarity among Indian art house films for its surefooted treatment of complex material, but it sank without a trace. Pervez Merwanji’s Percy is also back in circulation, and as relevant then as now in its exploration of the sorry life of a working-class Parsi man who wages a war against corruption with tragic consequences.
Many of the excavations are hardly unqualified successes—in fact, some of them revive bad memories of the earnest pamphleteering that passed off for cinema, such as K. Hariharan’s Current, about power shortages in rural India, Basu Chatterjee’s Kamla Ki Maut, in which family secrets come spilling out after the suicide of a neighbour, and Subhankar Ghosh’s Woh Chhokri, whose only redeeming feature is the lead performance by Pallavi Joshi, the neglected daughter of an ambitious politician.
"One of the greatest gifts of the label, in fact, is the release of DVDs of Kaul’s long-forgotten early achievements, ‘Uski Roti’ and ‘Duvidha’"
Some of the DVDs are of much-loved and well-known titles, such as Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (a best-seller for the label), Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala, Tapan Sinha’s Ek Doctor Ki Maut, and Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. Mirza’s Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) is another classic Mumbai film, about a rich young man who flirts with Marxism and his father’s secretary. A father disappears in Mrinal Sen’s excellent chamber piece Ek Din Achanak, forcing his kin to re-examine their relationship with him and with each other. Shot by celebrated cameraman K.K. Mahajan and based on Ramapada Chowdhury’s Bengali novel Beej, Ek Din Achanak adroitly traces out the hollowness that lies at the core of a professor’s family after he walks out of the house one rainy night, never to return. An incomplete picture of the professor emerges through conversations and flashbacks. Was he having an affair? Was he a depressive? Typically, the slot for the answer is left blank.
Apoorba Kishore Bir’s ‘Aranyaka’ (1994)
Girish Kasaravalli’s Ek Ghar (made in Kannada as Mane) also unfolds largely within the interiors of a house that is more nightmare than dream for a couple, played by Naseeruddin Shah and Deepti Naval. Taking cues from Ingmar Bergman and Roman Polanski, Kasaravalli creates a convincingly claustrophobic situation in which external noise and internal demons overwhelm a young couple who have moved to Bangalore. As construction and migration begin to change the contours of the city—predicting the current strains on urban infrastructure in the Karnataka capital—the couple drift apart.
Parallel cinema created an alternative star system of film-makers, actors and technicians (music composer Vanraj Bhatia was the R.D. Burman of the scene). Actors who were regulars on the scene and were as familiar to art film watchers as were their popular film counterparts, have also come back into view, such as K.K. Raina, who pops up in Dilip Chitre’s Godam, a three-hander between a lowly government official posted in a mofussil godown stocked with rotting piles of wheat, a resourceful peon (played delightfully by Satyadev Dubey) and an ingénue (Trupti). Raina also plays a man of religion in Arun Kaul’s Diksha, an adaptation of U.R. Ananthamurthy’s novella Ghatashraddha (Kasaravalli made a superior adaptation in 1977). Parallel cinema provided a training ground for several actors, such as a young Irrfan Khan, who shows off early evidence of his acting chops and rakish charm in Kamla Ki Maut and Kali Salwaar.
"For years, the state financed its own critique in pursuit of the noble mission of using cinema as a tool of social change."
The Cinemas of India label includes recent NFDC productions, such as Priya Krishnaswamy’s Gangoobai, about a maid’s quest for a Parsi gara sari, and Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi film Anhe Ghorey Da Dan, an exploration of the stifled lives of rural Punjabis. The rediscovery of the Indian New Wave will continue with the DVDs of such films as Marhi Da Deeva, a rare art house Punjabi film with Raj Babbar and Deepti Naval, and Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Mani Kaul’s celebrated adaptation of Hindi playwright Mohan Rakesh’s play of the same name. It’s not quite The Criterion Collection—the DVDs don’t have extra features or contextualizing material, the subtitling is sometimes off and the restoration not always satisfying —but at least the mystique surrounding Indian art cinema is finally lifting, one title at a time.
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First Published: Sat, Sep 28 2013. 12 06 AM IST
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