Shyam Benegal. Govind Nihalani. Saeed Mirza. Mani Kaul. Do these titanic names draw a blank in the minds of the average viewer? The answer, we are afraid, is a vehement ‘Yes.’ The parallel, or art cinema, that came riding on the wave of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen all the way from Bengal to Bollywood in the 1970-80s, is nobody’s favourite genre. Forget the audience, even those who have helped build this “serious cinema” brand, one of them being Naseeruddin Shah of Nishant, Sparsh and Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyun Ata Hai, today believes many of these classics suck. A patron saint of the New Wave before succumbing to the charms of commercial Bollywood, Shah has famously dismissed many of the arthouse staples as fraudulent. In an outburst aimed at exposing their hypocrisy, he had once lamented, “I found that these filmmakers were not evolving. They were making the same film again and again. And if it’s really a question of issues, then even Manmohan Desai made films about the injustices against the working class.” Ashim Ahluwalia, of Daddy fame, has also scoffed at art cinema. “The principle of the art-house circuit is reactionary,” Ahluwalia told Projectorhead, spelling out his distaste. “It imposes a certain type of film and tends to create its own closed market. I am not from the Mani Kaul school, which is going back to a celebration of pre-colonial culture. I would rather be a trashy low-art guy than try and suggest that I am some sort of Brahmin filmmaker, rooted in ancient Hindu aesthetics.”
On the opposite spectrum are those who take a more romantic view of Hindi parallel cinema. Take filmmaker Anurag Kashyap, for instance. “When I first saw Ankur, as a kid, I was bored, but later, I enjoyed films like Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai and Ardh Satya. More than anything, I identified with the voice of the writer in these films, with people like Vijay Tendulkar,” Kashyap told critic Baradwaj Rangan in 2008. Apart from Kashyap, who is himself seen as a champion of alternative cinema today, a generation of directors like Sudhir Mishra, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Dibakar Banerjee and Rajat Kapoor have come of age watching the parallel classics. Inspired by Satyajit Ray and the Italian neo-realism, the socially committed directors of the parallel movement persistently believed in cinema’s powers to “make a difference.” But “we never thought that we are sending out a message,” Govind Nihalani of Aakrosh and Ardh Satya tells indianexpesss.com. “We were not teachers. The whole thing was that if we are honest and true to what we see around and don’t try to create a drama but to capture the essence and spirit of the situation, it will make a difference because there are people who will get it. The human situation inside the story was my main preoccupation.” They were not chasing the box-office numbers, but instead, following their hearts and reflecting the harsh realities that Bollywood was determined to sanitise. The movement was more a reaction to the social injustices prevalent in India than to the formulaic Bollywood, though the good folks at the New Wave were no fan of masala Hindi cinema. Over time, parallel cinema became Bollywood’s more meaningful cousin.
Ask any critic and they sound certain in their assessment that the realistic multiplex fare you enjoy today has its origins in the 1970s-80s’ parallel cinema movement propped by such classics as Ankur, Ardh Satya, Bhumika, Aakrosh, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan etc. One of the ways in which the Benegals and Mirzas have influenced the so-called contemporary Bollywood aesthetics is, one could argue, the emphasis on female characters. “Women’s rights have played an important part of my films from the beginning, from the time I started making films like Ankur, Bhumika, Nishant, Manthan and Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda,” Benegal told a website in 1999. Before the Anurag Kashyap woman, there was the Shyam Benegal, Saeed Mirza and Ketan Mehta woman – strong, assertive and as badass as they can get. Since many of these films explored female exploitation as subjects, the women got lucky with seriously meaty parts. Shabana Azmi and the late Smita Patil, who usually played these women, are even today identified for their contribution to parallel cinema. The irony is that today’s viewers may know Azmi and Patil more for their occasional leaps into the mainstream space. But such was their appeal that the audience embraced them in melodramatic song-and-dance routine, too. Yet, the image of Azmi and Patil, screen foes but also friends and mutual admirers, as feisty rural women, nautch girls and social workers of arthouse – who can forget Sonbai’s (Patil) eye-blinding revenge in Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987) – continues to rival their Bollywood heritage of “Aaj rapat jaaye” and con-girl Shabbo acts. This is not to say that the male actors from parallel cinema were any less canonical. If there was no Om Puri, they would be no Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Manoj Bajpayee. As Satish Kaushik said, “If actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqui are big stars today, it is thanks to Om Puri, who convinced audiences to look beyond an actor’s face.” In later years, Om Puri along with longtime colleagues Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah would switch to popular cinema, a move many critics have dismissed, perhaps unfairly, as “defection.” The art cinema-Bollywood have had a love-hate, but at times, the twain met in unexpected ways. For instance, Shashi Kapoor famously helped Shyam Benegal’s cause by producing and acting in Junoon and Kalyug, thus giving this dying genre a shot in the arm. The penny-wise NFDC was a major player, unflinchingly supporting the parallel cinema even though the directors and actors often complained of literally acting for free in these films!
