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Re-claiming Indian Parallel Cinema

June 4, 2016 | By

The Indian Parallel cinema has been an overtly used, vague term. There have been discussions and debates as to what constitute the definition and equally important where to start from. This tentative piece brings together some of the strands of an initial research on Indian Parallel Cinema. It discusses some of the reasons why we need to re-consider and re-claim Parallel Cinema as a significant discipline in the field of Indian Film Studies.

Mani Kaul's Uski Roti

A still from Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti

An abstract shot of an outstretched hand waiting patiently to catch a guava as it drops tersely from the branches of a tree. A terrified young man fantasises about running away from the prospect of marriage as the wedding band plays on jovially. The absurdist sight of a glum bureaucrat who at the behest of the village belle disguises himself as a tree so he can shoot a flock of birds. What is the true Parallel Cinema?

Three ostensibly unrelated glimpses from Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, form a 1969 FFC (Film Finance Corporation) triptych of films, widely regarded as the genesis of Parallel Cinema. But to what extent are they disparate? Juxtapose these films to popular Indian cinema of the time and they aggregate in their unconventionality.

Sara Akash

Rare poster of Sara Akash, one of the 3 films that ushered in the Indian New Wave cinema in 1969-70
(Pic: A Manzil of Memories: Rare memorabilia from Basu Chatterji’s films)

Concurrently these three films are characterised by divergent cinematic approaches and refrains; Uski Roti manipulates temporal and spatial extents, Sara Akash channels middle class youth anxieties, while Bhuvan Shome functions like an absurdist parable. Together, they defy attempts to intimate Parallel Cinema as a cohesive aesthetic practice. And if we want to draw on the comparative influences of European cinema, then Uski Roti recalls the austere work of Robert Bresson, Sara Akash draws on the flamboyant spirit of the Czech new wave, and Bhuvan Shome borrows liberally from the Nouvelle Vague.

However, we are no closer to defining what Parallel Cinema means. Journalist Arvind Mehta first used the term ‘parallel’ in the 1960s in ‘Madhuri’, a journal published by the Times of India. The Oxford English Dictionary defines the term Parallel as ‘occurring or existing at the same time’. However, many cinemas, styles and approaches to making films in India have co-existed alongside each other for a long time. And by attributing the idea of Parallel Cinema to the mid 1960s problematizes the history of alternative cinema, making the assumption experimental or political cinema did not exist in Indian cinema before.

Another way of considering the term Parallel is a political interpretation, and a contradiction emerges with the term Parallel Cinema and the types of radical cinema produced in the initial years. If Parallel means co-existence and arguably denotes a kind of harmony, then it masks over the dissent and iconoclasm that characterised the foundational phase, especially when Naxalism was its peak. In this context, the term Parallel Cinema is misleading as it draws away from considering the ideological intent of the early films when the encounter between cinema and history was at its fiercest. A gap exists in the scholarly oversight of the ways in which film form reflected the Naxalite movement, one that will be explored at length.

Mrinal Sen's Bhuvan Shome

Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome – an Indian Nouvelle Vague experience

However, we must bear in mind the experiment with film form was divergent. A contestation emerged between Brechtian political realism and an experimental, sensuousness style of cinema. It is unhelpful to group these diverse aesthetic strands under the umbrella of Parallel Cinema as it misleadingly produces a monolithic representation of a formal and political plurality.

Nonetheless, the term Parallel Cinema is still often misused as an unassuming way of categorising alternative, art and experimental work. This lumpenization has led to some scholars wrongly labelling the work of Satyajit Ray as Parallel, going as far back as Pather Panchali. It is often the case that any film that is deemed to be quirky, offbeat or indefinable is no sooner labelled as Parallel.

