Alternate Indian Cinema: Art for Art's Sake
For decades, alternate Indian cinema has provided much needed respite for cinephiles with its focus on style and substance which reject mainstream narratives - art for the sake of art. It has always sprinted light years ahead of its time. Is the mainstream finally catching up?
Alternate cinema is a comfort zone for everybody who likes to talk about things that nobody likes to talk about. Bollywood provides an escape from the wringer-like life that common man is subjected to. And a little bit of fantasy is good, until we start realising the real consequences that movies have on our lives. Cinema elements have perforated our social norms and Bollywood is guilty of having popularised, even gentrified some customs, which today we take for granted as having always pre-existed in Indian society.
But what really is, alternate cinema?
Alternate cinema is the kind of cinema that has consistently moved away from the conventional themes and tropes depicted in the mainstream during a given period of time. Depending on its location, the broad genre has encompassed many individual cinema movements including the French New Wave in Europe, the Parallel Cinema movement in India or even the Hollywood Renaissance of the 60’s. The filmmakers who moved in this direction often rejected popular aesthetic choices and narratives, instead experimenting with and adopting new filmmaking techniques to tell their stories.
Perhaps the earliest films to adhere to this category were Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali (1955), Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zameen (1953), Ritwik Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (1960) or the 1969 trifecta - Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash or Mani Kaul’s experimental Uski Roti. These films were pioneers of art for art’s sake, making no statements about wanting to make money. They talked about existential crises, coming-of-age, the struggle of our poorest people, the place and status of a woman in society and emancipation of economically and socially disadvantaged people.
In the immediate decade following Indian independence, we saw the release of films like Do Bigha Zameen (1953) which looked at the intimate connection of a man to his land and family, and his struggle to make a living in an urban environment, crowded with nothing but obstacles. Similarly, Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) comprising Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar is perhaps the defining trilogy of the 20th century, with its core themes of survival, confrontation with the real world and the transition of a boy to a man. It forever changed the landscape of not just Indian but World cinema. Ray directly confronts issues of sexism in these films through his character ‘Durga’ the protagonist’s elder sister, who despite being equally bright, is being raised to marry, in sharp contrast to Apu who is being raised to go to school. In Bollywood, at the same time, melodramatic films such as Babul (1950), Samadhi (1950) and Dilruba (1950). Until this point, there was no specific categorisation of cinema as alternative and mainstream and so all films made in India were meshed under the same roof.
But by the 1960’s India had changed and so had her cinema. Bhuvan Shome (1969) is the story of a lonely middle aged bureaucrat who is transformed after a chance meeting with a young peasant girl helps him see beyond his position in society and empathise with people. Teen Kanya (1961) and Nayak (1966) are films that explore the human psyche in which different threads of individuality are woven into universal patterns. Nayak is about a star named Arindam Chatterjee who is going by train to collect an acting award. On the train, he meets a journalist named Aditi (Sharmila Tagore) who starts to interview him. Through this interview emerges the real face behind the mask that the actor has put on. The face is a battlefield of scars, both personal and professional. The film dismantled the established notions of stardom by taking the image of a star and plonking it down on the common man’s couch, thus giving him a direct view of the actor’s humanity.
Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977), Ardh Satya (1983), and later Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa (1998) asked difficult questions about political realities of the day and the people caught at the center of the strife. Released during the Emergency, but set in 1866 in the kingdom of Awadh, Shatranj ke Khiladi is about two noblemen who are completely oblivious to the reality of their own lives: their unhappy wives as well as rampant British colonisation of their estates, all abandoned for the game of chess. The irony is beautifully depicted, drawing parallels between the film’s larger political context and the game of chess between these two noblemen, a direct implication against the detachment and estrangement visible in the ruling elite at the time.
Ever since Bhuvan Shome, more films were being made which focused on rural distress, feudalism, patriarchy, oppressive social norms and the condition of women in society. Some of these were: Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Rat Trap (1982), which was about a privileged man, Unni, who is the last heir of a decaying feudal family. The film follows his decline into isolation and paranoia after being unable to cope with the social changes happening around him. Shyam Benegal made Mandi (1983), which talked about a hushed up part of society, prostitution and the lives of the women that go through its wringer. The 80’s also saw some great satirical movies like Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983) and Angoor (1982) (based on Shakespeare’s ‘Comedy of Errors’). An interesting thing to note here is the transgression of crime cinema into the alternate cinema umbrella in the 80’s. Films like Ardh Satya (1983), Ek Ruka Hua Faisla (1986) and Nayakan (1987) projected more existential questions pertaining to individuals in the face of socially established norms about the binaries of right and wrong.
Meanwhile in Bollywood, the concept of ‘masala’ entertainers was being pioneered by filmmaker Nasir Husain, along with the writer duo Salim-Javed. Yaadon ki Baarat (1973) was the first masala film, which told the story of three brothers who are separated when their parents are killed by a gangster, reunited through the tunes of an old family song. Another film which fell into this genre was Sholay (1975), the classic hit about two ruffians with hearts of gold who are hired to kill the dreaded dacoit, Gabbar. Films like these cracked the classic masala entertainment formula, but created simplistic, black and white dichotomies between good and bad, reaffirming society’s established versions of morality.