It must be noted that within parallel cinema there existed a sharp ideological divide. If Benegal and his protégé Nihalani were drawn to Satyajit Ray and V. Shantaram, the Mani Kaul school believed in the Bresson style emphasising temporal over visual. And then, there was the rigorously Marxist Saeed Mirza. The gritty side of ‘Bombay’ played a key role in the parallel cinema classics, a legacy that lives on through Anurag Kashyap and others. “I would think that the filmmakers’ concerns today are different and the city doesn’t find any place in their agenda. On another level, filmmakers today perhaps take the city as the ‘given’. But that is not the end. I would like to believe every now and then a filmmaker inspired by some aspect of the city, malls and all, will come up with his unique response to it,” Nihalani said in 2008.
As part of our ‘100 Bollywood movies to watch in your lifetime’, here’s a compilation of 10 parallel cinema essentials that should put a few things into perspective.
Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989)
‘Mushkil toh sharafat aur izzat ki zindagi jeene mein hai’ – Aslam
The social dilemma, contradictions, flaws and frailties within the Indian Muslim after Babri demolition and the Bombay riots are laid bare in Saeed Mirza’s Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro. Filmed on the mean streets of Bombay, the movie starring Pavan Malhotra as the title character envelops us in the world of a man without a purpose, following the call of the low-life. In the opening scene, narrator and leading man Salim (Malhotra) tells us that there are many Salims in this city. How will he ever stand out from this dime-a-dozen everydayness, a kind of obscurity that’s impossible for minions like him to overcome? There’s ‘bounce’ in his walk and Salim thinks that’s his distinguishing feature. Hence, the limp-laden Salim of the title. Mirza sharply contrasts Salim and his ilk that firmly believes in the thug life as an idea of social justice to the idealistic Aslam (Rajendra Gupta). Aslam is everything Salim is not – educated, progressive and one who does not hide under the safety of his religion. Aslam’s idealism reminds Salim of his deceased brother, an ideal Muslim who worked hard to forge his own identity. Salim’s own identity crisis, ethnicity, minority status and his place in the world are issues key to not just this one character in a poor working-class neighbourhood but to thousands of Indian Muslims grappling with those very questions even today. Seen afresh, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro raises more questions than it answers.
‘Free hona aur independent hona do alag alag baatein hain’ – Jagdish
The Kamal Swaroop underground cult is outside the ambit of anything that Hindi cinema has ever seen. It has been variously described by fanboys as ‘avant-garde’, ‘surrealistic’, ‘absurdist’, ‘ahead of its time’ and ‘postmodernist.’ There was a time when Om-Dar-Ba-Dar was an FTII cult, seen and understood only by the so-called cineastes. Today, the 1988 coming-of-age tale is being frequently discussed outside the film circle. Many still find it as utterly abstract and inscrutable as ever. Director Swaroop’s famous comment (who was inspired by the Dada movement) that “We will return your money if you understand the film” has further muddled the viewers. Clearly, the nonlinear Om-Dar-Ba-Dar was not made to fit into the conventional idea of cinema. It’s difficult to sell the plot of Om-Dar-Ba-Dar to someone who hasn’t seen it. It follows the exploits of a young boy named Om. It’s a strange family and a strange town (some say it’s based on Swaroop’s growing-up memories in Ajmer and Pushkar) and stranger things happen to them. A mixture of myth and magic, Om-Dar-Ba-Dar features some of the most interesting ideas you will see in a Hindi film. There’s Babloo from Babylon, terrorist tadpoles, Russian-American space war, diamond-spewing frogs and Pushkar Stop Watch. Aptly, fans like to call Om-Dar-Ba-Dar a “trip.”
