Rebellious Poets and Radical Spirits: Indian Parallel Cinema – Il Cinema Ritrovato

(20 – 27 July 2021, Bologna, Italy)

The new strand on Indian Parallel Cinema that I have co-curated with Cecilia Cenciarelli and Shivendra Dungarpur showcases some of the best examples of the early years of Parallel Cinema, which we have titled ‘The Foundational Years’ (69 – 76). This eclectic strand with a strong regional slant looks back at the significance of Parallel Cinema in the broader historical context of alternative Indian Cinema but more importantly attempts to reclaim and reassert the rich creative achievements in the wider cine-geography of the late sixties and early seventies of global film where we saw a concerted shift in terms of aesthetics, form and style. The last ten years has seen an increasing number of Parallel Cinema films being made available for the first time in restored prints; a boon for film preservation and research. However, just as many films still remain out of reach whereby the process of recovery and restoration is likely to be a gradual one and will continue to be dictated by various economic and political factors.

In the past the public screening of Parallel Cinema was achieved through television such as Doordarshan, film societies/collectives and also film studies/educational courses. And in the 1980s, there were major retrospectives of Parallel Cinema that toured internationally, with two prominent programmes at MoMa in New York and the National Theatre in London. Sadly, after the decline of Parallel Cinema in the mid 1990s, many of these films were simply forgotten about and the original prints either disappeared, languished or were lost. We have arguably been playing catch up ever since. The absence of Parallel Cinema from the narrow, Anglo-centric discourse in which film history is taught and discussed in wider film circles is not simply about cultural and historical ignorance but can also be attributed to the ways in which so many of these films have never been programmed publicly outside of India in retrospectives or seasons. Some of this is down to the role of film programmers and curators but some of it is also because of the lack of access, logistics and expensive costs involved in trying to programme or curate alternative Indian cinema particularly outside of India, something that I have witnessed at a distance co-curating the Parallel Cinema season for Il Cinema Ritrovato. It is rare that Parallel Cinema films are screened publicly in their original physical prints which makes this retrospective altogether unique and special for film audiences.

This strand at Bologna is one of the first of its kind in Europe for a long time, and will help to play a part in the on-going process of reclaiming Parallel Cinema and making many of the films accessible to film audiences around the world. The painstaking 4K restoration of Govindan Aravindan’s Kummatty which has been completed in conjunction with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Film Heritage Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna is a deeply encouraging sign of the progress Parallel Cinema is making in terms of garnering the recognition it deserves. It is highly likely that Kummatty will be the first Parallel Cinema film to make the leap to Criterion, and if that does happen, it will be another significant step for the canonisation of Parallel Cinema into the realms of film culture and history, and that could potentially act as a gateway for film audiences who have never come across Parallel Cinema before. The eight films we have curated is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the remarkable thirty-year output of Parallel Cinema which constituted in excess of two hundred and fifty films stretching across many regions and languages.

The contributions of B. K. Karanjia to the story of Indian Parallel Cinema

In my writings I have talked at length on the contributions of key figures like Mrinal Sen to the rupture that unfolded in the late 60s but one name that goes amiss is that of B. K. Karanjia (1920 – 2012). It is worth stating that not much has been written on Karanjia in general, although we have recollections from filmmakers and actors in the industry, many of whom speak fondly of him.

In his book ‘Counting My Blessings’ (2005) the fundamental and influential role of Karanjia to the story of Parallel Cinema becomes altogether exacting. Born in Quetta, now Pakistan, the Karanjia family moved to India after Partition. Karanjia would go on to become a film journalist, writer and editor, working on publications that included Filmfare, Screen, Cinevoice and Movie Times. Given his prestigious position within the film industry some would say it was inevitable he would one day become directly involved in the business of films. Karanjia was appointed in 1969 as the new chairman of the FFC, inheriting an organisation that effectively had no capital left, much of it wasted away through the FFC’s diabolical attempts to compete with mainstream filmmaking. It was Karanjia’s decision, along with the new board he assembled that included people like filmmaker Hrishikesh Mukherjee, to focus on low budget films as a means of reviving the fortunes of the FFC. Karanjia argues this was essentially a second chance for the FFC in what had been a failed enterprise to implement a national film policy that was conducive to indigenous filmmaking.

Karanjia’s remarkable seven-year reign, lasting until 1976, would lead to great success, putting into practice the calls for a new cinema heralded by the likes of Sen and Kaul in their manifesto. Since Karanjia worked for the state and could simply be palmed off as a bureaucrat, his day-to-day involvement with the processes of script selection and liaising with filmmakers went beyond the limited promotional duties of the FFC that had plagued it in the past. Armed with a rich first hand understanding of the Indian film industry, Karanjia was well aware of the international kudos that Ray’s Pather Panchali had brought to the potential of an Indian arthouse cinema. Karanjia notes that even when Pather Panchali reached Cannes it was ignored until ‘French Critic Andre Bazin protested against this ‘scandal of the festival’ and his protest led to a re-screening of Pather Panchali’ (2005: 167). Karanjia knew what was at a stake when he took over at the FFC and the focus on low budget black and white films was a risk that paid off creatively and commercially with the immediate success of Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, a work that Karanjia should be acknowledged for helping to get made.

