Daily Archives: October 10, 2008

Parallel or New Cinema in India

(These notes were first produced for an evening class in 2002.)

There is no clear distinction between films that have been classified as part of ‘New Indian Cinema’ and those that have been termed ‘Parallel Cinema’.

The description ‘new cinema’ implies a connection to the idea of a ‘New Wave’ – a distinct movement in a national cinema that seeks to be different in some way from the mainstream, possibly as a means of ‘re-inventing’ or re-defining what cinema might be. The most famous New Wave came out of France in the late 1950s and was partly responsible for the development of film studies in Western Europe and North America. A British New Wave and New German Cinema emerged in the same period and the 1960s and 1970s was a period for re-defining the possibilities of cinema, especially in terms of more ‘political’ and socially-conscious filmmaking.

In India, the inspiration for the ‘new cinema’ was arguably the earlier intervention of the Italian neo-realists. Neo-realism was important for  both Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal and in the early 1950s neo-realism also found an echo of some sort in the ‘social melodramas’ of Hindi Cinema. From the mid 1950s onwards, ‘new cinema’ developed from a series of institutional measures:

  • International Film Festival of India – first held in 1952, becoming an annual event in 1975. Important in (a) bringing internationally known filmmakers to India and (b) providing a showcase for Indian filmmakers which was not dependent on commercial considerations.
  • Federation of Film Societies of India. The first society was set up in Bengal in 1939, but the Federation was set up in 1959. The FFSI is complementary to the festival in encouraging interest in both Indian films and ‘world cinema’
  • The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) set up in Pune in 1960 (Television being added to the curriculum in 1970). The FTII has attracted many of the leading figures of the Indian film industry as tutors and the graduates of the 1960s were important in promoting the idea of new/parallel cinema.
  • National Film Archive of India was set up in 1964 as a government agency in Pune with branches in Calcutta, Bangalore and Thiruvananthapurum. The NFAI ensures preservations of ‘Indian film heritage’ and also provides facilities for indian and international film scholars.
  • The Film Finance Corporation was set up in 1961 to fund ‘independent’ and ‘experimental’ films. This was also a government initiative. Later it became known as the National Film Development Corporation and extended its work to include distribution of films both within India and worldwide, promoting the films it financed and using distribution to increase access to world cinema.
  • Doordarshan, the state television channel has also funded film production.

What is ‘new’?
New cinema offered an alternative to mainstream Hindi cinema in several different ways (not necessarily all found in the same films):

  • political ideas;
  • ‘social realism’ and ‘ordinary heroes’;
  • experimental film forms;
  • no requirement for song/dance sequences;
  • less dependence on popular genres;
  • more ‘personal’ style for the director;
  • new stars with a different approach to performance.

Overall, the new cinema was more aligned with international art cinema. It was not profitable, with only limited box office success, but the films increased India’s prestige in international cinema and they were welcomed by audiences drawn from the developing middle class. The new/parallel cinema died away in the late 1980s and now some commentators have identified a shift in popular cinema that connects some of the older new cinema personalities with new creative talents and an increasingly affluent and educated audience.

Kumar Shahani (born 1940)
One of the first graduates of the new Film Institute, Shahani, born in the Sind (now part of Pakistan), became one of the important figures of the new cinema. He was important as a writer and theoretician of film as well as a director in collaboration with his Institute colleague, K. K. Mahajan. He spent time in France in the mid-1960s, assisting Robert Bresson. Tarang (Wages and Profits) (1984) was the second major feature for Shahani and Mahajan.


Rahul, the son-in-law of an old industrialist, and one of the heirs to his fortune, clashes with Dinesh, the industrialist’s nephew who is openly unscrupulous. Rahul, for his part, conceals his personal ambition under a cloak of liberalism and encourages indigenous production. In the centre of the conflict sits the wily old man, with money as his sole concern. His tense and elegant daughter Hansa watches him like a hawk, for he is the only man she has ever completely loved.

Outside the palace and its intrigues, are the hovels of the workers in the old industrialist’s empire, where Janaki lives. Janaki’s dead husband had once led an agitation against the management, and Janaki herself is still considered potentially dangerous. Thrown out of her shack by the industrialist’s henchmen, she is picked up from the streets by Rahul and installed in his palatial home as a nursemaid for his child. As Janaki becomes increasingly indispensable, Hansa quietly withdraws, pushing Janaki into a relationship with Rahul.

