The New Cinemas project over at Indiancine.ma is one of the first inclusive efforts to historicise and catalogue the films made between 1969 and 1980 that form the basis of parallel cinema. The canon assembled to date is a fascinating one; likely to trigger much debate about what criteria has been used to determine which films should be included. One of the more disputable films in the canon is Dastak (1970), written and directed by Rajinder Singh Bedi, which was also his directorial debut. Dastak feels closer to Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) than any of the other parallel cinema films I’ve seen, mainly because both films narrate a middle class relationship, probing the densities of married life through a semi-realist prism. However, Bedi’s film cuts closer to the bone, exploring ‘the suggestion that a woman economically dependent on her husband is comparable to a prostitute’ (Flemming, 1985). Sanjeev Kumar’s presence in the film made me reflect on his output in the 1970s evincing an admirable range of roles across mainstream, independent and auteur led films. In fact, while Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patel and Naseeruddin Shah are often denoted as the acting faculty for parallel cinema, Sanjeev Kumar’s omission should in fact be reconsidered as films like Dastak, Anubhav (1971), Aandhi (1975), and Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1977) point to an early relationship with parallel cinema. It was only towards the late 1970s and 1980s that Kumar effectually left behind his 1970s tentative phase for a more commercial based cinema. Notably Sanjeev Kumar was a key collaborator with director Gulzar throughout the 1970s, another director often associated with middle cinema, a point of contention I want to return to later.
Dastak was an adaptation of Bedi’s acclaimed radio play ‘Moving to a New House’ (first broadcast in Lahore, 1944). The story involves a newly married middle class couple, Salma (Rehana Sultan) and Hamid (Sanjeev Kumar), who move into an apartment (it is really a two roomed space) formerly occupied by a courtesan in what is a red light district area of Bombay. This truth slowly dawns on the couple and throws up many complications especially for Salma who is literally imprisoned in the apartment. The husband, a lowly yet corrupt free clerk, begins to realise the space that they live in has been defiled by the sordid memories of the local courtesan who sang, danced and probably had sex with her clients in the same apartment. There is a psychological realist force Bedi infuses into the narrative, impacting Salma, causing her to imagine nightmarishly, abjuring the work of Polanski chiefly Repulsion. As Salma and Hamid’s relationship begins to disintegrate, a troubling darkness creeps into the narrative that sees Hamid rape Salma and later project his own male insecurities onto Salma’s beleaguered figure whom he starts to construct as a courtesan: ‘comparison of the housewife and prostitute is implicit here’ says Flemming. The film ends on an acutely abstruse note as the realisation by Hamid that Salma is pregnant could be interpreted in two ways; that the child belongs to him, or the suggestion, although not made explicitly, is that the child could be illegitimate in the fantastical acuities of Hamid’s warped mind, and suggesting ‘respectability is a complex issue’ (Flemming, 1985).
Whereas the canonisation of Kaul’s Uski Roti as a key parallel cinema text is in no doubt (although it would be safer to place it under the umbrella of experimental cinema), films like Dastak and even Sara Akash (1969) are more subjective, open to debate. Unlike Uski Roti, an experimental work, Dastak clings onto tropes, devices and conventions (melodrama, songs, traditional gender roles) intrinsic to mainstream populist Indian cinema thus problematizing its status as a parallel cinema text. In a way films like Dastak take up a middle ground that looks forward to the middle cinema of Shyam Benegal (although not every Benegal film would fall into the fluid category of middle cinema). However, Dastak’s position as an example of middle cinema female melodrama (Salma sings to ease her suffering) can also be questioned since the semi-realist tone Dastak strikes, achieved largely through the cinematography of Kamal Bose (Bimal Roy’s regular DOP), recalls the social realist cinema of the late 1940s and 1950s.
While aesthetic considerations are fragmented across many parallel films, showing a less uniformed approach to style often characteristic of a film movement, many parallel films do share an ideological affinity with habitual thematic concerns. The real problem with classifying films under the tag of parallel cinema is the term itself is indeterminate and appears to have broadened as more films have become available for scholarly research. Bedi’s literary influence (member of the Progressive Writers Movement) on Indian social realist cinema and parallel cinema demands exploring further since his body of work especially as a writer testifies to an on going engagement with social issues. One such film is Garam Coat (1955), for which Bedi wrote the screenplay, adapting a short story by Nikolai Gogol. In truth, Bedi’s skills as a writer of dialogue were significant to many of the films he worked on but it was his brilliance as a writer of Urdu fiction, writing some of the most powerful stories of partition, that places him amongst the lexicon of great Urdu writers.
Progressive Writer, Progressive Filmmaker: The Films of Rajinder Singh Bedi, Leslie A. Flemming, Annual of Urdu Studies, v. 5, 1985 p. 81 – 89