25 April 2010

INDIAN PARALLEL CINEMA - An Introduction (1969 - )

Most academics and scholars are in agreement that 1969 is probably an accurate starting point in terms of pin pointing the beginnings of parallel cinema with Mrinal Sen's FDC financed Bhuvan Shome. However, the end of the movement is far more problematic to isolate as the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) continues to support indigenous and emerging film makers in terms of financial support. Though key film makers of the parallel cinema movement including Mrinal Sen are no longer active, exceptions exist in the form of Shyam Benegal.

With a low budget, no stars and the absence of any songs, Ankur (1973) truly was an unconventional Indian film. Benegal’s social critique even bypassed the newly established FFC for funding, finding an unlikely partner in Blaze, an advertising company with which the director had close ties. With direct access to cinema exhibition across India, Blaze Films was established as an independent production company and distributor. Benegal says he was the one who approached Blaze with the idea of directing a feature film and their willingness to act as both producer and distributor was critical in breaking the monopoly of mainstream Hindi cinema by rejecting many of the established rules and helping to popularise the art house film as a commercially viable movement. Academic Madhava Prasad underlines the political relevance of Blaze as an independent distributor,‘Sensing the existence of a market for a cinema different from the popular as well as the ‘middle class’ variety, [Blaze] engaged one of its ad-film makers, Shyam Benegal to direct Ankur, thus inaugurating the commercial exploitation of the political dimension of the FFC’s aesthetic project.’ (Prasad, 1998: 130)

With the unexpected commercial success of a film like Bhuvan Shome which performed tremendously well for a low budget art film, Blaze sensed that the emergence of a middle class audience versed in the language of European cinema could potentially evolve into a lucrative niche market. This hunger for the art film was qualified in the success of Ankur, cementing the development of a parallel cinema with which both Benegal and Shabana Azmi would become synonymous icons. However, the conditions for a new realist cinema spearheaded by Benegal were in no way a sudden phenomenon. The core argument for an alternative mode of cinematic address had originally been touted by the IPTA, a leftist theatre organisation that found many of its members actively involved in using film as an ideological instrument. However, the state’s subservience to Hollywood imports and a reluctance to heed the advice outlined in a 1951 report by the S.K Patil Film Inquiry Committee delayed the inevitable emergence of an indigenous parallel cinema. Ashish Rajadhyaksha (1994: 25) says the 1951 report highlighted ‘the shift from studio system to independent entrepreneurship’ whilst also recommending ‘major state investment for film production, the setting up of a film finance corporation, a film institute and archives.’

The monopolisation of the distribution and exhibition network by the major film making hub in Bombay would have definitely had an influence on why exactly the report was ignored as the recommendation for state investment would have raised concerns amongst many of the major producers who were not willing to share a market in which certain films would have favourable support from the government. State sponsored cinema even today tends to provoke a strong reaction amongst some directors who argue that such a situation in which the political values of the state and those of the film maker co exist is problematic in that the two will inevitably come to a consensus, thus diluting and compromising the ideological purity of the film’s initial aims. Of course, this might be true of countries in which the ruling government does make use of ideological state apparatus like cinema as a means of circulating dominant values but the films that have been financed either partially or fully by the NFDC arguably share a leftist perspective that runs contrary to much of the conservative rhetoric espoused by consecutive Indian governments.

Taking just under ten years for the government to respond to the recommendations of the report, in 1960, the film finance corporation was established by Nehru with a remit that centred on supporting good quality films through financial assistance in the form of low interest loans. Admittedly, at first the FFC initially aligned themselves with established directors in the film industry, backing in particular Satyajit Ray. Rajadhyaksha argues that the commercial success of Bhuvan Shome was the turning point, encouraging the FFC to fully support ‘low budget, independent films’. The acceleration of loans between 1969 and 1979 made to over fifty films launched the careers of numerous directors, leading to a vibrant and politically conscious cinema. Though the FFC continued to face a virtual embargo in terms of distribution and exhibition, Prasad (1998: 127-8) argues that ‘the middle class movement in the mainstream industry was strong enough to prompt a suitable expansion of exhibition outlets’. This was subsequently supported by opening the first FFC art house cinema in 1972 whilst ‘in many cities, new theatres with reduced seating capacity were built specifically for the middle class film’. (Prasad, 1998: 127-8) Simultaneously, the promotion of film culture through the emergence of film societies coincided with a new cine literate middle class audience.

Another equally significant factor often overlooked when contextualising parallel cinema is the decision taken by the government in 1971 to reject the renewal of a ‘5 year contract for the import of Hollywood films.’ (Prasad, 1998: 190) The dislodging of Hollywood’s domination was useful in opening up a new area of indigenous cinema as it meant Indian film makers no longer had to face the indignity of subservience. Even in light of today’s American hegemony, India is one of the few nations in which the domestic box office each year is made up of home grown films. Ironically, it was Satyajit Ray who was the first to personally criticise the idea of a New Indian Cinema arguing it was merely a pretentious euphemism connected with Godard and the French New Wave. Unlike Benegal and Nihalani who considered themselves ‘middle of the road’, the experimental and avant-garde cinema of European influenced Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul represented the fringes of what had evolved into a rich national cinema. The drop in Hollywood imports inevitably led to a greater opportunity for indigenous films to negotiate with exhibitors. It was around this time in 1973 that Blaze released Benegal’s debut Ankur, scoring an unexpected commercial success.

It was during the emergency declared by Indira Gandhi in 75 and onwards that the FFC faced its first real crisis. An investigation by The Committee on Public Undertakings in 1976 criticised the FFC for an art film bias and also failing to choose projects that stood a chance of turning a profit at the box office. As a direct consequence of the investigation, the FFC had to adopt a new ‘aesthetic criteria for future film funding including human interest in theme, Indianness and characters with whom we can identify.’ (Rajadhyaksha, 1998) In 1980, the FFC merged with the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation, becoming the NFDC (National Film Development Corporation). Two years later, the NFDC was involved in co-financing Richard Attenborough’s biopic Gandhi (1982) and throughout the early 1980s, it experienced it’s most instrumental and productive decade, distributing a catalogue of quality Indian films that have come to be regarded as the high point of parallel cinema. This period of prominence includes award winning films such as Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, Govind Nihalani, 1980), Anantram (Monologue, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1987), Ardh Satya (Half Truth, Govind Nihalani, 1983), Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Take, Ketan Mehta, 1980), Chakra (Ravindra Dharmaraj, 1980), Ghare-Baire (The Home and the Word, Satyajit Ray, 1984), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (Who Pays the Piper, Kundan Shah, 1983), Khandhar (Mrinal Sen, 1983), Salaam Bombay (Mira Nair, 1988), Sati (Aparna Sen, 1989) and Tarang (Wages and Profit, Kumar Shahani, 1984).

It was in the nineties that Indian cinema started to change yet again with both the family film and image of the romantic hero revived in the films of new stars like Shahrukh Khan and Salman Khan. Today, the NFDC continues to support Indian art films and still finances a number of films year each year. However, growth of independent production companies, the rise in cinema screens and the dominance of television have obscured the role of the NFDC. Even the leading light of parallel cinema Shyam Benegal turned to UTV Motion Pictures, a newly established international production company, for the production and distribution of his 2008 comedy film Welcome to Sajjanpur. No equivalent art-film movement as that of parallel cinema exists today but the new wave of film makers including Ram Gopal Varma, Vishal Bhardwaj and Anurag Kashyap certainly acknowledge the realist aesthetic of auteurs like Benegal, Nihalani and Shahani on their own work.

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