Om Puri

Face the truth.

He says next to nothing in Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh, but he doesn’t need to. His expressive eyes and haunted face effectively communicate centuries of oppression. Om Puri, who trained in acting at the National School of Drama, Delhi, and the Film and Television Institute of India, Pune, could always be counted upon to convey injustice. He was part of the Gang of Four in parallel cinema. Along with Naseeruddin Shah, Smita Patil and Shabana Azmi, Puri appeared in every Indian New Wave film of note. He was the go-to actor for tribal or rural parts in such films as Arohan and Aakrosh, and is also superb as the corrupt and perennially drunk builder in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro and a photographer of porn pictures in Mandi. We also love him as the monster dad in East Is East and the conflicted taxi driver in My Son the Fanatic.

Maverick moviemakers

March of the avant-garde.

Of all the non-Bollywood film cultures in India, none has suffered as much as the experimental stream. The works of directors like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani have barely been seen for years, and it’s only now, with the National Film Development Corporation restoring some of their movies, that they have re-emerged in public view. Influenced by their mentor Ritwik Ghatak, they set out to make films that experimented with the language of cinema rather than telling stories. They examined aesthetics rather than politics—see Kaul’s Uski Roti, finally available on DVD, for a still-fresh handling of sound, image and pacing. Among their acolytes was Kamal Swaroop, who made the wondrous Om Dar-B-Dar. Read our essay.

Renu Saluja

Parallel cinema’s cutting edge

Kundan Shah’s Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro was a mess. We’re not saying that—its director, Kundan Shah, has said so himself in countless interviews. Enter Renu Saluja, the mistress of economy. She sat in on the shoots and told cinematographer Binod Pradhan what kind of shots to take so that it would make her job easier. Saluja’s assembly and pacing surely contributes to the narrative rhythm of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, which doesn’t have a shot out of place.

An editor is only as good as the material he or she gets. Saluja, who was also friends with several of the Indian New Wave film-makers who used her services, threw herself into the movies she edited. Her name is in the credits of some of the best-known parallel films, including Ardh Satya (the custodial torture scenes), Parinda (the sequence in which Anil Kapoor’s character commits murder to impress his new crime boss) and Bandit Queen (the infamous parading scene).


When done well, they can be really good.

Remakes are big business these days. Film-makers in Chennai, Mumbai, Hyderabad and Kochi routinely watch films made in each other’s languages, make their choices, and then send over a lawyer with a contract. The tradition of remakes dates back to the early days of cinema, when films made in Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Mumbai were routinely remade into other languages. Thanks to the robust remake culture, we got movies like Mr Sampat (the Hindi version of the Tamil movie starred the brilliant Motilal), Padosan (Bengali, Tamil and Telugu before Hindi), Ek Duuje Ke Liye (initially made in Telugu) and Sadma (originally in Tamil). The acting landscape also got more interesting with the crossover of Vyjayanthimala, Sridevi, Kamal Haasan and Rajinikanth. That’s not the case any more, though—Chennai is welcome to keep Asin.

Saeed Mirza

The welcome outrage of Saeed Mirza.

Saeed Mirza likes long, fabular titles, like Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. He also likes to set his stories among the middle and working classes of Mumbai. He shoots on actual locations, which give them texture and character, apart from making them valuable time capsules on the city that once was. Between Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978) and Naseem (1995), the Film and Television Institute of India graduate looked at the issues that roiled pre-liberalization Mumbai—housing, unemployment, communalism and Muslim radicalism. To find out what Bombay was like, and why Mumbai is the way it is, pop the disc of Salim Langde into the DVD player and sit back for a career-best performance by Pavan Malhotra.


Blue-collar chic.

Among the character types we have lost to globalization is the industrial worker. It’s hard to imagine a leading man as a blue-collar beast of burden, played by Amitabh Bachchan in Deewaar, or as a union leader, played by Rajesh Khanna in Namak Haraam. Parallel cinema, especially Saeed Mirza, focused on workers but the inevitable entry of global capital into India meant that movies set in factories, mines and mills didn’t fit in any more. Mukul Anand’s Hum, then, is a fitting tribute to the Deewaar days. The 1991 movie features the steel containers, rusting ships, overall-clad men and union leaders who’ve all but disappeared.

