From the late 1960s to the mid 1980s, an alternative to the mainstream Hindi entertainment films and the regional mainstream cinemas, often referred to as ‘New Wave’ or ‘Parallel’ cinema, thrived in India. New Wave films tended to exhibit the following characteristics:
They were inspired by a new type of Indian film, which had been pioneered by the Bengali filmmaker, Satyajit Ray, in the 1950s.
They focused on social and political issues, such as the position of women, caste and poverty, communalism, the young and dissent. While popular films sometimes touched on these issues New Wave films presented them with greater directness, complexity and subtlety.
They were less concerned with offering spectacle and glamour and tended towards a social realist approach to their subject.
They tended to be preoccupied with visual style and composition, and emphasised reflexivity. They drew attention to the construction of a film, rather than aiming at a seamless presentation of the story.
The films were usually produced on a low budget, and were less dependent on well-known stars.
The filmmakers were often influenced by western art house films and were dependent on film festivals, film societies and art house cinemas to become well known.
The rise of Alternative films.
In India, in the 1940s, Hindi popular films supplanted Hollywood imports as the largest block of releases in the Indian film market. Regional cinemas, for example the Tamil industry based in Madras/Chennai, also developed and expanded. But beyond these popular films, and Hollywood films, access to foreign films was very limited. Film societies were the main way audiences could access a wider range of films. In the late 1930s and early 1940s there were two attempts to found film societies in Bombay/Mumbai, but both were short-lived.
A longer lasting and far more influential institution, the Calcutta/Kolkata Film Society, was founded in 1947. The instigators were Chidananda Das Gupta and Satyajit Ray, both of whom became key film directors in India and inspired the development of New Wave in the 60s. The operation of such a society was not easy: the censorship rules applied to societies (though eased in the 1960s); and there were entertainment taxes and the cost of importing film. Despite this, the Calcutta/Kolkata Film Society constructed a programme of films using the Central Film Library of the Ministry of Education, commercial distributors of foreign films, and, very importantly, films provided by foreign embassies. In the 1950s the international market dominance by Hollywood was undermined, creating the space for the growing popularity of other national cinemas. Increasingly, films made outside Hollywood and in very different forms, circulated in the international markets. The Society gave an Indian audience access to these alternative cinemas. Apart from seeing films from many different countries the Society enjoyed visits by noted foreign filmmakers, including Jean Renoir, Vsevolod Pudovkin and John Huston. From 1952 the International Film Festival, held variously in Bombay/Mumbai, Madras/Chennai and Calcutta/Kolkata, opened doors to world cinema. As a result the Society had a powerful influence on several young members who became filmmakers, including Satyajit Ray.
Satyajit Ray – a pioneer filmmaker
Satyajit Ray visited the European director Jean Renoir when he was filming The River (1951). Inspired by this experience he decided to fulfil a growing ambition, and started work on a screenplay of a widely read Bengali novel, Pather Panchali (The Song of the Road). Indian films in the 1950s were almost wholly studio produced, but Ray wanted to film this story in the actual locations. He also wanted to use ordinary people living in the situations described in the book rather than the professional actors and actresses of popular cinema. Potential backers were aghast at such a project. However, Ray started work, using his own savings and selling his personal belongings. Then he got an interested distributor who advanced him Rs 20,000. Later he obtained Rs 200,000 from the state of West Bengal and was able to complete the film.
When Pather Panchali was first released audiences were bemused by it, but it grew in popularity. It received an award at the Cannes Film Festival as the ‘best human document’ of the Festival and, over the next few years, the film enchanted audiences in film societies and art cinemas round the world. It also recouped a healthy profit on the investment of West Bengal
The film launched Ray’s career and he was to become one of the outstanding directors of the second half of the twentieth century. He is best regarded as an auteur, a filmmaker with a distinctive style and recognisable themes. While he was influential, he did not found a movement in the sense that Italian filmmakers founded Neo-realism. His films demonstrated that there were audiences in India for films that were different from the mainstream. Their favourable reception internationally also made a significant impact on the Indian government. In the 1960s and 1970s state funding was to play a crucial role in facilitating the making of alternative films. The state-run Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) at Pune provided a training ground and alternative entry into the film industry for young filmmakers. And success in competitions at international film festivals provided recognition and reward for new Indian talent.