I want to make an important distinction, which often goes unrecognised, between the traditions of social realism, first developed through the IPTA in the 1940s, of which Ray’s Pather Panchali was a neorealist continuation, and the unconventional break with film form that occurred in the late 1960s under the aegis of the FFC. In many ways, the term Parallel Cinema expressed a duality, masking over the modernist break with film form that came to fruition in 1969 while signalling a new type of cinema in the history of Indian cinema. This masking over of alternative cinema with the term Parallel Cinema was propelled by the FFC’s self-aggrandizing legitimisation of state machinations.

Parallel Cinema also came to denote ‘difference’, so any films labelled with thisterm were marked as antithetical to the mainstream. Pitting alternative Indian cinema in opposition to commercial, populist cinema is deeply problematic. My contention is the term Parallel Cinema overlooks the existence of fusion, cross fertilisation and a shared iconology that has often characterised the interconnectedness of Indian Cinema, a relatively under discussed concept in the field of Indian film studies. To what extent is the essential hybridity of Indian cinema current in Parallel Cinema? Indeed, if labelling a film Parallel is a method of categorisation, similarly in the way genre is a useful tool for critical analysis, then this may not necessarily be problematic as first mooted. After all, film genres are instruments of cinematic comprehension, equally useful to both producers and audiences.

This calls for another consideration; if and when did Parallel Cinema transmute into a genre? Where we can see a shift towards a consolidation of Parallel Cinema as a viable commercial genre is after 1976, which takes place after The Emergency. 1976 marks the end of the first phase of Parallel Cinema in which The Committee on Public Undertakings criticised the FFC for its art film bias, leading to the implementation of a prescriptive set of criteria. New criteria accentuating aspects such as ‘Indianness’ situated Middle Cinema as a suitable compromise, bringing to an end Parallel Cinema’s most experimental, political and least non-commercial chapter particularly in terms of film form.

Creative Streams

Kumar Shahani's Maya Darpan

Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan – Kumar along with Mani Kaul and a few others form the main core of Indian Parallel Cinema

While the term Parallel Cinema suited the agenda of the FFC, projecting a quality, state sponsored idea of cinema; the reality of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Indian Cinema was significantly more complicated. Within Parallel Cinema, unlike the unvarying standards of popular cinema, there were many creative streams, flowing in many directions. And the period between 1968 and 1976, the foundational years of Parallel Cinema, distinctive creative streams included Naxalite films affiliated to Bengali cinema, Third Cinema and Mrinal Sen’s Calcutta trilogy, the experimental cinema of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, and Kannada and Kerala’s flirtations with neorealism.

What the term Parallel Cinema does not tell us is the complicated contestation that occurred amongst these creative streams, all choosing to communicate with audiences in very distinctive forms. If Parallel Cinema is a homogenous term, contradicting the heterogeneous streams of aesthetic and formal practices that were unfolding diffusely in the 1968 to 1976 period, then as a way of categorising alternative cinema the term Parallel Cinema acts as a source of ideological closure, limiting the way we think and perceive of the films in this particular period and beyond.

One way of illustrating this sense of ideological closure that I attribute to Parallel Cinema is the ways in which the auteur theory, undeniably a western theoretical concept akin to the essence of traditional film theory, has meant directorial sleight of hand is continually downplayed in Parallel Cinema, barring the exception of Satyajit Ray. While it may at first appear unhelpful to suture the auteur theory into Parallel Cinema, creative experimentation with film form in the 1968 to 1976 period points to an often unspoken authorial discourse. And of course directors did emerge from the period but it is arguably only over the last ten years, and largely through subterranean scholarly efforts such as blogging, have we seen a reclaiming of the director as auteur in the history of Parallel Cinema. This is evident in the recent monographs written on Indian auteurs such as Kumar Shahani, Shyam Benegal and Mani Kaul.