Smita Patil (right) as Janaki and Kawal Gandhiok as Hansa in Tarang

Smita Patil (right) as Janaki and Kawal Gandhiok as Hansa

Having done her duty by producing a son and heir for the family fortunes, Hansa now turns her full attention to her father, her sole obsession. But when the old man falls ill, Rahul keeps Hansa away from her father, and with Janaki’s help, contrives to remove the nurse, a secret tippler, often from the sickroom, leaving the old man neglected. One day, the nurse comes back and finds her patient dead. Dinesh, who returns from one of his tours abroad, accuses Rahul of killing his father-in-law, but there is no evidence. With the help of Anita, an old paramour and the old man’s erstwhile secretary, Rahul puts Dinesh in a false position with his foreign collaborators. Dinesh’s local ally, a crooked trade union leader, is silenced by Janaki and her worker friends. Rahul sends Janaki away to a bungalow in the hills supposedly to protect her from any investigation arising out of the old man’s death. Meanwhile he buys the allegiance of a section of the workers, and comes back to tell Janaki that she will be accused of murder. Janaki, betrayed but free, walks back to her old life on the streets.

In Rahul’s home, Hansa tries to arouse herself from her grief. After a long time she makes love to Rahul, and wakes up with the promise of a more fulfilling relationship. Yet by the evening she is dead, submerged in the bathtub. Rahul removes his last obstacle by implicating Dinesh in a murder, and takes charge of his empire. Janaki sets fire to the brothel and returns to the shack of a worker friend. As she waits for him to return home, someone throws a lighted cracker in the room. Janaki escapes as the row of shacks goes up in flames.

Smita Patil in Tarang

Perhaps in a dream, on a long and lonely bridge, Rahul approaches Janaki once again with the offer of a life of freedom and equality. Janaki, an etherial figure of great beauty and sexuality, rejects his offer with supreme indifference. “Go back to your destiny,” she says. “I am like the first rays of the sun. I am hard to catch as the wind….”

Tarang, Kumar Shahani’s second feature film, is a saga of conflict and betrayal stretching across the boundaries of different worlds. Bridging the gulf between them is Janaki, forever betrayed, forever alone. In the last sequence, where the myth takes over from the real, Janaki’s persona extends from the exploited victim of human ambition to a celestial embodiment of freedom. She is desirable, but can no longer be used, for she has the choice denied her in the real world, of going her own way without surrender. Perhaps the polarities will finally converge at the end of the long bridge, perhaps there is hope for a common destination.

One of the brightest alumni of the Film and Television Institute of India, Shahani was greatly influenced by Ritwik Ghatak, the controversial film maker and teacher from Bengal, and D.D. Kosambi, the great Indian polymath. Though he writes rarely, he remains one of the most promising film theoreticians in India today. His films are even more rare, a few shorts and documentaries, and one other feature film, Maya Darpan, made in 1972. Very recently, Shahani got together with playwright G. Shankar Pillai and actress Alaknanda Samarth to stage two unusual plays, Kunti and The Human Voice, which received rave reviews in Bombay. Tarang, like his first feature film, is not easy to assess, nor will it ever be received by the general audience with understanding or enjoyment. It is slow, larger than life, and undoubtedly intriguing.

For Shahani, Tarang is his exploration of the epic form in cinema. “The epic tradition overcomes the division between the giver and the receiver of art,” he says. “It is a pity that societies tend to make museum pieces of art when, in fact, the need for it is as natural and as instinctive in people as eating and drinking.” That is probably why Tarang comes through to the discerning viewer as a moving experience, even if he is completely unaware of the intricacies of Shahani’s personal imagination; unaware that for him, Janaki is the Earth Mother revealing herself as Urvashi, the celestial dancer, seductive and divine, bestower of wealth and fertility; unaware that her last words in the film are a hymn from the Rig Veda. (from One Hundred Indian Feature Films: An Annotated Filmography, Shampa Banerjee and Anil Srivastava, Garland Publishing Inc., 1988)

Smita Patil (1955-86)
Smita Patil was born in Pune in 1955. After studying literature at Bombay University, she worked briefly as a TV newsreader, before being spotted by director Shyam Benegal. She became a star in Bhumika (The Role) (1976) for Shyam Benegal. When she died following complications after childbirth, she was one of the major stars of parallel cinema alongside Shabana Azmi. In her short career she made 32 films, including some that are classified as popular Hindi Cinema.