The two critical aims that Karanjia put in place when he took over at the FFC was a new policy that embraced backing newcomers and adapting works of homegrown Indian writers from all national languages. Karanjia proudly notes that ‘thirty-six films were financed’ (2005: 197) under his seven-year reign of chairman of the FFC. In this respect, if we are to re-write the linear history of Parallel Cinema then including the contributions of Karanjia to this overarching narrative becomes altogether impossible to ignore. Karanjia and his board seemed to act with an unprecedented degree of autonomy and the lack of interference from government ministers certainly led to what was an unrestrained explosion of creative energy, which was never to be replicated in the coming phases of Parallel Cinema. A striking aspect was the vehement socio-political context that went unchecked by the Information and Broadcasting ministers, that is until the Emergency drastically transformed the cultural landscape of India.

In 1975, Karanjia was told by Vidya Shukla, the new I&B minister that both the FFC board and policy was going to be reconstituted, accusing Karanjia of financial mismanagement, a charge that held no ground whatsoever. Although this was far from the end of Parallel Cinema, Shukla’s intervention saw the premature end to the foundational years and at a time when the stock of the FFC was at its highest, imbued with a strident creative momentum and zeal. Karanjia would eventually resign but return later to take charge of the NFDC for a second term in 1987. In reflecting on his time at the FFC, Karanjia argued that Parallel Cinema never achieved the heights of a film movement like The French New Wave because of the FFC’s inability to sponsor new talent, instead backing the same filmmakers. More significantly, Karanjia notes the lack of an outlet for many of these films – the argument concerning the lack of an adequate distribution and exhibition infrastructure was initially outlined in the manifesto by Sen and Kaul as a critical factor that would need to be implemented if Parallel Cinema was to evolve and reach film audiences in cinema halls. Karanjia talks of an art cinema scheme toyed with by the FFC and that sadly never came to fruition: ‘a network of low cost, semi-permanent, 300–400-seater art cinemas (about 200) in the metropolitan cities where FFC films would be shown’ (2002: 233). What a boost that would have given to Parallel Cinema’s fortunes if such a plan had been implemented. One of the most immediate impacts of Parallel Cinema on the rest of Indian cinema writes Karanjia was the way many films adopted a fresh approach to storytelling, favouring original writing from Indian literature.

Karanjia is largely forgotten today but deserves recognition for his direct involvement with the development and evolution of Parallel Cinema, embracing the late 60s call for a new cinema that he could see similarities with earlier experiments with 1940s political realism and the IPTA.

[some trivia: in Sen’s BFI documentary on his take on the history of Indian Cinema titled ‘And the Story Goes On…’, the first interview is with B. K. Karanjia]

RK/RKAY (Dir. Rajat Kapoor, India, 2021) – Satirical Reflexivity

When we invited film director Rajat Kapoor to Manchester in 2017 as part of the first season of ‘Not Just Bollywood’, one of the things that came to light during our several conversations was his love of Federico Fellini. In many ways, RK/RKay is Rajat’s Eight and a Half (63) – a darkly comical love letter to the trials and tribulations of filmmaking. As I have noted in my earlier posts on Rajat’s films, he is a writer/filmmaker who has remained resolutely independent and the budget for his latest venture was crowd funded, reiterating his desire to make films on his own terms. Rajat must also be one of the few filmmakers working in Indian cinema today who religiously works with the same crew – this seems to be the case ever since he started making films. Working with the same creative people time and again not only breeds familiarity but offers a reassurance and comfort in terms of collaboration that unsurprisingly filters through into the congenial temperament of his films. What I mean by this is that there is often an on-screen camaraderie amongst his actors that extends from Rajat’s grasp of populating his scripts with quality supporting actors who add something tangible.

The gist of RK/RKay is a deeply self-reflexive one. RK, a filmmaker (Rajat), is making a classical Indian film – in the romantically inclined tradition of popular Hindi cinema. However, one day, the lead protagonist who goes by the name of Mahboob Alam (also played by Rajat) literally flees the fictional film world of the film he is starring in and enters the real world of RK, the filmmaker. But what of Mahboob? He is a magical filmi spirit from the past, a man of principles and a die-hard romantic who is on a search to be united with his Gulabo (Mallika Sherawat) – a reference to Waheeda Rehman’s character in Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957). The film editor is first to discover this remarkable anomaly, realising Mahboob has gone missing out of all the scenes they have filmed, leaving behind a ghostly residue on the film negative. Of course, such a inexplicable phenomenon completely stumps the cast and crew notably the producer given the money he has invested, and which he wants to protect like the true capitalist he is. What arises is not only an existential crisis experienced by both RK and Mahboob but an exploration of the mechanics of filmmaking expressly the ways in which the reproduction of images is more than just an ephemeral occurrence but wholly spiritual and even sacred.

