An online film journal for Indian Cinema
This fourth period between 1980 and 1989 is a remarkable one in terms of how Parallel Cinema was able to find its biggest audiences. This was a period that also witnessed the inevitable augmentation of Middle Cinema. It was typified by films like Kalyug (The Machine Age, 1981), a cross-over work that saw Benegal continue a series of fascinating collaborations with Shashi Kapoor, a major star of popular Hindi cinema who had in turn cultivated a dual career working with Merchant and Ivory. Two very significant women filmmakers also made a name for themselves including Sai Paranjpye (who was able to bring an understanding of framing and composition to her work that few filmmakers could match in the comedy genre) and Aparna Sen, a star of Bengali cinema, who had turned her hand to filmmaking and who is still working today. Cinematographer turned filmmaker Govind Nihalani would stake a claim as a key political voice, although aligned very much with the Middle Cinema of Benegal, with works like the austerely shot Aakrosh (Cry of the Wounded, 1980) and the fiercely political Ardh Satya (Half Truth, 1983) that dealt with police corruption. While stalwarts like Sen, Gopalakrishnan, Ray and Aravindan worked steadily, Ketan Mehta, Gautam Ghose, Kudan Shah and Jahnu Barua helped to reinvigorate Parallel Cinema with new approaches notably the innovative use of satire. Another feature of this period was the second cycle of Naxalite themed films (John Abraham’s masterfully political Amma Ariyan/Report to Mother released in 1986) that looked back at The Naxalite Movement from a critical distance, acknowledging the traumatic impact of this political moment on the psyche of a nation that preferred to censure the violent state repression of Naxalism.
In 1982 at the National Film Theatre in London, a season of films was programmed with the support of the NFDC to celebrate the achievements of Parallel Cinema, as was the case in America too. This was perhaps the first time a growing international awareness about Parallel Cinema materialised through film festivals and touring retrospectives. 1982 also saw the NFDC co-produce Richard Attenborough’s hagiography of Gandhi and which was one of their most profitable ventures. In his survey of the Parallel Cinema distribution-exhibition landscape Ravi Gupta (1993) notes that in the period between 1980 and 1990, the commercial success of Gandhi gave the NFDC to diversify and provide larger loans for more films. Although the NFDC also started to produce films and fund more filmmakers than ever before, the failure to establish an alternate distribution-exhibition network would lead to the decline of Parallel Cinema. For the state, it seemed to be that prestige was all that mattered, not the contexts of reception or accessibility.
The emergence of Doordarshan as a national broadcaster and with the first colour telecasts in 1982, the NFDC’s later foray into television opened a new space for Parallel Cinema and which filmmakers readily exploited. The breakthrough for Doordarshan was Satyajit Ray’s short TV film Sadgati (Deliverance, 1981) that dealt with the caste system, a major theme of the Parallel Cinema movement and a theme that had become increasingly popular and prescient with many of the Parallel Cinema filmmakers from the South, and which would remain so throughout this period. Ray cast both Smita Patil and Om Puri in the main leads for Sadgati, both icons of Parallel Cinema, acknowledging the growing importance and influence of new filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and the impact they were having on both casting and performance in Indian cinema. This is somewhat ironic considering how Ray had turned his back on the so-called avant-garde filmmakers of the foundational years. Moreover, was this the point at which Ray merged with the ideological sensibilities of Parallel Cinema, and if so, what was the potential significance of this moment to the fate of the movement? With Ray’s entry into Parallel Cinema there seemed to be a convergence or reconciliation between realism and art that dually signified closure in terms of the film movement and a new opening, television contesting Indian cinema’s hegemonic imaginings of the nation by broadening traditional perceptions of what constituted the public sphere.
Doordarshan’s venture into film production had already led to many directors of the Parallel Cinema movement signalling the end. In the 1986 issue of Panorama in an interview titled ‘TV Tidal: Fears for the New Wave Cinema’ director Kundan Shah claimed:
‘new wave or art cinema is heading for a dead-end. In this sense, that though the films are made because of the patronage of the NFDC, they do not reach audiences, except when they are shown on TV’ (1986: 11)
With the continuing success of Doordarshan helping to keep Parallel Cinema viable and visible by funding projects and co-producing with the NFDC, Shiv Sharma, writing in 1991, called for a ‘peaceful coexistence between’ (1991: 47) between cinema and television. By taking stock of the period between 1981 and 1990, Sharma opens a relatively unexplored site for Parallel Cinema slippages that saw many of the best directors finally addressing a mainstream audience. If so, could we posit the peak of Parallel Cinema did not take place in the traditional public sphere of the cinema hall but in the home, in the domestic sanctity of television? And what of the television output that emerged from the collaborations with Doordarshan which Sharma reasons came to be regarded as ‘a major producer of good cinema’, offering ‘a place in the sun for the serious filmmaker’. Nearly all the major figures of Parallel Cinema experimented with television in some form or another, Mirza and Shah’s popular TV series Nukkad (1986 – 87) being a major example. Perhaps deep down there was a desire to connect with the mass audience borne out of a relative frustration with the unending limitations of film and the uncertainty of Parallel Cinema.
A Film Canon: Parallel Cinema
The Fourth Phase: The High Point (1980 – 1989)
Gupta, R. (1993) ‘National Film Development Corporation’ in Mohan, J (ed.), Indian Cinema 1993: Directorate of Film Festivals, New Delhi: Government of India
Sharma, S. (1991) Sharing the Future: Musings on the Big and Small Screens in Banerjee, S. (ed.), Indian Cinema 1991: Directorate of Film Festivals, New Delhi: Government of India