In Parallel Cinema the co existence of creative streams accommodated divergent aesthetic reckonings. The initial films of the Kannada new wave spearheaded by the likes of Girish Karnad and B. V. Karanth adopted a largely neo realist approach that was more in line with Ray’s cinema and which was later exemplified by Benegal. The realist tag is an unwelcoming label associated with Parallel Cinema but in some instances is justified and warrants exploring further. The regional flourishes expressly from Bengal, Kerala and Karnataka were aligned in a cinematic radicalism that mapped a frontal attack on all kinds of orthodoxies specifically caste and religion. Based on the novel by Kannada writer S. L. Bhyrappa, Vamsha Vriksha, a key work in the foundational years of Parallel Cinema, uses the concept of the family tree as an extended metaphor, attacking head on the patriarchy and double standards of Brahminical culture that literally imprisons women. Perhaps the radicalism of Parallel Cinema films from the South wasn’t strictly aesthetic but far more visible in the confrontational and unconventional thematic tone.
The narrative of Vamsha Vriksha unfolds essentially from the perspective of the woman, a radical about turn in the ways in which Parallel Cinema was forging a new path for counter gender representations. Kathyayani (L. V. Sharada Rao) is widowed at an early age with a young son. She feels trapped, sitting idly at home, and like Charulata in Ray’s film, the opening captures her boredom and isolation as she is reduced to staring out of the windows at the lives of others. Kathyayani overturns tradition, re-marrying and eventually leaving her in-laws. But she does at the expense of being forced to leave her son with her in-laws who claim a hereditary right over the boy. This condition placed upon Kathyayani is cruel; severing a parental bond that becomes part of a deeper psychological struggle she must overcome. However, the radicalism of Vamsha Vriksha comes from the agency of Kathyayani who not only pursues an education, later becoming a teacher, but also continually exposes the tyranny of tradition and corresponding hypocrisies. ‘In our society, a man can marry ten times, but a woman has to suppress all her desires’, exclaims Kathyayani to her father in law.
As we come to discover, the family tree has many branches but they don’t all grow the same way. Moreover, assuming a lofty moral position based on religion is prone to derision particularly when the history of a family has been constructed on a lie, one that is unmasked by the patriarch of the story. While the coda is about reconciliation, Karanth and Karnad conclude that tradition has a way of imposing itself on the past and present, distorting attempts to create new and alternate histories.
Opening with a series of slow motion shots of a semi-naked labourer working in the punishing heat, the body blackened by the coal is visually conducive of the ways in which the capitalist system comes to possess and devour the labourer. Fragmenting the body of the labourer to the detached sound of a rifle firing imagines the execution of Babulal Bhuiya, a worker who was killed by Industrial Security Guards in Feb 1981. Director Manjira Datta weaves an empathetic narrative that is grounded in the perspectives of oppressed labourers who slave away in the coal washeries to eek out a living. Venturing into the make shift homes of those who knew Babulal, Datta uses direct to camera interviews that catalogues a workers socialist struggle resisting a system in which Babulal’s murder is just one of many labourers who have been slain over the years. As a historical document of the crimes perpetrated by the state, a woman vividly recounts her reaction upon seeing the dead body of Babulal: ‘His face was decomposed. It looked poisoned. It was completely black’. Resistance comes through organized protests and expressly folk music that critiques class, caste and the political status quo in general. What Datta captures so palpably is the deplorable living conditions. Living nearby the coal slurry, workers exist in a primitive state with no drinking water and face relentless intimidation from the bloodthirsty coal company, of which the police is a natural extension. Although Datta’s approach is observational, the sequences used to bridge interviews have a poetic characteristic that comes through the rhythmical editing. Produced by the Media Workshop (New Delhi) and in association with Channel Four, Manjira Datta’s observational documentary is a searing example of political activism that ties in with the urgent Marxist address of works like Jai Bhim Comrade and more recently Court.
Aravindan’s 1979 feature film Estheppan (Stephen) is a companion piece to Kummatty, also released in 1979. Estheppan, a mythical entity conjured by a Christian fishing village in Kerala, materialises magically in the contested narratives of the village folk. It is the restful Keralan coastline Aravindan turns to as a natural landscape from which Estheppan emerges. The intent here is a subjective treatment by the village folk who relay their own personal stories of Estheppan, and in the process constructing an episodic narrative that analyses religious mysticism as inherently paradoxical. Like Kummatty, Aravindan adopts a striking rhythmical tone, using strategies of ellipsis and delay to invoke a community in which Estheppan seems both disconnected and vital to its primordial existence. As the threadbare narrative unfolds, Estheppan is increasingly ridiculed in a series of satirical situations that recall the folk rituals that also characterise Kummatty. The flashbacks that recount the tales of Estheppan steadily construct an impression of someone with prophetic powers. And in one of the penultimate sequences Aravindan uses a series of haunting interconnecting shots that simply track Estheppan walking across the Keralan landscapes as someone not of this earth, a mystical guardian and soothsayer who transcends human comprehension. With the constant toiling of the church bell that rises up out of the soundtrack juxtaposed to the sounds of the waves lapping on the shores of the Keralan coastline, it is an aural motif that comes to define an inescapable sensuality at work in Aravindan’s poetic folk tale.
It might seem a little difficult to fathom that Parallel Cinema lasted for such a long time, covering four decades. That’s why it might be more appropriate in the respect of this lengthy time frame to posit Parallel Cinema as a certain approach to making films and not a film movement. This fifth and final phase pools together the least number of films and lasts for five years, although many of the major Parallel Cinema filmmakers were still active, albeit many had diversified into television, collaborating with Doordarshan to also make TV series. The cataclysmic events of Ayodhya and the demolition of the Babri Masjid, this historical and political rupture set in motion the ascension of Hindutva into the mainstream, legitimising the BJP’s political hegemony and altering the secularist cultural parameters of India.
In this perspective perhaps it is unsurprising that Parallel Cinema was to meet its demise especially when we recognise Parallel Cinema was predominately forged in both a secularist and radical Leftist context that was duly extinguished by a disturbing neo-nationalism that still prevails. Films like Mammo (94) and Naseem (95), counter representations of the Muslim family, were humanised rejoinders to the anti-Muslim rhetoric that had started to proliferate in the mainstream media. While Mammo would become the first of four films Benegal would direct that attempted to re-imagine Muslims in a three dimensional light, Saeed Mirza’s Naseem would effectively become his last film before his semi retirement and a work that seemed to mourn the loss of secularism in the iconic image of the ailing patriarch on his death bed.
This may have been the final phase of Parallel Cinema but with films like Shahani’s Kasba (90), Mishra’s Dharavi (91), Patwardhan’s Raam Ke Naam (92), Benegal’s Suraj Ka Satwan Ghoda (92) and Gopalakrishnan’s Kathapurushan (95) there certainly wasn’t a lack of creativity. But with the push for economic liberalization and the rise of a NRI oriented cinema, popular Hindi cinema re-formulated itself in the ubiquitous post millennial image of Bollywood, the emptiest signifier of them all; global, excessive, standardised, mechanical, apolitical. However, the NFDC has remained, plodding along, massaging the lost vestiges of state patronage. On the horizon, beyond Bollywood, a new independent cinema would soon be born, forged precariously out of the ashes of Parallel Cinema, obfuscating a glorious cinematic past for a neoliberal magniloquence.
A Film Canon: Parallel Cinema
Fifth and Final Phase (1990 – 1995)
Disha / The Uprooted Ones (Dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1990, Hindi)