The development of a political cinema
If international cinema was a formative influence in the development of New Wave Cinema, another important influence was a indigenous cultural movement, the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). This Association was founded in the 1940s and was connected to the Communist Party of India and the Progressive Writers’ Association, founded in 1935. The IPTA was regarded as both a political and cultural vanguard, influenced by socialist ideas and anti-colonial sentiments. Active in political theatre in both urban and rural areas, the IPTA made use of new cultural forms developed in western art and cinema but also lay claim to traditional Indian popular and folk forms. For example it staged theatrical and musical events about the 1943 Bengal Famine. K A Abbas subsequently made a film adaptation of these, Dharti Ke Lal (1946), the only film actually produced by the IPTA. The film used a non-professional cast and a novice crew.
The IPTA had immense prestige and influence in the 1940s and 1950s. Mainstream actors and filmmakers like Chetan Anand and Balray Sahni were associated with it, and some traces of its politics can be discerned in their films. Anand was a scriptwriter, director and actor, and the brother of the popular Hindi stars Dev and Vijay Anand. Sahni was a popular actor over several decades and starred in Do Bigha Zamin (1953).
One of the most famous alumni of the IPTA was another Bengali filmmaker, Ritwik Kumar Ghatak. Ghatak joined the IPTA as a playwright, director and actor and was voted best theatre director and actor at the all-India IPTA Conference in 1953. However, he was forced out of the organisation in the following year due to forceful political differences. He worked for the Bombay/Mumbai Film Company Filmistan as a scenarist, scripting Bimal Roy’s Madhumati (1958). His own films were few. In them he used the melodramatic form, also found in the Hindi entertainment films, and experimented with film styles, exploring especially the relationship between sound and image. In 1966 – 67 he was director of the newly formed Film and Television Institute of India, based at Pune, where he exercised a powerful influence on a number of students who went on to become filmmakers.
Ghatak’s conflict in the IPTA was indicative of political clashes. As elsewhere in the world, in India the 1960s was a time of political and social ferment. There was tense conflict between various leftwing political factions, including the powerful official Communist Party influenced by the Soviet Union, and two political parties influenced by revolutionary communists in China. These political differences took a concrete form. The most famous example was the Naxalite movement of the 1960s, which started with an insurrection at Naxalbari in West Bengal in August 1967; similar insurrections followed in other provinces. The Naxalite movement had an influence on both poor peasants in rural areas and radical students in the cities. Young filmmakers inscribed Naxalite political lines in their films and actively encouraged their films to be used as propaganda for the movement. For example, in 1979 a founder member of the IPTA, the director K A Abbas, made a film in Hindi, The Naxalites. It re-created both the peasant uprising and the later student activism. The film experienced some censorship, but was also criticised for a rather simplistic treatment of the political issues.
Another noted example of IPTA political filmmaking was Garam Hawa (Hot Winds, 1973) directed by M S Sathya, an IPTA member with experience in the theatre. A government agency sponsored the film, which deals with the Muslim community in India after Partition. This is a topic that mainstream Indian cinema has, by and large, ignored. The film avoids the musical and melodramatic conventions of mainstream cinema, except for an ironic and tragic sequence where the lovelorn daughter of the Muslim family commits suicide. The film’s style emphasises a certain distance for the viewer from the story, typical of films aimed at art cinema audiences. And the finale of the film directly relates the situation of these Muslims with a rally organised by communists, offering the audience a fairly direct political message.
The impact of government funding
In 1960 the government set up the Film Finance Corporation, following the recommendation in the Film Enquiry Report of 1951. According to Rajadhyaksha and Willemen (1999),
‘Its original objective was to promote and assist the mainstream film industry by ‘providing, affording or procuring finance or other facilities for the production of films of good standard’.
‘Good standards’ included ‘the promotion of national culture, education and healthy entertainment’.
In its first six years, it extended production loans for around 50 films, notably Ray’s Charulata (1964). This provided the opportunity for many talented and innovative directors to make films, which addressed serious issues, and in so doing they formulated a film style to do them justice.
The state sponsored and provided a regular exhibition space for documentary films. The Films Division both funded regular newsreels and documentaries and controlled their entry into distribution: exhibitors were required by law to screen them. Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen and Shyam Benegal and other important directors all benefited from this source of government support by making documentaries.
In 1969 the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), under the direct influence of Indira Gandhi, funded two key films: Bhuvan Shome (1969, dir. Mrinal Sen) and Uski Roti (1969, dir. Mani Kaul). Sen’s film was a satirical comedy and Kaul’s film was an adaptation of a noted Hindi short story. Both films offered a distinctive approach to form and style. Sen’s film is credited by some as launching the New Wave. It was extremely popular and easily recouped the FFC’s investment. Uski Roti is described as
‘Indian cinema’s most controlled achievement in image composition. …The film … was violently attacked in the popular press for dispensing with familiar cinematic norms and equally strongly defended by India’s aesthetically sensitive intelligentsia.’