Real camerawork

In vino verite.

The Indian New Wave liberated film-makers from glossiness and forced brightness. Influenced by neo-realist cinema and the French New Wave, but also by 1950s Hindi cinema and Satyajit Ray, parallel cinema’s cinematographers went all over India in their quest for authenticity. They attached cameras on to cars and captured street life in Mumbai; they invaded the fields of rural India; they shot in available light.

Parallel cinema threw up several star cinematographers. Govind Nihalani shot Shyam Benegal’s films till 1981, building up a distinctive lighting and framing style through the rural drama Ankur and the period film Bhumika. For his own films as director, the tones got darker, the compositions starker. Aakrosh (1980), in which a small-town lawyer defends a tribal on a murder rap, is bathed in black tones. The custodial torture scenes from Ardh Satya are lit low to enhance the faces of the actors and the general darkness of the world inhabited by the protagonist inspector.

K.K. Mahajan worked with film-makers of all persuasions. He lensed the experimental films Uski Roti and Maya Darpan. He shot the unforgettable Mumbai vistas in Chhoti Si Baat and the evocative ruins of Khandhar.

Rakhee and M. K. Raina in ‘27 Down’

The Muslim social

Grace under pressure.

A Muslim social is a not a gathering meant only for Muslims. It refers to a genre that has now made way for the Islamist terrorist thriller. We’re talking about courtesans (Pakeezah, Umrao Jaan), Urdu-spouting gentry (Chaudhvin Ka Chand, Mere Mehboob) and historicals (Mirza Ghalib, Mughal-e-Azam). You will get exactly what’s been promised: sumptuous sets (with chandeliers, water fountains, the works), lovely costumes, poetic Urdu dialogue, ornate songs and swooning romance. They hark back to a lost world of grace and beauty.

One of the greatest Muslim socials came from the arthouse circuit—Garm Hava, M.S. Sathyu’s drama about a Muslim family torn apart by Partition. Films like Garm Hava and Mammo were “shorn of nostalgia for the past", explain Richard Allen and Ira Bhaskar in Islamicate Cultures of Bombay Cinema. “The idiom of New Wave films is a realist one…yet the nobility of self and depth of culture…resonate still."

V Shantaram

From hands to pots.

If there was ever a film that really did not need a written title for its opening shot, it has to be V. Shantaram’s Do Ankhen Barah Haath (1957). A large cut-out of two eyes on a wall, followed by six pairs of hands on the same wall on which falls the shadow of a barred window—there really could not have been better usage of symbolism for a film about a jail warden who reforms a bunch of prisoners. The man who was so keen to present new ideas through cinema (Teen Batti Chaar Raasta) was also behind films on classical dance in India such as Jhanak Jhanak Payal Baaje (1955) and Navrang (1959). Lead actor Sandhya’s movements might seem jerky, but she did balance multiple pots on her head, thrash about in water like a fish, and match beats with a ghungroo-wearing elephant.


Goods in, goods out.

Smugglers don’t make too much sense in a globalized economy, but they were all over the movies in earlier decades, especially in the 1970s, when luxe goods were as foreign as exotic cheese. There were the good smugglers who were forced to sneak in watches and gold (usually in the form of bars), like Dilip Kumar’s noble criminal in Vidhaata. Amitabh Bachchan supervised the loading and unloading of various cartons, but halted his actions when a higher cause beckoned, like a woman or his mother. But there were also the sleazy types (Ajit in Zanjeer), who brought in liquor, gold and, later, drugs. The ill-gotten goods usually landed at Versova, a patch of sand and water in Mumbai that locals call a beach. The smugglers also sent out Indian treasures, like antiques (Premnath, brilliantly despicable in Johny Mera Naam). Then came along a thing called liberalization, which forced them to find other means of making money.

Sanjukta Sharma, Arun Janardhan, Kushal Gopalka (a Mumbai-based musicologist and musician), Seema Chowdhry, Chanpreet Khurana, Niranjan Rajadhyaksha, Shefalee Vasudev and Rudraneil Sengupta contributed to this story.