The history of independent cinema in India has in the past been an intermittent one, beset by a dearth of funding, insufficient distribution and disinclination by critics to take directors seriously. The most sustained and creative period arose with the parallel cinema movement or New Indian Cinema in the late 1960s involving state funding from the Film Finance Corporation (FFC). Directors included Mrinal Sen (Bhuvan Shome, 1969) and Mani Kaul (Uski Roti, 1969). It is not unforeseen the current new wave of independent directors take inspiration from the accomplishments of parallel cinema. One such director is Anurag Kashyap. In the space of ten years, starting with his debut Paanch in 2003, Kashyap has become the face of contemporary Indian ‘indie’ cinema. However, it is presumptuous to contend Kashyap has been the sole talisman in the emergence of a new wave that includes Dibakar Banerjee, Anand Gandhi, Kiran Rao, Anusha Rizvi, Abhishek Chaubey, Q and Vikramaditya Motwane.
One has to re-narrate the current story being written about ‘Hindie’ cinema, beginning in 1994 with the film English, August and director Dev Benegal. In fact, it is a journey that has taken twenty years. Dev Benegal, nephew of acclaimed director Shyam Benegal, made two key films in the 1990s that were distinctively indie in terms of both form and content. Whereas English, August (1994) and Split Wide Open (1999) were financed outside of India, most of the independent films financed today are supported by studios and production companies with an extensive production slate. Though Benegal could be labelled a transnational filmmaker akin to Deepa Mehta and Mira Nair, his contribution should not be overlooked in the evolution of indie cinema. Both English, August and Split Wide Open were part of a loose body of films, arguably deemed a ‘first phase’ in contemporary indie cinema, characterised by youth oriented narratives and controversial subject matter. A common link amongst the films including Kaizad Gustad’s low budget Bombay Boys (1998) was the presence of Rahul Bose, a talented actor with an international profile who has remained close to the indie scene. This first phase of a new wave of Hindi cinema also underlined the potential of the comedy genre and particularly satire as a vehicle for extrapolating the generational anxieties of a disillusioned middle class youth in an increasingly globalised India. The origins of the indie comedy tradition can arguably be traced to Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron (1983), a cult film and key work of parallel cinema.
The late 1990s saw two important developments that paved the way for a potentially vibrant and creative indie cinema. The first, an institutional one, was the opening of India’s first Multiplex in New Delhi by PVR with 4 screens. Not only did this expand prospects for indie films to get distributed more widely but it created a new audience: the Multiplex crowd (predominantly middle class) with tastes different to the mainstream. The second was the release of a realist gangster-crime film, Satya (1998). While Satya spawned a cycle of ‘Mumbai noir’ films, it more crucially established the talents of director Ram Gopal Varma, writer Anurag Kashyap and composer Vishal Bhardwaj. Satya arrived just as Multiplex culture was taking shape and readily appealed to audiences looking for seemingly familiar content re-presented in new modes of cinematic address. The noughties were a transitional period for the Hindi film industry. Industry status certainly re-configured what had become a narrow and dubious hegemonic funding structure controlled by a handful of powerful producers and studios. An influx of new production banners like UTV Motion Pictures and Pritish Nandy Communications were willing to take a risk on new filmmakers, genres and alternate content. It is no coincidence the story of independent cinema accelerated in this period, leading to the rise of iconoclastic directors like Kashyap. At the same time, state funding was still backing projects such as actor turned director Rajat Kapoor’s 2003 film Raghu Romeo, an underrated black comedy with a notable performance by Vijay Raaz. Rajat Kapoor continues to work steadily in the indie comedy genre, producing work that has often been overlooked.
Financial support for the independent sector has not been exclusively studio led. Hindi film stars such as Aamir Khan have also moved into film production. Recent successes include Dhobi Ghat (2011) and Peepli Live (2010), both debut films directed by women, deal with prescient social issues involving class, poverty and exclusion in a neoliberal contemporary India. Ekta Kapoor, a television producer, also foresaw the commercial potential of indie cinema, distributing films like Love, Sex Aur Dhoka (2010). In response to the growth of the independent film sector, in 2008 UTV Motion Pictures set up their own indie production arm titled UTV Spotboy, backing audacious films such as Aamir (2008), Dev D (2009) and Udaan (2010). Most recently, UTV acted as distributor for director Anand Gandhi’s critically acclaimed debut feature Ship of Thesus (2012).
If Rahul Bose was a key collaborative element in the first phase of the new wave of indie cinema then Abhay Deol rapidly came to occupy a similar position in the second phase. Between 2007 and 2010, Deol appeared in over a dozen independent films, working with directors such as Dibakar Banerjee (Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!), Anurag Kashyap (Dev D) and Dev Benegal (Road, Movie). Deol who is part of a Bollywood film dynasty lacked the typical star baggage and had an understated quality as an actor that was readily exploited by directors. Remarkably, Deol has been surpassed by the impressive rise to fame of Nawazuddin Siddiqui who is currently one of the busiest actors working in the independent sector. If Indian indie cinema had yet to go global then the creation of the London Indian Film Festival in 2010 (committed to showcasing indie films) reiterated the significance of a new wave that had a reach beyond merely domestic borders.
A survey of Indian cinema in 2013 confirms the ascendancy of indie cinema but also the way new directors continue to emerge. Ritesh Batra (The Lunchbox), Ajay Bahl (B.A. Pass), Ashim Ahluwalia (Miss Lovely), Gyan Correa (The Good Road), Anand Gandhi (Ship of Thesus) and Amit Kumar (Monsoon Shootout) all debuted to critical acclaim in 2013. In this context theorising a new wave becomes virtually redundant since each year sees the debut of many new filmmakers. Perhaps the new wave to have had the most lasting impression is parallel cinema. Shyam Benegal, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Mrinal Sen paved the way but did so in an engaged aesthetic and ideological spirit, questioning the norms of the Hindi film industry. 2013 could easily be declared as the year of Anurag Kashyap, a figure who is conceivably the most important working in the Hindi film industry today. Kashyap not only produced Lootera (2013) but also persuaded director Tigmanshu Dulia out of the director’s chair to act in his gangster opus The Gangs of Wasseypur (2012). At the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, Kashyap had a hand in the three Indian films that were selected: Monsoon Shootout (producer), Bombay Talkies (one of the directors) and Ugly (director). He also produced a compilation film in 2013 titled Shorts, which got a limited release. Lastly, you can also add The Lunchbox, a much-admired romantic comedy, to his achievements for 2013, which he helped to produce alongside Karan Johar.
It may seem impossible to find a consistent thread that connects the new waves and independent cinema of the past and present but there is one overarching connection. This is actor Naseeruddin Shah; the most accomplished actor of his generation. Part of me is always relieved to see Shah’s name in the cast list of the latest indie feature as it usually means the film is going to be good. Not only has Shah starred in countless independent films but he has also worked with many of the major indie/art cinema directors of the last fifty years; Goutam Ghose, Mrinal Sen, Anurag Kashyap, Shyam Benegal, Saeed Akhtar Mirza, Ketan Mehta, Govind Nihalani, Abhishek Chaubey to name a few. Shah has become iconographic to the way we recognise indie cinema and a much sought after actor given his astonishing range. In many ways, the story of Naseeruddin Shah is also the story of independent cinema and that is a story worth telling again and again.