(Rajadhyaksha and Willemen, 1999, page 402).
Kaul had been a student of Ritwik Ghatak, and his work included exploration of Indian cultural forms, such as the use of Sanskrit texts, and European influences, including the noted French director, Robert Bresson.
New Wave cinema grows
Bhuvan Shome and Uski Roti provided the catalyst for a new film movement. An editorial article from the journal Close Up suggested a way forward for the creation of a cinema other than the popular commercial film.
‘If Indian cinema is to grow to adulthood, it has to come out of the cloying, cliché ridden commercial films. This requires the springing up of a whole movement, many directors making their films the way they like, in their own individual styles, unfettered by considerations of big finance, big star casts and voluminous box office returns. It is necessary that there should be many new directors, many new styles of filmmaking and possibility of these directors making more and more films. Only then can the real Indian cinema be active, living and progressing.’
(Close Up No. 4 1969, quoted in Georgekutty)
These aspirations were largely met in the 1970s when many new filmmakers were working in different states and different regional languages. The film critic and theorist, Georgekutty (1988) outlined the range of films that emerged from this period:
‘For example in Ankur and Nishant directed by Shyam Benegal, the theme is the feudal oppression of a people and the germination of resistance. In Party, directed by Govind Nihalani, the theme is the crisis of values in the middle class environment; in Ardh Staya it is the cry for honesty and integrity in contemporary public life; in Aaghat the question is the means and ends in trade union practices; in Rao Saheb it is the plight of women in the context of tradition and colonial experience of modernity; in Paar the tyranny of the landlords.’
In many ways, the new movement seemed to parallel the radical film movements in the West and in countries shaking free from colonialism, with its interest in a formal experimentation, in organising narratives and in the use of unconventional techniques. There was also a sense in which it could be seen as part of a youthful rebellion and many of the films appealed to young people, particularly students
Some films only circulated regionally, but some, like Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (made in Hindi), enjoyed a national success. Their audiences were mainly in the metropolitan areas and small towns. The radical political climate of the 60s stimulated a much greater interest in films that broke with the formulaic conventions of the Hindi popular movie. Often there was a key cinema in a city where art films were shown. In the 1970s Calcutta/Kolkata the Metro was the venue for a provocative trilogy of films by Mrinal Sen.
But these films also had another life at festivals abroad, where they often received greater acclaim than at home, as described by Bibekananda Ray (1988),
‘Adoor Gopalkrishana’s Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) made in 1982 was awarded the prestigious Sutherland Trophy by the British Film Institute. … New Delhi Times (1986) by young Ramesh Sharma won the Opera Prima award … at Karlovy Vary. Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s debut Dooratwa (The Distance, 1978) bagged the Special Jury award at Locarno … Buddhadeb’s third Grihayuddha (1982) won the FIPRESCI Award at Venice.’
Critics used varying titles to identify this trend in Indian cinema – New Wave Cinema, New Indian Cinema, Parallel Cinema, and occasionally Middle Cinema. This reflected the variety and range of films in the movement. Some films, like Bhuvan Shome, were radically different from mainstream films. Others, like Bhumika (Shyam Benegal, 1977), had a different content and style, but shared some conventions.
Shyam Benegal is a Hindi director. Like other directors, his film career was preceded by work in the advertising industry. In the late sixties he received a scholarship and studied in Britain and the USA, where he worked as an associate producer at Boston’s WGBH TV and the Children’s Television Workshop in New York.
His first feature Ankur (1973) was independently financed and was a fair commercial success. It displayed characteristics associated with New Cinema in its realist style and naturalism, its unusually explicit story – about an affair between a low-caste wife and the landlord’s son – and its political stance. The latter included an impassioned denunciation of the landlord’s son, an affluent urban youth, by the wife, played by Shabana Azmi. The film seemed to extend and develop the ‘realist’ ethos found in Satyajit Ray’s early films.
Benegal’s work has often addressed political themes, especially two films from the 1970s, Nishant (1975) and Mathan (1976). Some of his other films are closer to the idea of an art cinema. Bhumika (1977) is an incisive portrait of the ‘Bollywood’ industry focusing on a star. Like many of Benegal’s films, and the Parallel Cinema generally, Bhumika addresses issues facing women. The film offers a sense of irony and distance often found in films described as Art Cinema. Yet it also offers some of the pleasures of entertainment films, with its strong narrative, star performers and use of continuity in story and style.