Mirch Masala (1987)
‘Aadmi ki tarah paani peene ke liye pehle jhook ke haath phailane padhte hain’ – Sonbai
One of the most understated influences on the current crop of filmmakers is Ketan Mehta. His Mirch Masala and its famous ending in which village firebrand Sonbai (Smita Patil) blinds the exploitative tax collector (played with malicious glee by Naseeruddin Shah) with freshly-grounded red chilly powder still has the power to move you. This is the ultimate revenge that a woman could extract. A revolutionary climax in which a group of women ambush their target and take down the enemy systematically. If this isn’t feminism at its grassroots level, one doesn’t know what is. It’s a ‘no-means-no’ situation way before the current me-too movement. Women like Sonbai, who are much more vulnerable and yet, have the spunk and the spine and are surprisingly steely enough to deal with any dire situation, are the real custodians of feminism. Mirch Masala is steered to the finish by Smita Patil, an abiding parallel cinema fixture whose bravura performances are much-cherished today. Born in Navsari, Mehta, who has mentored important contemporary names like Aamir Khan, Shah Rukh Khan, Tigmanshu Dhulia, Amol Gupte and Ashutosh Gowariker, made his debut with the Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai, a broadside against the caste system and untouchability, in 1980. The maker of Hero Hiralal, Sardar and Maya Memsaab is still active (his last film was Manjhi – The Mountain Man with Nawazuddin Siddiqui) but Mirch Masala, in many ways, is his tour de force.
‘Bade dogle hain aap Maxists. Aam aadmi ki baat karte hain aap log aur uss hi ke taste ki khilli udate hai, woh bhi Malabar Hill ke aalishaan bungalow mein baith kar – Agashe
Nothing in Hindi cinema will prepare you for Govind Nihalani’s Party. It’s a film about ‘ideas’ and ‘serious talks.’ By way of plot, you can sum it up thus: a group of intellectuals and creative elite converge on a South Bombay salon, hosted by high society patron Mrs Rane. Expect a lot of literary jocks and talks. As two overawed small-timers who get lucky at this prestigious party coo, “There’s so much culture here!” There’s culture and also cultural double standards that Nihalani and writer Mahesh Elkunchwar seem to be taking aim at. Throughout the film – call it a long diatribe against upper-class humbug – we meet a wide array of people talking shop. There’s a well-known thespian (Shafi Inamdar) who, replying to an admirer, explains that when he plays a difficult role, it is the character who suffers and not him. One says political activism is another form of romanticism. There’s a discussion about low and high art and the hypocrisy of Malabar Hills Marxists. There’s Naipaul-versus-Rushdie debate. Om Puri, who plays a radical, declares, “Every art is a weapon.” An upcoming writer counters, “Do we lower the status of art when we link it to politics’? Soon, it becomes clear that this high-minded, whiskey-fuelled party is just as empty as the one taking place on the floor above, comprising host Mrs Rane’s son and his Westernised friends. As egos, tensions and the truth begins to prevail, revealing the true faces of the intellectual elite, two men stand out. One is cynical about this party from the beginning (Amrish Puri, who could be an audience stand-in) and another is never seen (Naseeruddin Shah as Amrit). Amrit’s searing poetry about truth and justice opens the film, giving you early indications that this party will haunted by his politically-charged polemic.
