India's Art House Cinema

by Lalit Mohan Joshi

Following a decade in which (except for Bengal), cinema everywhere in India had lost touch with reality, 'art', 'parallel' or 'new wave' cinema emerged as a recognised genre during the late 1960s. The first to feel the sweep of the new wave was Hindi cinema.

The ground

Before the rise of the 'new wave', Mumbai-based Hindi cinema (currently termed Bollywood) had become cut off from social reality. Undoubtedly, films such as S. Mukherji's Junglee (Uncouth, 1961) or Shakti Samanta's Kashmir Ki Kali (The Girl from Kashmir, 1964) with loud entertainers like Shammi Kapoor with his funny yahoo antics or R. Nagaich's Farz (Duty, 1967) with Jeetendra with his

early 'jumping jack' image, won high ratings for their entertainment value. However, though popular with the new generation of viewers, such cinema was ephemeral and bore no resemblance to real life. This has not been so in the past. The 1950s for example, had been studded with films such as Raj Kapoor's Awara (The Vagabond,1951), Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land, 1953), Guru Dutt's Pyasa (Eternal Thirst, 1957) and Mehboob's Mother India (1957). Winning popular acclaim but at the same time not failing to raise relevant issues of rural and urban exploitation in independent India, they had succeeded in carving a distinct and lasting niche for themselves which is labelled neither as 'art house' or 'commercial' cinema.

The loss of moorings and drift away from social reality is attributable to a change in the Mumbai film scene. By the mid-60s death had removed three major filmmakers - Mehboob, Guru Dutt and Bimal Roy - leaving behind a huge vacuum. Those that remained seemed to have lost their original spark. Later works of Raj Kapoor, for instance, clearly appeared to lack the commitment and humanism that had shone through in films such as Awara and Shri 420 (Mr. 420, 1955). The creative lacuna bred unease and discontent among filmmakers and discerning audiences alike. It was, therefore, a gap or stasis that set the scene for change and a forward movement. Bollywood's art house cinema was thus born out of fatigue.


Surprisingly, it was a Bengali filmmaker, Mrinal Sen who took up the gauntlet and struck out on the path of change by making his low budget Hindi film Bhuwan Shome (Mr. Shome, 1969). The film was financed by the then newly established Film Finance Corporation (FFC) which later became the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). Set in the 1940s, Bhuwan Shome not only launched a new kind of cinema but was also an attack on the establishment. It was the first low budget Hindi film to become a landmark in the history of Indian cinema. Sen's unconventional treatment gave his film originality, freshness and a modern feel. Within audiences tired of the usual run of the mill formula films, it created a new stir and felt like a breath of fresh air. Its success also prompted the FFC to support and finance similar ventures which helped build the so called 'new wave' cinema in the years that followed.

Another significant development of the 1960s that impacted positively was the setting up of the National Film Archive of India (NFAI) and the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) in Pune. By facilitating exposure of indigenous creative talent to the best of world cinema, these bodies nurtured a new crop of filmmakers who wanted to explore and use the power of the film medium. Hindi cinema entered a new phase with the early works of Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahni, Saeed Akhtar Mirza and Ketan Mehta - all products of the FTII.

The exciting new possibilities in cinema drew talent from diverse fields towards the film medium. A cartoonist with a Mumbai based news weekly Blitz, Basu Chatterjee turned towards filmmaking with his debut film Sara Aakash (The Whole Sky, 1969). Based on a Hindi novel by Rajendra Yadav, its most striking feature was 'realism'. It made viewers feel they were not watching a film but were looking through the window of someone who lived somewhere down their lane. Both Sara Akash and Bhuwan Shome struck a new chord.


'Realism' became the mantra for the new breed of filmmakers. Fresh from the FTII, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani both admitted being influenced by the works of Robert Bresson and Andrei Tarkovsky. They also were deeply inspired by the genius and epic tradition of Bengali filmmaker Ritwik Ghatak who had been their mentor at the Film Institute. The creative ferment nurtured in FTII products led to memorable works. The long pauses and silences in Mani Kaul's debut film Uski Roti (A Day's Bread, 1969), for example, skilfully heighten the loneliness of Balo (Garima) the wife of a Sikh bus driver Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh). Interestingly, not everyone was able to appreciate fresh departures made by innovative filmmakers like Mani Kaul as well as Kumar Shahni. While many hailed their films, others spurned them.

Some within the new crop of filmmakers not only started expressing themselves in new ways, they also began to explore untrodden ground by taking up new subjects as well as issues that had barely been touched. Outstanding among them was M. S. Sathyu who made Garam Hawa (Hot Winds, 1975). The film poignantly depicted the hurt and insecurity of Indian Muslims in post-partition India. M. S. Sathyu came with a background in theatre and had been active in IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association) for decades. His sensitive treatment converted his film into a landmark.

