Revisiting the parallel Indian cinema

OTT brings back the cinematic gems


May 27, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Revisiting the parallel Indian cinema

Apu Trilogy comprises three Bengali films directed by Satyajit Ray, namely Pather Panchali (1955), Aparajito (1956) & The World of Apu (1959) (Image Credits: IMDb)

Led by Bengali filmmakers initially and gradually spread over rest of the country, parallel Indian cinema and masterpieces of realistic films are finding their way back through digital platforms.

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In the era of 1970s and 80s, Bollywood produced films like Sholay (1975), Qayamat se Qayamat Tak (1988), Karz (1980) and many others that gave audiences angry young men, glamorous dance sequences, a series of over the top love stories and the ‘larger than life’ cinematic universe. However, parallelly there was also a section of filmmakers that stayed away from the mainstream films.

In the 1950s, Satyajit Ray led the ‘new wave’ of Indian cinema, known as parallel cinema, representing the assertion of margi (classical) art in Indian films. Margi, as defined by the veteran film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, was the kind of film that was aesthetically and craft-wise considered ‘international’. The parallel cinema served as an alternative to mainstream commercial Indian cinema. Delhi based filmmaker Karthik Tripathi says that ‘parallel cinema’ is a broad term designated to certain types of films that stray away from conventional mainstream cinema, popular among Indian masses. “The movies consist of strong social commentary and lack the quintessential songs and fight sequences that are a huge part of commercial movies,” says Tripathi.

He adds that parallel cinema in India has assumed various forms through the years, starting from the Neorealism-influenced films of Nehruvian India, through the more politically radical films of the early seventies and the liberal humanist films that are called independent cinema.

Major names affiliated with parallel cinema include Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Kamal Swaroop, Shyam Benegal, M S Sathyu, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli and G. Aravindan.

Early years of parallel cinema movement

Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik, a movie about the normal citizens grappling with the uncertainties of urban life (Image Credits: Films Division)

According to Mukul Yadav, a professor of film studies at the University of Delhi, the parallel cinema had already begun with Ritwik Ghatak’s Nagarik, a movie about the normal citizens grappling with the uncertainties of urban life. However, due to paucity of funds, it did not see the light of day until 1977 despite having been completed by 1952. “Ghatak, in his lifetime, had directed only eight movies, each one tanking a bit harder than the last. Thus, with Ghatak’s initial magnum opus not finding any form of takers in the film industry, Satyajit Ray emerged as India’s finest auteurs with Pather Panchali in 1955,” adds Yadav.

He goes on to say that Ray’s tales were of stoicism as much as they were of the reality of the society at the time and they were much more a depiction of the human being. More often than not, the viewer would see society through the lenses of the protagonist themselves.

The entirety of the Apu Trilogy was a product of such filmmaking tendencies yet the camera never stopped to sympathise with the characters. “It empathised and watched the world through the understanding and lenses of Apu, from his early years to his adulthood. Human stories had received a different undertone from Ray,” says Yadav.

Blurring lines of mainstream and parallel

Yadav explains that a similar portrayal of the world through the eyes of the titular character was perceived in Guru Dutt directed Pyaasa (1958), however, it sought to please the mainstream audiences as well. “A man is valued only after his death and the lack of glamorisation is what did not give success to this film at that time though it is a cult classic now,” he adds.

The movie, according to Yadav, was one of the first attempts by any director to formulate the tragedies of a life of depravity and inequality through songs. The music and lyrical genius depicted in the movie also worked as a unique narrative tool.

Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro released in 1989 (Image Credits: IMDb)

With the emergence of directors like Basu Chatterjee and Hrishikesh Mukherjee into the film industry, parallel cinema evolved into the mainstream as they created movies with a similar portrayal of ground realities but with the oomph of mainstream cinema.

The days of portraying ground realities in somber tones and realistic dramatisations were done away with as they portrayed the theatrics of the mainstream. “Mukherjee’s Anand (1971) still stands as an amazing piece of cinema even after so many years. His depiction and eventual answers to the question of life and death still stand immortalised through the movie,” explains filmmaker Tripathi.

He further says that in the same vein, Basu Chatterjee’s depictions of Indian society find a common ground in the way of the similar theatrics of the mainstream that mould themselves with the ground realities. “His remake of 12 Angry Men (1957), Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986), still remains as one of the best depictions of jury politics and societal divisions from an Indian standpoint,” he adds.

OTT revives the forgotten gems

From there on, especially the late 1980s, a series of parallel cinema was created in different parts of India as many new faces and young actors who are now considered legendary, like Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and Kulbhushan Kharbandaa emerged. Films like Adoor Gopalakhishnana’s Elippathayam (1982), Sagar Sarhadi’s Bazaar (1982), Shyam Benegal’s Mandi (1983), Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s Saleem Langde Pe Mat Ro (1989) and many more adorned the silver screen.

However, despite international applause, awards and critical acclaims, most of these films did not do commercially well. “Thankfully, post-2010, since the internet became readily available and smartphones became accessible to most, these films have gained the attention and even business that they deserved,” Tripathi says.

He adds that many websites have now started to host exclusively parallel cinema gems, arthouse films, and films that went unnoticed in the 90s when they released. “Many websites and especially the OTT platforms have acted as a curator of alternative cinema, mostly from the 1950s to 1990s. Thanks to India’s nascent streaming boom, many platforms are bringing you significant chunks of that extraordinary cinematic history that could have been lost in absence of digitalisation,” says Tripathi.



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