From the 1990’s, as India opened its doors to a liberalised economy with its promise of greater opportunity and personal freedoms for the common man, alternate cinema began to branch out from under the shadow of oppressive practices and began to focus more on the individual: dreams, aspirations, relationships, and perceptions of the outside world. But whereas 90’s Bollywood saw an upsurge of romantic films like Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), the entire hoard of Sooraj Barjatya films, gangster films like Agneepath (1990) and Vaastav (1999) and the first of many Khiladi films, alternate cinema was producing films like Anjali (1990), Maachis (1996), Iruvar (1997) and Hyderabad Blues (1998) - films that treated the individual with much more complexity than the mainstream. Deepa Mehta gave us The Elements Trilogy (1996 - 2005) in which the first film Fire (1996) was about a same-sex relationship between two women. This was perhaps the first time that homosexuality was depicted on the screen and was given the treatment of normalcy and humanity as opposed to the constant caricaturisation of effeminate and homosexual characters by Bollywood.
In the new century, the films of the alternate cinema movement do not have a collective ideology or theme that filmmakers stick to. Rather is their difference in approach and treatment of the subject matter that results in this broad umbrella term. They have been rechristened the ‘independent film’ as a dissociation from the studio system that was evolved by Hollywood in the early 20th century and are more liberal, humanist films. Indian cinema has seen a shower of these gems, which has intensified in the last ten years because of diversified funding, a greater number of producers, support from established actors, all encouraged by the positive responses from an increasingly aware audience.
Mr and Mrs Iyer (2002) follows the story of a devout Hindu Brahmin woman sheltering a Muslim man when communal rioting breaks out in the area through which they are travelling. Themes like these provide for an intersection between human emotions and the larger social fabric that they are intrinsically a part of. Peepli Live (2010) was a breakthrough political and social satire where an impoverished farmer’s threat to end his life (finally) invites attention from the press and media. A Death in the Gunj (2016) is about a young student’s life falling to pieces during a family vacation. If you compare these to films like Dabanng (2010), or in fact the whole “Bhai film industry”, Bajirao Mastani (2015), the dreaded “Dhoom” franchise or Krrish 3 (2013), there is a tremendous difference both in terms of subject matter and style.
Today, the alternate cinema movement, in its new avatar of the indie film, is based on a host of critically acclaimed and popular literature. Take for example, Midnight’s Children (2012) by Deepa Mehta, based on the book by Salman Rushdie, chronicling the fate of children born on the stroke of midnight, the moment of India’s independence. The Namesake, a novel which tells the story of an NRI boy called Gogol coming to terms with his cultural identity, transpired to the big screen in 2006 and garnered critical fame.
Like the parallel cinema wave before it, the indie film canon too has embraced non-Hindi films, like the most recent Super Deluxe (2019), a Tamil film which tells three stories that collide with each other: those of an estranged father, an unfaithful wife and an angry boy. There are also films like Kannathil Mutthamil (2002), which is about an adopted girl’s quest to find her birth mother, Uyare (2019) the story of a young woman whose dreams of becoming a pilot are thwarted after her jilted ex-boyfriend throws acid on her face, or Virus (2019), a film based on true events that deals with the deadly Nipah virus outbreak in Kerala. They are contemporary stories relevant for a modern audience.
Alternate cinema is radically different from Bollywood, with its focus on real-world issues, subtle and stylistic delivery of art and a complete U-turn from the ‘formulas’ that Bollywood uses ever so compulsively. Lately however, we have been seeing alternate cinema themes steadily bleed into commercial cinema, albeit most that do retain a Bollywood-esque flavour. Films like Lagaan (2001) or Swades (2004) tell rural stories from the heart-land, stories of survival and overcoming the odds which suggested a deep connection between the characters and their land and country. But they were made with quintessential Bollywood aplomb and featured megastars of the day - Aamir and Shah Rukh Khan. Dev-D (2009) Anurag Kashyap’s gritty adaptation of the classic Bengali tale of Devdas received both critical acclaim and immense popular appreciation for its stylish, pulp aesthetic and fearless incorporation of current events into the original story. The film is widely considered a modern day classic despite its avant-garde, alternative heart.
With the democratisation of film viewing by streaming giants like Netflix and Amazon Prime as well as niche platforms like MUBI, the audience now has access to a much larger variety of films, at lower costs, at their fingertips. One simply takes a chance on a film or series and decides what they like and don’t like in private, devoid of notions of categorisation or social influence. Instead, for a modern (and now global) audience, how relatable a story is and contextualisation of themes are the top factors. In this postmodern era, we foresee even greater borrowing by the mainstream from the ‘art for art’s sake’ space.
While fares like Tanhaji (2019), Badrinath ki Dulhaniya (2017) or the umpteen Rohit Shetty remakes may never go out of fashion at the Box Office, in matters of taste and impact, it is films like Dil Chahta Hai (2001), Wake Up Sid! (2009), Khosla ka Ghosla (2006), Gangs of Wasseypur (2012), Bangalore Days (2014) and OK Kanmani (2015) that will bridge the gap between alternative and mainstream. It won’t be long before the terms are erased as they will transcend labels of ‘alternate,’ ‘indie’ or even ‘hipster’ and be simply called ‘cinema.’
(Yes, we are optimists)