'Realism' was recognised as the most distinctive hallmark of the newly emerging Indian art cinema of the late1960s. It, however, needs to be recognised that it had been an element of Indian cinema right from its early days. Many classics of silent cinema had in fact been resonant with realism. In V. Shantaram's silent film Sawkari Pash (Indian Shylock, 1925), a poor peasant (played by Shantaram himself) loses his land to a greedy moneylender and is forced to migrate to the city to become a mill worker. Acclaimed as a realistic breakthrough, its shot of a howling dog near a hut, has become a milestone in the march of Indian cinema. Another Shantaram classic Duniya Na Mane (The Unexpected, 1937) is known for its daring attack on the treatment of women in Indian society.

Yet, not only in India but the general perception in the west too, is that realism was first injected into Indian filmmaking through the works of genius produced by Satyajit Ray. Even the contribution of Ritwik Ghatak, Ray's no less brilliant contemporary, received scant attention until very recent times.

Benegal, Nihalani & Mirza

The credit for re-introducing realism, however, must go to filmmakers of the 'new wave'. An outstanding filmmaker of this genre who entered the scene in the mid-1970s was Shyam Benegal. His debut film Ankur (The Seedling, 1974) was a breakthrough in more ways than one. It defied all the ground rules of popular Hindi cinema. Without a star cast, without a song and without melodrama, Ankur was produced with a paltry sum of Rs. 5 lakh but fetched more than a crore for producer Lalit M. Bijlani.

The 1970s found Benegal at his creative best. His first three films form a thematic trilogy. Ankur deals with the slow transformation of the feudal system in India. Nishant (Night's End, 1975) shows a kind of actual confrontation between feudal value systems and a new emerging rural society in India. In Manthan (The Churning,1976) one sees social change actually coming. The popular acclaim of these three Benegal films (Ankur, Nishant and Manthan), made him the pioneer of new cinema in the 1970s.

Another dimension of Benegal's contribution via his new wave films to mainstream cinema, was the infusion of fresh talent which dominated the Hindi film industry in the ensuing decades. "His sense of casting is one of the most acute one has ever encountered. The truth of this is amply evident in the names of some of the notable performers in the cinema today - Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Amrish Puri, Mohan Agashe, Kulbhusan Kharbanda, Shabana Azmi, and the late Smita Patil - the list of his discoveries who have all made good, is impressive, to say the least. Even the faces launched by Satyajit Ray are not quite as many and except for Sharmila Tagore, have not invaded the mainstream the way Benegal's protégés have", acknowledges veteran film historian Chidananda Das Gupta.

Shyam Bengal's new wave films also contributed indirectly. Govind Nihalani, Benegal's renowned cinematographer for more than a decade, soon emerged from the behind Benegal's camera as a powerful filmmaker in his own right in the early 80s. His debut film Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, 1980) exposed the exploitation of tribals in rural India. "The spirit of new cinema was to look at our own society with new eyes, with a different kind of vision. It was a vision of questioning and finding new answers. it was an effort to find a new language to talk to the new generation of our own society about the new issues that were then emerging", recalls Nihalani.

Nihalani's Ardh Satya (Half Truth, 1983) is another landmark. "After two decades of its making I still come across young police officers at airports and else where who tell me they feel it's their story", admits Om Puri who played the police officer protagonist in the film. Exposing the nexus between corrupt politicians, the mafia and the police, the film became a huge commercial success.

Another bold and creative artist who entered the field was business executive turned filmmaker Saeed Akhtar Mirza. His cinema raised significant issues related to indigenous minority communities and to ordinary people. Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Ata Hai (What Makes Albert Pinto Angry, 1980) provided some insight into the world of Christian minority groups in India. Though Albert is portrayed as being genuinely concerned for his family and community, he is also depicted as a victim of his own false values and the oppressive forces of mainstream society. Likewise, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro (Do Not Cry for Salim the Lame, 1989) and Naseem document Mirza's concern for sections within the Indian Muslim community. Another of his earlier works was Mohan Joshi Hazir Hon (Summons for Mohan Joshi, 1985) which in his own words focused on "the idea of decency sacrificed at the altar of pragmatism".

New Wave in the Regions - Kerala, Karnataka, West Bengal & Assam

The 1970s saw similar stirrings in regional cinema. Down south in verdant Kerala, there was a flowering within Malayalam cinema where a new generation of filmmakers emerged. Shot on location, P. N. Menon's Olavum Theeravum (1970) was a landmark in the realm of realism. It was followed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Swayamvaram (1972) which quickened the pace of new cinema in the area. M.T. Vasudevan Nair's Nirmalyam (The Offering, 1973) and G. Aravindan's Thampu (The Tent, 1978) were other works that inspired many filmmakers of that era.