The Influences of Bengali Cinema

While Parallel Cinema is largely associated with the FFC and 1969, I want to reason the term overlooks another key determinant in the development of Parallel Cinema in the 1960s, the contribution of Bengali cinema to the aesthetic, theoretical and political evolution of Indian Cinema. The creative and intellectual maturity of Bengali cinema, from the 1930s through to the 1950s, was indirectly a colonial legacy since the British Empire trained a polity of middle class Bengali intellectuals for administrative purposes. After independence, the sense of intellectual empowerment that was distinctly unique to Bengal would become highly evident in the cinema. Only by fully reinstating the role Bengali Cinema played in the birth of Parallel Cinema, can we come to understand alternative cinema in India was cultivated as early as the 1950s. Therefore, Parallel Cinema was arguably both a continuation and vagary of the cultural legitimacy Bengali intellectuals bestowed upon film as an art form. In this context Parallel Cinema, as a term, category, idea or movement, was explicated from outside of Bombay, the implicit centre of the Indian film world, from Bengal, a regional cinema.

Much of the social and political unrest that augmented the ideological ferment of 68-76 Parallel Cinema can be abridged to Bengal in the late 1960s. With de-industrialisation and the closure of factories, Calcutta witnessed both the flight of capital and Bengali youth in the 1970s. At the same time, millions of refuges poured into West Bengal during the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, exasperating the sense of displacement that had started to plague the cities. In addition to the new migratory pattern were the two million manual workers from Bihar that made up an illiterate sub-proletariat underclass. While the 1960s had seen the creation of an intellectual middle class in Calcutta that was visible in the arts and culture, by the early 1970s warring political factions and an economic recession completely paralysed the city. And as a reaction to this sense of uncertainty and unrest, Parallel Cinema was writing a new history, one from below.

Mrinal Sen

Mrinal Sen – the ace director who also co-authored the ‘Manifesto of the New Cinema Movement’ in 1968

Bengal’s determination of Parallel Cinema was multifaceted. Firstly, Ritwik Ghatak took up a post as a professor at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1960s. Ghatak, already a major influence on Bengali cinema, would train the next generation of filmmakers including Kumar Shahani and Mani Kaul, many of whom would go onto form the main core of Parallel Cinema. Next, West Bengal’s leftist political cognizance and flirtations with communism was mirrored in the ideological capacity of Parallel Cinema to question the status quo. Furthermore, Bengali director Mrinal Sen, co-authored the ‘Manifesto of the New Cinema Movement’ (1968), the theoretical treatise of Parallel Cinema, calling for a new form of Indian Cinema. Finally, the Naxalite movement politicized Bengali cinema, significantly the foundational period of Parallel Cinema. Simply put, there would not have been a Parallel Cinema without Bengali Cinema.

’68 New Cinema Manifesto

Mani Kaul

Mani Kaul

Mrinal Sen and Arun Kaul’s ‘Manifesto of the New Cinema Movement’ (1968) is a key document in the history of Parallel Cinema. The New Cinema manifesto arrived many years after the establishment of the FFC but intervened strategically, formalising the vexations of a new generation of cine-literate film artists while theorising a set of ardent principles for a new kind of cinema. Sen and Kaul hypothesised an idealistic conception of New Cinema, recalling commonalities with other past cinemas, neorealism in particular. How true is the scholarly work has over determined the role of the state and the FFC in the genesis of Parallel Cinema? The New Cinema manifesto itself has never really been studied closely as a document that could unearth aesthetic and ideological signifiers characterising the ethos of Parallel Cinema.

Although the New Cinema manifesto was exceptional to Indian cinema, it was not a singular event, coming out of a broader counter culture movement in Bengal and internationally, which for example can be juxtaposed to the dissident Hungry generation of poets in Calcutta in the early 1960s. The cultural ground that shifted first in Bengal in the early 1960s paved the way for Sen and Kaul’s New Cinema manifesto. While studying the New Cinema manifesto in isolation may in fact be a redundant exercise, what remains relatively unexplored is to what extent filmmakers used the New Cinema manifesto to determine form and content. Furthermore, how direct was the impact of the New Cinema manifesto on the FFC’s decision to finance Bhuvan Shome, Uski Roti and Sara Akash in 1969. Although themes, narratives and ideologies cut across writings on Parallel Cinema, less visible are aesthetic and stylistic patterns that could point to potential unifying approaches to formal cinematic properties adopted by filmmakers. And while I am apprehensive about presenting a view of Parallel Cinema as a distinctive, homogenous film movement, an investigation of commonalities in terms of filmic approaches and stylistic tendencies could point to an espousal of the New Cinema manifesto.