One of the funniest moments in trying to untangle the complications between fiction and reality unfolds in a police station as RK and his nervy producer attempt to engage in a paradoxical conversation with a police officer on the perils of creative imagination. Since Mahboob has fled the fictional world of the film he inhabits, his sudden absence has a marked effect on the narrative of RK’s film whereby Mahboob’s sworn enemy K. N. Singh (Ranvir Shorey in a memorable supporting role), a nostalgically villainous throwback to the likes of Pran, is determined to catch up with Mahboob whatever it takes. In doing so, director Rajat Kapoor increasingly blurs the tenuous lines between fiction and reality, continually juxtaposing the narrative action with scenes from the film. This emerges as an ongoing meta commentary on a hyper reality in which many us of inhabit on a daily basis.

The levels of reflexivity become increasingly complex in the film and at one point the film editor shows Mahboob a scene they have shot featuring Gulabo while RK the filmmaker looks on in complete dismay. At this point Mahboob experiences his own out of body jolt and his very existence dissolves into an emptiness with which he is unable to reconcile until later when RK tries desperately to make Mahboob understand his being is only useful in the confines of a film. Nonetheless, upon taking up temporary residence in RK’s home, Mahboob’s warmth for the family leaves an undeniably welcoming impression that contrasts stridently with RK’s self-absorbed and hurried persona. Here the film begins to explore more fully the ways in which creativity hacks away at relationships and since it is Mahboob who comforts Seema (RK’s wife) and children with his outdated but calming words it is altogether absurd because Mahboob is a blighted projection of RK’s own repressed romantic inclinations for the past and corresponding disconnect from contemporary reality.

Insisting that Mahboob should return back to the fictional world of the film he is trying to complete, RK realises that what amounts to a relatively straightforward request descends into Mahboob becoming increasingly convinced of his worth and significance in human terms. Seema and many of RK’s close friends are enamoured by Mahboob’s emotional sensitivity, a nostalgic charm that irks RK to such an extent that he wants to be rid of Mahboob. What transpires is the residual presence of Mahboob makes RK’s disdain for the real world radiate with a clarity that leads to a longing for a perpetual everlasting escape into his on-screen imaginings. And for all the criticism that RK directs at Mahboob for his idealistic and naïve musings, RK envies the ghostly protagonist he has forged since it is a persona that he wants to inhabit with an indefinite totalizing ease.

RK/RKay opens with a visual metaphor of Mahboob in a corridor full of doors to different apartments. As our protagonist opens the door and enters an apartment, Mahboob magically re-materialises until slowly through a series of playful cross dissolves the corridor is awash with the image of Mahboob. For what is certainly a surreal opening that neatly sets up the central concept of mirroring, the notion of multiple personas that are inherent in many of us is a central thematic preoccupation. However, in this exciting and innovative work from Rajat Kapoor it is escape that resonates most starkly – escape from ourselves, from the chaotic and at times meaningless world around us. And what remains is the solace we find in precarious illusions; a distraction and diversion that amounts to something far more satisfying for RK than most things in his life.

Thampu / The Circus Tent (Dir. Govindan Aravindan, 1978, India/Malayalam)

In the dialogue-less opening to Aravindan’s 1978 film Thampu, an open-air truck filled with seemingly ordinary people weaves it way languidly through the sunlit coastal roads of Thalassery, Kerala. This close-knit travelling circus, made up of a troupe of intrepid misfits and fantasists, have habitually made this journey before, living out a transient existence of boredom, service and entrapment. It would be wrong to deny Aravindan’s films are plotless but Thampu is probably the closest he came to making a documentary. The use of a non-narrative framework that favours episodic situations and a refusal to introduce characters or make them substantial in anyway turns the superfluous such as the assembly of the circus tent into self-contained spectacles of social performance. Aside from the presence of Gopi as the manager, many of the characters that populate the circus troupe are non-professionals, another notable feature of neorealism, a style and form that is stridently transparent in Aravindan’s semi observational approach. By the same token, the black and white cinematography (exceptional work again by the distinguished Shaji N. Karun) is an aesthetic choice that also augments the neorealist style. Accordingly, when the circus delivers their inaugural performance, Aravindan repeatedly cuts to shots of spectators, real faces of the villagers, training his eye on their mesmerising expressions who are completely hypnotised by the spectacle, and in turn drawing out the parallels between the circus and film as intrinsic forms of escape for the masses. Before the advent of travelling cinema shows, the arrival of a circus was a major event in the lives of people craving diversion and what Aravindan captures unequivocally is the fleeting delight and short lived excitement the circus brings to the local area. For the most part, it is the sense of identity and belonging the circus gives to such a disparate community of people that chiefly interests Aravindan, conjuring a melancholic portrait of an occurrence that is evanescently material and magical.