A still from Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha’ (1973).
A still from Mani Kaul’s ‘Duvidha’ (1973).

The varied aesthetics of the Indian New Wave

  • Parallel Cinema directors didn’t adhere to any one particular style.
  • Instead, they used everything from neorealism to agitprop to avant-garde to tell their stories

The first phase of Indian Parallel Cinema, from 1969-75, is often celebrated as a turning point in the evolution of art cinema in India. What often goes unnoticed, however, is the significance of film style, which was central to attempts to develop a new film aesthetic and syntax.

1969 and the birth of Parallel Cinema was a moment Indian cinema had been reluctantly building up towards for a very long time. The stylistic preoccupations with realism, expressly neorealism, had remained largely intact since the late 1940s and reached an apotheosis with Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin in 1953 and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali in 1955. Even someone as iconoclastic as Mrinal Sen was quick to adopt the realist aesthetic in his early films.

However, it was Ritwik Ghatak’s work that represented a break from realism, intermittently attempting to shift to the epic form, and, in doing so, experimenting with sound, editing and cinematography in overtly formalist modes. In this context, Ghatak’s cinema was remarkably plural in style—abstract, disjointed, classical and expressionistic at the same time. A sense of dislocation marked Ghatak’s work; his wayward exilic and fatalistic protagonists pursuing the metaphysical are weighed down by the bifurcations of history, expressly the trauma of Partition.

The triumvirate of 1969—Bhuvan Shome, Uski Roti and Sara Akash—were completely apposite films but brought with them a spirit of experimentation that marked an attempt to reshape both the traditional storytelling methods and the syntax of film. With Uski Roti, for example, director Mani Kaul wholly rejected the traditions of narrative cinema, not only dispensing with plot but also inventing a radical organic space that elongated the passing of time through elliptical editing. Films like Uski Roti and Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (1972), versed in the idioms of Robert Bresson and European new wave cinemas, articulated a new style of painterly film-making in which realism was shattered. In essence, Kaul and Shahani’s work was the real break in terms of film style. Both films adopted a female perspective conjoined to an elliptical rhythm. Style, however, was an aspect of Parallel Cinema that wasn’t as readily visible as thematic shifts.

That’s not to say the neorealist tradition that had been nurtured by Ray and Roy lost ground to the sensuous avant-garde experiments of Kaul and Shahani. Shyam Benegal would take on the baton of neorealism in the context of Parallel Cinema; refining the neorealist approach to the extent of merging the ideological with naturalism to exciting degrees, resulting in films like Manthan (1976) and Bhumika (1977).

Sadly, film discourse was quick to designate Benegal’s work as part of Middle Cinema, thereby undermining the radical political conviction he demonstrated in his work and the divergent stylistic experiments he was capable of pursuing.

It is important to realize Benegal was one of the few film-makers to evolve his style through the history of Parallel Cinema, turning to self-reflexive techniques in the 1990s with films like Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda (1992). Despite the fact that 1969 led to an aesthetic rupture in the history of Indian cinema, whereby a new creative space opened up, there was never any united front of the film-makers. Surprisingly, the attempt to express unity was often undermined by the elder statesman of Indian cinema—Satyajit Ray. Ray openly criticized the claims of a new cinema as a conventional project, all of which was initially magnified in his criticisms of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome.

A united front connected to the 1968 New Cinema Manifesto" by Sen and Arun Kaul would have helped to galvanize and create solidarity for a new and complete aesthetic. Albeit, film styles and approaches including neorealism (Garam Hava, 1973), agitprop (Interview, 1970), avant-garde (Duvidha, 1973), to name a few, pointed to international allusions that Parallel Cinema nurtured unconsciously. Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy in particular showed a fusion and hybridity that brought together montage and actuality and alluded to Third Cinema, a cinema of decolonization and political resistance that originated in Latin America, expressly Cuba and Brazil.

One of the more audacious stylistic experiments of the first phase of Parallel Cinema was the adaptation of Vijay Tendulkar’s political satire Ghashiram Kotwal (1976). This collaborative project, made up of 16 members, including co-director K. Hariharan and actor Om Puri, brought together iconoclasts in the form of the YUKT Film Cooperative. Hariharan recalls that Mani Kaul, someone they greatly admired, was the creative senior who helped guide the project. Equally important roles were played by Kamal Swaroop and Saeed Mirza, contributing ideas central to the film. Relying on a self-reflexive approach, combining the dance traditions of Indian culture with Brechtian devices (the omniscient narrator, title cards, direct camera address), the fusion of theatre, dance and film combined to create a postcolonial non-linear dialogue about history and politics at the time of the Emergency. So Ghashiram Kotwal was a culmination of the stylistic experimentation of 1968-75, bringing together Indian and European cultural sensibilities to acknowledge the political modernism of directors like Hungarian Miklós Jancsó and his fidelity for landscapes, long takes and the possibilities of playing with temporality in cinema.

The snapshot I have tried to provide is just one fragment of a much broader history of Parallel Cinema. In terms of new film styles that emerged after the birth of Parallel Cinema in 1969, the hunger for a new aesthetics of film was taken up more instructively and fervently in the new waves that emerged from Karnataka and Kerala in the 1970s (notably in Govindan Aravindan’s uniquely rhythmical style), giving us seminal films like Vasudevan Nair’s Nirmalyam (1973), Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram (1972), Shivaram Karanth’s Chomana Dudi (1975), Pattabhirama Reddy’s Samskara (1970), Girish Kasaravalli’s Ghatasharaddha (1977) and Aravindan’s Thampu (1978).

But the hunger for a new aesthetics was limited. The vein of realism, particularly neorealism, returned gradually to an unobtrusive and lifelike style that Ray had first taken up and was recognized for internationally in the late 1950s.

Nevertheless, it was in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema that a plurality of film styles emerged. After all, Parallel Cinema was all about coexistence.