Benegal continued to make films in the 1990s. Like other filmmakers in the New Cinema he has also worked for television. This included a 53 part series based on a work by Nehru, The Discovery of India, (Bharat Ek Khoj) in 1988. A recent film, released in the UK, is Samar (Conflict, 1998), which deals with the problems of Dalits (outcasts in the Indian caste system). The film is overtly political, dealing with an issue that mainstream cinema has by and large avoided and which remains unresolved 55 years after Independence. As in Bhumika, Benegal uses the device of creating a film within a film, giving the viewer a sense of distance and reflectivity. However, in Bhumika the film within the film is part of the main narrative. In Samar there is a narrative conflict around the treatment of untouchables, but there are further contradictions between the villagers and the filmmakers as they record the story.
Stars in New Wave Cinema
While the Parallel Cinema did not depend on stars in the same way as Bollywood, a number of key actors and actresses have been important, both in developing the realist acting styles and in increasing the popularity for some New Wave films. An important actress in Parallel cinema was Smita Patil, who also worked in the commercial cinema.
Smita Patil appeared in Bhumika, a film for which she won the National Best Actress Award. She graduated from the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and appeared in several films directed by Shyam Benegal. She also worked in films made by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and a number of other directors in the New Cinema, and acted in Hindi, Marathi, Bengali, Gujarati, Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu. She died in 1986, aged only 31, having appeared in around 70 films. Her films frequently centred on strong and independent women, but also on the social pressures that limits them. In the case of Bhumika, the film dramatised the autobiography of an actual Hindi film actress, Hansa Wadkar.
Decline of Parallel Cinema
In the 1970s and early 1980s Parallel Cinema was a vibrant force, but it became significantly less dynamic from the late 1980s, as a result of a number of factors relating to changes both globally and domestically.
1989 saw the demise of the Soviet Union, whose support for struggles against the Transatlantic colonial and neo-colonial powers had made it an important reference point for some politically conscious artists. And the alternative focus, China (an inspiration to the Naxalite rebels) now appeared as an authoritarian and repressive regime. As in the west, these changes generated confusion and dissipation in political art and culture.
In addition, wider social and cultural changes associated with ‘globalisation’ impacted on both filmmakers and audiences. In The World Remade by the Market, Jeremy Seabrook, offers a description of the Asian societies in the new global dispensation, and comments:
‘The richer we become in the market economy, the greater the space of individual self-expression. Sharper differentiation occurs between people. We no longer see our shared social predicament as a common fate. To get out, to be yourself, to locate a self that has become abstracted from place, becomes the aim of the young. Previously unseen barriers and separations divide generation from generation: new, impermeable divisions arise between those who had seen themselves as bound by a shared destiny. Members of the same family, who had always seen each other more or less as an extension of themselves, become aware of their own private, individual needs. They become preoccupied with their own uniqueness. They cultivate features and characteristics that distinguish them from others, rather than submerge these in a common pool of human belonging.’ (Seabrook, 2002)
Furthermore, as the authors of Satellites over South Asia point out,
‘The exchange crisis of 1991 and the subsequent bail out by the IMF, the World Bank and other international aid agencies is part of Indian economic folklore. The newly-elected government of P. V. Narasimha Rao … ushered in a new era by introducing sweeping measure of economic reform and liberalisation.’
(Page and Crawley, 2001).
Many of the state planning measures developed in India since Independence were dismantled. The deregulation was to be most noted in television and advertising. The Indian market was opened up to global competition. The new consumerism squeezed out many of the spaces where alternate cultural practice, like Parallel cinema, had found a home and an audience. Filmmakers in Parallel Cinema found the funding and distribution of their films increasingly difficult.
Another important factor in the decline of New Wave cinema was the impact of television and video on distribution and exhibition. Television proved to be a mixed blessing. Some New Cinema filmmakers earned a living by making films and programmes for television. The expansion of the state-run television service in the 1980s, created a large potential new audience for Parallel cinema. Many of the films funded by the NFDC were scheduled on early Sunday afternoons. Television screenings provided the possibility of additional revenues for filmmakers. For example, the television screening on the TV network Doordarshan could earn a film rights payment of Rs 800,000. Georgekutty (1988) argued that the New Cinema films were mainly dependent on television and video rights, or on foreign film festivals, rather than on audiences paying to see the films in cinemas in India. This was a change from the 1970s when there were at least viable urban audiences for the films.