Outside Kerala, the new wave rose prominently in the neighbouring state of Karnataka. Here, Kannada filmmakers such as B.V.Karanth, Girish Karnad and Girish Kassarvalli produced conspicuous works. Karanth's masterpiece, Chomna Dudi (Chomna's Drum, 1974), documented caste discrimination in rural India. Karnad's Kaadu (The Forest, 1973) and Girish Kasarvalli's Ghatashraddha (1977) were films that firmly and prominently placed Kannada cinema on the Indian new wave cinema map.

The new wave was not confined to south India alone. In the east, within Bengali cinema there emerged two young filmmakers Gautam Ghosh and Budhadeb Dasgupta. Both mirrored contemporary issues in their feature films. From nearby Assam, came Jahnu Barua's films like Aparoopa (1982) and Halodiya Choraye Baodhan Khaye (1987) which powerfully reflected the conflicts and change in Assamese society.

The magnetic pull of Hindi new wave cinema

With the passage of time, many a regional filmmaker was pulled into the vortex of Hindi cinema for drawing wider audiences and greater mass appeal. Ketan Mehta after making a breakthrough with a Gujarati film Bhavni Bhavai (A Folk Tale, 1980), shifted to Hindi with two significant films Holi (The Festival of Colour, 1983) and Mirch Masala (Hot Spices, 1986). Likewise, Marathi filmmaker Jabbar Patel made Hindi versions of Umbartha (1982) as Subah (1982), Bengali filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta made his Andhi Gali (Blind Alleyway) in Hindi and Kannada filmmaker Girish Karnad made two Hindi films Godhuli (1977) and Utsav (The Festival, 1984).

Even veterans like Satyajit Ray did not remain unaffected by the pull force. In 1978 he made an excellent film in Hindi called Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players). Based on a story by the famous Hindi writer Munshi Premchand, it was a period film with an international caste that included Richard Attenborough playing an English general of nawabi times. The film became the launch pad for Saeed Jaffrey into Hindi cinema. All these films shaped Hindi new wave into a kind of national film movement.

Realism vs. Escapism

Although the themes of some 'new wave' films of the late 70s and early 80s such as Nihalani's Ardh Satya and Benegal's Manthan and Junoon won popularity within the masses, films of this genre generally remained confined to a limited circle of viewers made up of sections within the urban educated elite. It was perhaps the sharp contrast between new wave and commercial cinema that largely accounted for the former's lack of appeal with the masses. Like tales by Hans Christian Anderson or the Grimm brothers, films of the popular or commercial genre were peopled by fantastic characters who were either ugly, cruel and despicable knaves or beautiful, virtuous and pure-hearted heroes and heroines. Commercial filmmakers steered clear of picking themes that might remind viewers of their daily lives by concentrating on wealth, glamour, beauty, romance, dance and song. Even if compelled by the storyline to show poverty, sickness, disease or sadness, they scrupulously avoided spoiling the fun of viewers by not giving them an overdose of any such negative aspects of real life and by quickly nullifying any resemblance to it by strong infusions of dance, song, romance, cheap thrills like fight sequences or bawdy humour.

New wave filmmakers, on the other hand, were inspired by the social and political reality around them. Their films rejected the unrealistic situations and storyline, fantastic characters, melodramatic dialogues and the popular song and dance format of commercial cinema. It is, therefore, not surprising that mass audiences brought up on a staple diet that was not only different but almost diametrically opposed to that of 'formula' films, generally found new wave cinema far less attractive and palatable.

New wave filmmakers also went in a big way for stark themes and stark treatments. Rabindra Dharamraj's Chakra (1980) focused unrelentingly on the poverty, hopelessness, suffering, disease and exploitation in the slums of Mumbai. Prakash Jha's Damul (The Bonded Until Death, 1985), was a shocking depiction of the hanging of a bonded labourer. The film drew rare acclaim from the veteran Bengali filmmaker Mrinal Sen for avoiding close ups. "My aim was to emotionally alienate the audience. Avoiding close ups the camera always moved around to create unease among the audience", says Jha.