A History From Below

27 Down

27 Down – another example of the new wave Indian parallel cinema

The scholarly oversight to explore at length the wholly unequivocal connection between Bengali culture and the development of Indian Parallel Cinema draws attention to the over-emphasis on Hindi cinema. And it is popular Hindi cinema, in the form of Bollywood, which has been venerated so intensely as a new scholarly discipline in Indian film studies over the last ten years. In the 1980s, the pioneering scholarly work on popular Hindi cinema, arose from a reactionary position of reclaiming and defending the ways in which popular cinema had been derided for such a long time both nationally and globally. Scholars framed the argument of appreciating popular Hindi cinema by creating a kind of opposition with Indian art cinema. In my opinion, the polarising defence of popular Hindi cinema led to an unintentional undermining of Parallel Cinema and its achievements.

If Bollywood has had its moment, then now more than ever is the time Parallel Cinema should be reclaimed from the past. I want to suggest Parallel Cinema was more than just about cinema, or history, but a form of political resistance, an affront to the cultural mainstream, which makes it altogether unusual and precious in comparison to the apolitical neoliberalism of contemporary Bollywood cinema. Over the decades including the 1980s, Parallel Cinema presented a history from below, but did so by absorbing leftist postcolonial ideology into its domain including naxalism, secularism, subaltern studies and feminism to name a few. When Parallel Cinema came to fruition at the end of the 1960s, the Congress Party that had dominated the political landscape for over three decades was in decline. Political uncertainty meant anything was possible.

Kumar Shahani

Kumar Shahani

While the contemporary Bollywoodization of Indian Cinema, a global cinematic entity, points to the triumph of neoliberal ideals, the image of a capitalist friendly Indian Cinema contradicts the on-going repression of the left in India, which is regularly demonized or pushed to the margins. This makes Indian Parallel Cinema yet more edifying in the context of today’s political climate since it articulated the voice of the left into the historiography of Indian Cinema, contesting the rhetoric of the state. However, it is a history in danger of becoming displaced from contemporary national discourse.

But a justification of Parallel Cinema should not come from a lofty, moralistic position. It must come from the semantics of film form. In the past scholarly work inferred ideology decidedly from a contextual approach, neglecting a concerted engagement with the filmic language of Parallel Cinema. This neglect has not be rectified and the work on Parallel Cinema still remains tentative while continually caught up in the overemphasis on wider cultural debates concerning the development of Indian art cinema.

Ultimately, reclaiming Parallel Cinema as a serious academic discipline within the field of Indian film studies calls for a decentring of the traditional film canon which has been built up around the achievements of mainly Hindi cinema. This re-writing of the canon of Parallel Cinema is already underway at Indiancine.ma, an online repository of Indian cinema, titled ‘The New Cinemas Project’. Like YouTube, open platform software is broadening notions of Indian cinephilia, adopting a scholarly approach to digital curation, drawing on the expertise of cinephiles, scholars and film buffs to holistically and inclusively narrate the history of Indian cinema. But canonization is often a subject of controversy and debate. It is in the field of canonization where we are likely to see the greatest scholarly disagreement because Parallel Cinema has evolved as a fluid, divergent concept, and the criteria used to determine what makes a film Parallel is often open to interpretation.

Excerpts from Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti (1969)

All pictures, except those credited specifically, are courtesy Google Image Search.

More to read

Inhabiting Passionate Spaces: Reframing of Intimacy in 50’s Bengali ‘Romantic Films’

The Need For A Visual Syntax

Silent Film Studies: The Curious Absence of Film Sound in Film Theory

Performativity and Politics: Ray and Ghatak

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