Backbeat (UK 1994)

The Beatles on stage in Hamburg

I decided to take another look at Backbeat following my recent work on Control. I was amazed to realise that it’s fourteen years since I saw it last. There are SPOILERS in what follows, so if you don’t know the story and want to watch the film, better stop now. 

Backbeat is the story of the ‘fifth Beatle’. There are many claims to the title, but the story of Stu Sutcliffe is the really tragic one. He was the art school friend of John Lennon, a talented painter who played bass in the first true Beatles incarnation, the band that went to Hamburg in the early 1960s when another claimant as fifth Beatle, Pete Best, was on drums. The story is tragic because Sutcliffe, who stayed behind in Hamburg to be with the German girl he met, Astrid (a photographer), then died suddenly from a brain haemorrhage. The possible original cause of this was a blow to the head which the film’s narrative shows as a result of a pub brawl at the start of the film.

Backbeat was written by its director, Ian Softley with help from Michael Thomas and Stephen Ward. Softley was still a small child when the events of the film took place, but I have to say that what he and his colleagues conjure up works on my nostalgia nerve. I was around 12-14 in the early 1960s and I certainly got a whiff of something that makes me think of the period – or at least of a couple of years later when the Beatles hit and I was nervously fingering a pack of 10 Gold Leaf in some seedy coffee bar or dancehall.

Overall, I think the film works, although I think it feels quite slight. My big problem is with Stephen Dorff as Stu Sutcliffe. I’m sure he is a good actor, but I don’t believe he’s a Liverpudlian art student. What makes it worse is that he is opposite Ian Hart on full throttle as Lennon. Hart is completely believable and it’s a stunning performance. Sheryl Lee is also good as Astrid Kerchherr (but not up to Hart in full flow.

The narrative concentrates on Hamburg with a brief introductory sequence in Liverpool and one or two later scenes at the Cavern. This way, we get very little of either Lennon or Sutcliffe’s home life in Liverpool – apart from when Cynthia Powell (who would later become Cynthia Lennon) sees them off by ship. I think a little more of the early life would have helped the credibility.

My second viewing was prompted by Control and the strangely parallel story of the meeting with the more sophisticated girl from Northern Europe. It certainly was the case that ‘continental girls’ seemed somehow sexier and more sophisticated in those repressed times of the early sixties and it was interesting to see that Bardot is mentioned (and seen in poster form) in Backbeat. In my adolescence, I remember Françoise Hardy as the ultimate in teen sophistication.

I think I’m disappointed by Backbeat only because I don’t think it explores the whole question of social class. Lennon and McCartney appear to me as lower middle-class boys who seem slightly more confident in a European milieu than the working class lads of Joy Division and I was rather hoping to see something more about this. I’m grateful to DVD Times for pointing out some of the issues with the film. For instance, I didn’t know that the music which the actors mime to was supervised by Don Was and featured several well-known American musicians of the early 1990s. Suffice to say that they made a good job of sounding right for the period. More to the point perhaps is the comment that the costume for Cynthia Powell (played by Jennifer Ehle) places her as too out of date to keep John Lennon.

If we turn to a genre analysis, I think Backbeat, like Control, steers away from the music biopic. Unless I missed it (it was a late night viewing!) there is no real explanation of how the Beatles end up backing Tony Sheridan for Polydor during their Hamburg stay. As in Control, the focus is on Ian/Stu and his relationships. The intriguing difference is that Stu has to choose between Astrid and John. The film dances daintily around the intense relationship between the two men and attempts to construct the narrative as a tragic romance, whereas Control opts for melodrama. The structure doesn’t work because Stu and Astrid are just not interesting enough next to the explosion that is Lennon and that retrospection urges us to consider the underplayed personalities of Paul and George. I wonder what Pete Best thinks of his representation in the film? I think I need to check out the DVD extras to see what Ian Softley has to say about it.

I’d like someone now to make a film about the ‘beat group’ explosion of the early 1960s – not just in Liverpool, but, I presume, over the whole North of England (and the rest of the country too, but my horizons were a bit limited in 1963-5).