While we were leading a rather sedate life in the 70s, the new Indira Gandhi cabinet of 1980 decide to bring colour television to our homes for the Asiad Games. My father bought one in 1983. So as a teen I was exposed to a new kind of cinema in the early eighties, typically broadcast after 10pm, on the state owned national channel Doordarshan. I had to crouch around the grainy light when the house slept, to watch these movies. I later knew that they were from the Parallel Cinema movement.
Parallel Cinema, inspired by neo-realists of Italy like Vittorio De Sica, originated in West Bengal in the 50s as an alternative to mainstream Indian cinema or Bollywood as the World (incorrectly) knows it today. With influences ranging from folk theatre, Bengali literature, Indian art and social realism, parallel cinema strongly pitched itself left of centre. The movement was initially led by Bengali cinema and produced internationally acclaimed filmmakers such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha and others. It later gained prominence in other film industries of India, with film makers like Shyam Benegal, MS Sathyu, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Girish Kasaravalli and G Aravindan making more movies. It is known for its serious content, realism, naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the sociopolitical climate of the times, and for the rejection of the dance-and-song that are typical of mainstream commercial Indian cinema.
One of the major features of the films of Parallel Cinema is their fixation on social critique. These films were statements against feudalism, corruption, nepotism, patriarchy and religious intolerance. For example: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s The Rat Trap (1981) is about a laggard’s sense of superiority in a patriarchal and feudalist way, until it all comes down on him. This movie touches issues that are rarely discussed in mainstream cinema. Watch a clip below.
Later in my design school years we students were fortunate to have a few of these film makers visit, present their work or talk to us about their craft. We had Shyam Benegal, G Aravindan, Ketan Mehta and more from cinema talk to us. It did affect my understanding of cinema in an Indian context and this was a relevant period of evolution for mainstream films to become what they are today.
These movies were made for mental repose, with a pace that made me think more than act. When blended with measured visuals that waited for you to imbibe at your pace they seemed more humanist than any other.
An assortment of links that can become your view-list to understand Parallel Cinema better:
- A short clip from Shyam Benegal’s Susman a movie about the state of handloom weavers in Andhra Pradesh
- A horrid short explainer video on the emergence of parallel cinema
- An interview with Shyam Benegal on Satyajit Ray at the Ray Film and Study Centre, California
- The Art of Film, a two-hour long compilation of everything about Satyajit Ray including a set visit and interviews
- If you have time you can watch Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala that we viewed and discussed at the design school – The entire movie
- Spend your 45-minutes for this 1981 television movie adapted from a Munshi Premchand story – Satyajit Ray’s Sadgati