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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"?

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Muzaffar Ali’s ‘Gaman’ (1973)

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
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A still from ‘The Good Road’, India’s official entry to the Oscars, produced by NFDC. Photo courtesy: National Film Development Corporation

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.

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Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha’ (1978)

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.

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Awtar Krishna Kaul’s ‘27 Down’ (1974). Photo courtesy: National Film Development Corporation
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Fareeda Mehta’s ‘Kali Salwaar’

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’
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Apoorba Kishore Bir’s ‘Aranyaka’ (1994)

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.

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