Ardh Satya (1983)
‘Chakravyuh se bahar nikalne par main mukt ho jaaoon bhale hi, phir bhi chakravyuh ki rachna mein fark hi na padega’ – Anant Welankar
To call Ardh Satya, the ‘Zanjeer’ of art cinema carries the risk of deeply undermining the status of this seminal cop-buster. Compared to Salim-Javed’s Zanjeer that made the up-and-coming Amitabh Bachchan a star, Ardh Satya – adapted by Vijay Tendulkar from a Marathi short story – is a richer, more complex and psychologically-driven examination of a man (Om Puri as inspector Anant Welankar) crushed under the terrifying weight of, to borrow words from Dilip Chitre’s powerful poetry, ‘half truth.’ Welankar is unflappably upright in the face of corruption all around him. He wants to go after the big daddy, Rama Shetty (Sadashiv Amrapurkar, a Marathi native miscast as a South Indian don). Welankar’s by-the-book honesty sometimes leads to unexpected displays of violence. Take the scene in which his girlfriend Jyotsna (Smita Patil) is molested in a bus. Welankar’s anger reaches a boiling point. For Welankar, violence is the answer to violence. In another key sequence, he comes to blows with his father (Amrish Puri), a wife-beating fellow cop who wants to thrust his choice on his young son. “I am not your wife,” Welankar screams. Ultimately, Welankar’s own enemy is his inner demons, including the troubled father-son relationship. The system wants to crush his manliness, he says to Jyotsna in a tell-all. Like Vijay of Zanjeer, Welankar is angry – probably more at his own personal history, baggage and motivation than the system.
‘Aap log toh ladkiyon ko aise dekhte hain jaise neelaami mein samaan’ – Nasrin
“You took away my character,” Najma (Smita Patil) declaims. Her boyfriend Akhtar (Bharat Kapoor) had been using her all along, making false promises of marriage. She makes that statement as a form of reparation for ruining the life of another woman. Based in Hyderabad, Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar is an important landmark in the Muslim social, a once popular genre that turned the lens on the plight of Indian Muslims. Najma and Akhtar plot to marry off Shabnam (Supriya Pathak), a young girl with a guileless smile who’s in love with Sarju (Farooq Shaikh). The get-rich-quick scheme is proposed by the Arab-returned Khan, who is in need of a beautiful bride. There is also Naseeruddin Shah in the mix, who declares his affection for Najma, only to be rebuffed time and again. Reportedly, Sarhadi was disgusted to learn about child brides traded blatantly as a package deal to wealthy Arabs back in the 1980s. The film doesn’t flinch at that horrible subject, but underpins it with the intricacy of relationships and poetry (popularising the Mir ghazal “Dikhai diye yun” and the evergreen “Phir chhidi”) to give this Deccan decadence a lyrical prism.
‘Raat bhar dard ki shamma jalti rahi/gam ki lau thar tharaati rahi raat bhar’ – Khairun
Muzaffar Ali’s debut is a work of exceptional humanism, set in the darkening heart of the migrant city of Bombay. Dedicated to the ‘Taxi Drivers of Bombay’, Gaman is the first of Ali’s Awadh trilogy that also includes Umrao Jaan, for which the filmmaker is best known, and Anjuman. It follows the migration of Ghulam (Farooq Shaikh) from his native Uttar Pradesh to Bombay, leaving behind an ailing mother and a new bride Khairun (Smita Patil). What gives the film its urgency and authenticity is migration itself, a topic that led to key political changes in Bombay’s constantly evolving landscape. Gaman means departure, a title that fits aptly to the story of Ghulam and thousands of cabbies who arrive by droves to make a living in the city that never halts. Shahryar’s poetry (“Suna hai aaj koi shaks mar gaya yaaron”) over Jaidev’s poignant score perfectly captures the cold-hearted, forever-on-the-move nature of a commercial behemoth like Bombay. Along with the trenchant poetry, Smita Patil’s Khairun is the unsung heart of Gaman. She quietly awaits Ghulam’s return. Even though Ghulam is the hero, the presence of Khairun suffuses Gaman with an aching elegy, best underscored by Makhdoom Mohiuddin’s “Aap ki yaad aati rahi.” Interestingly, when Mohiuddin died, Faiz Ahmed Faiz chose this poem as his eulogy.
Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (1978)
‘Dehumanised existence’ – Rajan
When director Saeed Mirza’s mother saw Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan at a preview, she felt there was “no story.” That may well echo the dilemma of many viewers. What to make of this collection of vignettes? Arvind Desai (a raw and well-cast Dilip Dhawan) is a bourgeois who is drifting through life, trying to reconcile the comforts of his privileged existence with half-hearted posturing of social commitment and Marxism. You never truly know who the real Arvind Desai is and what he stands for. He discusses art and politics with a leftist radical Rajan (Om Puri) but withdraws when drawn into a deeper argument about a painting. That short scene underlines Desai’s life as all about floating on the surface. It’s a film where nothing significant happens. Neither a proper coming-of-age of a young drifter nor a linear, meaningful narrative, Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan, one could argue, is remarkable for those very reasons. It’s meant to be as meaningless as its callow, impressionable and escapist hero who hides himself behind the complacent dark glasses. It’s Mirza’s first film and certainly among his best, because it reflects his own life.
‘Ummeed par mat jee, Usha’ – Akka
“Aur kitna bhatkegi tu (How long will you roam around?),” caged against her will by a wealthy patron, film actress Usha (Smita Patil) is emboldened by the master’s long-suffering wife to give up ‘hope.’ When the bed-ridden wife says ‘bhatkegi’, she may have either meant ‘suffering’, to settle down with one man or reconcile with her fate. From an early age, born into poverty, Usha has been denied ‘choice.’ It’s the men who have manipulated her and preyed on her. Based on the remarkably unconventional life of 1930-40s Marathi star Hansa Wadkar, Usha is tossed from the care of one man to another, until in the end when she learns to ignore their call. It’s a fitting climax, spectacularly random and totally unexpected – a woman finally taking a call on her life. The smoky appeal of Smita Patil pervades Bhumika. She plays Usha with a gamut of emotions – naive and vulnerable on the one hand and explosive and surprisingly resolute on the other. Talking to BFI, director Shyam Benegal had said that it was the “seminal feminism” of Hansa Wadkar’s life story that drew him to Bhumika. By situating the plot in the early Hindi film industry intercut with Usha’s past and present, Benegal’s Bhumika is an extraordinary mix of cinema and personal history. It also works as an ensemble. The men are depicted as selfish, orthodox and evil. Amol Palekar plays Usha’s exploitative husband while Amrish Puri, as the rich businessman who impinges on whatever little freedom Usha is left with. Not to mention, Naseeruddin Shah as a nihilist filmmaker who’s shown filming a musical. Is he an alter ego of Shyam Benegal? Keep guessing!
Uski Roti (1969)
‘Bhookha? Kaun? Sucha Singh’ – An acquaintance
Known for his distinctive style, Mani Kaul once compared his films to a circle, rather than one continuous line. The avant-garde filmmaker’s other cinematic obsessions were temporal and spatial, and in Uski Roti, with its static camera movements, minimal dialogue, delayed cuts and a Bresson-esque lyricism, you can see his interest in the flow of time. He famously remarked that visuals were dead a long time ago. His directorial debut tells the story of a woman waiting to deliver lunch to her truck-driver husband. Kaul wanted his actors to just ‘be’ instead of ‘act.’ Explaining to an interviewer, Kaul had said he had conceived this film like a painter constructs a painting. Uski Roti is consciously devoid of any external ostentation, to attenuate its spiritual possibilities. Decades later, the film continues to evoke a divisive response, with many hardcore fans vouching for it and others finding it intolerable.
(Shaikh Ayaz is a writer and journalist based in Mumbai)
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