Extraneous factors

While the very nature of 'new wave' films tended to strip its makers of any hopes of ever hitting it big with the masses, a fresh challenge to their continuation and development within the new wave genre, came from the small screen. By the mid-1980s the expansion of the national television network in India created a growing market for television serials. Despite their creative energy and talent, new wave filmmakers functioned in a very unsure world. The pull of the small screen proved irresistible as those who had ruled the new wave and ridden high on its crest like Shyam Benegal and Saeed Akhtar Mirza joined the race to seize opportunities in this new field. Their involvement with serials like Bharat Ek Khoj (Shyam Benegal) and Nukkad (Saeed Akhtar Mirza), were immensely successful and set new trends. Though their talent found outlets and flourished in TV, their involvements in television had a detrimental impact on their kind of cinema. They eventually did return to their forte, but by the time they did so, both their focus as well as the scene had altered. "Between 1986 and 1991, I had got busy doing television and lost contact with the film business. When I got back, it was like waking up from Rip Van Winkle's slumber. Everything had changed. The non-traditional cinema had lost its entire audience to television", admits Shyam Benegal.

Never robust, new wave cinema, by the dawn of the 1990s, especially that based in Mumbai, was like a spent force devoid of almost all vigour, spontaneity and freshness. Some began to resort to survival techniques that exposed them to criticism. Among them a few who had earlier ruled the 'new wave', waived the rules of their kind of cinema by using stars and peppering their films with dance and song sequences. One of the icons of new cinema, Naseeruddin Shah is candid in his criticism. "They [new wave filmmakers] lost their commitment and began to cast stars in desperation. I think they fell on their faces doing that because they expected those stars to play real", says Naseer.

A prominent flaw regarding new wave cinema was its lack of an effective film distribution system. Art house cinema in the western world had the support of a distribution system as well as a regular circle of viewers no matter how small. Indian new wave cinema did not enjoy any such base. Some new wave filmmakers have identified this gap as a prime contributory factor for the decline of new wave cinema.

Many new wave filmmakers have, however, come forward with other points of view. Prakash Jha, who in recent years has resorted to a popular format of Bollywood filmmaking, is inward looking and critical of his own brethren. "We film makers are to be blamed. We went on making films not bothering where they will be exhibited. We went on collecting awards, money and loans." Shyam Benegal with his strong sense of the impact of historical forces and a powerful analytical ability, on the other hand, ascribes other reasons for the decline. "There is a certain process of marginalising that has taken place. Certain things have become invisible to a lot of people. If today I were to deal with the subject of poverty or with caste oppression, I wouldn't have the same kind of interest in the urban audience. Urban audiences would rather not see these things."

Expatriate Filmmakers

While new wave Indian cinema seems to be in the doldrums, a new generation of filmmakers like Dev Benegal with English August and Split Wide Open have tried to break new ice. Split Wide Open unravels the world of child abuse within Mumbai's high class society. In the 1990s expatriates such as Meera Nair and Deepa Mehta have also come forward with films that have hit national and international headlines. Although these films have raised new issues, many critics have spurned them as being carefully crafted attempts to steal the limelight by picking exotic and controversial themes. Barring Meera Nair's Monsoon Wedding, films like Deepa Mehta's Fire have neither won significant critical acclaim nor popular audiences either in India or abroad.

The present scenario

Though weak in Mumbai where it first rose, new wave cinema is still showing signs of life and vigour in the regions. A new generation of younger filmmakers like Rituparno Ghosh in West Bengal and Jayaraj in Kerala have emerged. Ghosh's cinema though reminiscent of Satyajit Ray, has a unique freshness. His Uneshe April (1995), Dahan (1997) and Utsab (2000) strongly reflect contemporary issues that are affecting modern India. The same is true with Jayaraj's Karunam, which poignantly depicts an elderly couple's vain wait for the return of their son who has settled abroad. Though filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, T.V. Chandran and Shaji Karun have kept meaningful cinema robust and alive, mainstream Malayalam cinema which is inspired by the Bollywood model, is in the grip of the same malaise that Mumbai films suffers from.

Within Hindi new wave cinema itself, despite its near invisibility, the genre is scotched but not killed. With some digressions veterans like Benegal , Nihalani and Mirza have still not given up. They are exploring larger canvasses and trying for bigger resources. Shyam Benegal and Ketan Mehta have turned towards history with the former making his new feature film on national leader Subhash Chandra Bose and the latter on the 1857 Uprising.

Today 'New Wave' or 'Art' cinema can be best described as being in the margins. Whether it will revive and co-exist alongside popular Indian cinema the way it did in the 1970s remains to be seen. Meanwhile, a discerning audience stands and waits.

Well-known Indian film critic and historian, Lalit Mohan Joshi has edited the highly acclaimed book Bollywood - Popular Indian Cinema. He edits 'South Asian Cinema' journal from London and has produced several acclaimed programmes on Indian Cinema for the BBC World Service, Radio and BBC Television in London and Birmingham

Last Updated: Tuesday, 17-Jul-2007 19:20:56 BST