But while television offers opportunities, it has also undermined cinema audiences. The growth of television and video made the film societies, which had provided venues for exhibiting films and a base for filmmakers, largely redundant. It is not clear how large the audience is for TV screenings of New Wave films, or how new it is to this kind of film. At least some of the urban middle class intelligentsia that view the films on TV had once watched them in cinemas. They are, in the main, the subscribers to the new satellite channels that appeared in the 1990s.
The influence of Parallel cinema
Parallel cinema continues to influence Indian filmmakers but it has lost the political edge it once had. Mrinal Sen once explained:
‘I make films which have something to do with the political situation and involve political characters, but I have also made films which do not have a direct political relevance. In all of them however, I have always tried to maintain a social, political and economic perspective. I am a social animal, and, as such, I react to the things around me – I can’t escape their social and political implications.’
(Interview with Udayan Gupta, in Downing 1987).
The films of Sen, Benegal and Nihalani (among many others) offered their audiences a political message about the social conditions they represented. In this they are similar to the European political art films of, say, Ken Loach or Jean-Luc Godard, one influence on their work. The new breed of non-mainstream Indian films are more like international art house films, offering a much more muted message in comparison. These films circulate mainly outside India. While this offers them access to a wider audience, they lack the direct address and intervention into the political and cultural issues of modern Indian society. There is no longer a sense of a shared cinematic and political activism that characterised Parallel cinema in the 60s and 70s. As a result their directors are more like auteurs (in the Western art cinema sense) than the cultural activists of the IPTA. Their approach is reflected in the comments of an Asian British filmmaker, Shakila Maan,
‘Art is all about yourself. First and foremost, we are artists and we are all filmmakers.’
(Quoted by Cary Sawhney in Cineaste, Fall, 2001)
An important factor in this transformation has been foreign funding. Parallel cinema had always relied to a degree on the western alternative film circuit, through winning awards at film festivals and being circulated around art cinemas. But with the decline of funding for and interest in these films within India, foreign funding and distribution became even more essential for filmmakers who wanted to make different types of films.
For example, the award-winning Salaam Bombay (1988, dir. Mira Nair), a powerful study of child poverty and exploitation in Bombay, was jointly funded by the NFDC, the UK’s Channel 4 and a Paris-based company. Mira Nair was born in India, but studied in the USA at Harvard and worked with US-based documentarists Richard Leacock and DA Pennebaker. Her early film was partly a creature of the international art circuit, and her equally successful Monsoon Wedding (2001) is even more so. This film centres on a wedding between a young Indian engineer now working in Houston USA and the daughter of an affluent middle class family in Delhi. The film cleverly mixes western and Indian cultures and western art house styles with the colour and romantic melodrama of popular Hindi cinema. The poverty of India is seen in the vibrant city life of Delhi, but it is only part of the cityscape. Monsoon Wedding is less indignant about social problems and more affectionately mocking about contemporary cultural customs.
Political and formally radical films are still made in India. But they are most likely the result of international funding. For example both the Göteborg and Rotterdam Film Festivals have funds for filmmakers from countries outside the developed capitalist west. But in the UK they will mostly be seen on television, particularly Channel 4, rather than in cinemas.
I think it will be clear from the above that the Parallel Cinema can be categorised as part of First or National cinema and as part of Second or Auteur cinema. But it also includes films that I would regard as oppositional or Third Cinema. Mrinal Sen’s films certainly fall into this space, see his And Quiet Rolls the Dawn (Ek Din Pratidin, India 1979): and Ghatak’s later film Titas Ekti Nadir Naam /A River Called Titas (Bangladesh, 1973) would also fit. The most recent films that I have seen are closer to national and auteur approaches.
For Indian silent cinema – for Pre-Independence sound cinema.
Bhaskar Chandavarkar, 1980, ‘The Man Who Went Beyond Stop’ in Cinema Vision India Vol. 1 No. 4, October.
Georgekutty, 1988, ‘A Legitimisation Crisis?’ in Deep Focus Vol. 1 No. 2, June.
Ashish Rajadhayaksha and Paul Willemen, 1999. Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema, BFI.
Bibekananda Ray, 1988. The New Generation in ‘Other’ Cinema, in Cinema India International, 1988/1.
Jeremy Seabrook, The soul of man under globalism, in Race and Class, Volume 43 Number 4, April June 2002.
Cary Rajinder Sawhney, ‘Another Kind of British: An Exploration of British Asian Films’, in Cineaste, Vol. XXVI No. 4, Fall 2001.
Adapted from a contribution to the BFI CG=Rom on Indian Cinema, [no longer available].