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]

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.

Chidambaram (1985, Dir. Govindan Aravindan, India [Tamil])

When Shivagami (Smita Patil) arrives at a Mooraru government run farmhouse in Niligri as a newly wedded bride she is enamoured by the mountainous landscapes and in these fleeting moments of rapture Aravindan carves and crafts this awakening as a synchronic event that ties Shivagami to nature, an elemental conceptualization. Chidambaram is structured as a classical parable and morality tale on fragile masculinities with a latent critique of caste politics while retaining characteristic poetic refrains that define Aravindan’s rhythmical approach. It is a work that remains largely transcendentally tactile with bird song punctuating the soundtrack in an everlasting chorus of repose. Lensed by regular DOP Shaji N. Karun, the impressionistic photography imbues the film with a painterly texture, a classic Aravindan signature.   

In an early sequence, Shankaran (Gopi), a superintendent of the farm, invites Muniyandi (Srinivas), a lower caste labourer, to have an evening drink with him. Jacob, the bigoted farm supervisor, objects to the presence of Muniyandi, openly revealing his casteist prejudices. While Shankaran ignores Jacob’s hostile sentiments, Muniyandi seems to belittle himself when he spontaneously bursts into a song lamenting his enslavement to the master, a gesture that makes Shankaran uncomfortable, hinting at the complicated hypocrisies at work in the shredded mentality of the men. When Muniyandi gets married and requests an extended leave so he can consummate his new relationship, Jacob arrives prematurely at Muniyandi’s home and instructs him to return immediately while lecherously sizing up his new bride. Smita Patil typically underplays, exuding an intelligence and naivety that marks Shivagami as incorruptible.

It is Muniyandi and Shivagami’s lower caste status that makes them susceptible to an exploitation that incorporates Shankaran as the unlikely perpetrator, reiterating the ways in which casteism is systemic and omnipresent. The dynamics between Shivagami and Shankaran, which is framed as a friendship, is only hinted at briefly as something far more sexual, in a flashback insert when Shankaran wanders aimlessly in search of absolution for his transgression. Muniyandi’s realisation that someone has visited Shivagami when he is at work on night duty is depicted elliptically, Aravindan refusing to explicitly point out who it might be. For a lowly caste oppressed labourer like Muniyandi all that matters is his honour, which he is convinced resides in his sanctity of marriage and his wife. While it comes as a shock to discover that it is Shankaran who has strips away what little dignity Muniyandi has left, the wound of betrayal that is inflicted is a traumatic one, nightmarishly visualised in the dreaded image of Muniyandi swinging from a rope in the cow shed, having committed suicide in an insufferably tragic act of self-destruction.

The final third details the residual psychological deterioration of Shankaran who is consumed by the terrifying, debilitating guilt of his actions, which in turns leads him on a haphazard metaphysical journey for absolution. When Shankaran looks upon the dead body of poor Muniyandi he bolts through the forest in horror, trying desperately to block out the blinding dagger like rays of sunlight streaming through the trees and subsequently throwing himself into a pool of water, a symbolic gesture, so to cleanse himself of his misdeeds. The sacred, ancient Nataraja temple in Chidambaram is where an aging Shankaran retreats, coming face to face with Shivagami, a haunting mythological moment that arguably represents Shivagami as an ethereal yet tortured figure. Carrying with her the mark of violence left by her late husband, Shivagami’s supernatural appearance is arguably a projection of Shankaran’s painful imaginings trying in vain to reconcile with a past from which he cannot escape no matter how greatly he seeks exoneration.

Cheriyachante Kroora Krithyangal / The Evil Deeds of Cherian (Dir. John Abraham, 1979, India [Malayalam]

Cheriyachan (Adoor Bhasi), a benign yet God fearing landlord in Kuttand, Kerala is unable to comprehend the systemic political changes taking place around him. The peasant workers and farmers have had enough of a feudal power structure that exploits them while enabling landlords like Cheriyachan to rule with impunity, a historical practice that has gone unchallenged for hundreds of years. An orthodox social, economic, political, historical and cultural order is disintegrating before the very eyes of Cheriyachan and he simply does not know how to react to such changes other than retreat into a kind of anxious stupor that gradually consumes him.

Director John Abraham’s political satire, teeming with lyricism, is one of his most underseen works (briefly released in 1981) and reminds us of the significance of satire as a mode of address that was popular with many Parallel Cinema filmmakers, a rich sub-genre that led to some of the most corrosive deconstructions of hegemonic power structures such as caste, colonialism and patriarchy. This sub-genre includes films like Bhuvan Shome (1969), Bhavni Bhavai (1980), Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983), Hun Hunshi Hunshilal (1992) to name a few. Abraham’s third feature feature is part of a loose trilogy of political fables, beginning in 1977 with Agratharathil Kazhuthai and culminating in his masterpiece Amma Ariyan in 1987.

Essentially a study of guilt that hinges on Bhasi’s droll and virtually silent performance as Cheriyachan, Abraham’s satire dispenses with narrative inclinations and is shaped as an elliptical stream of consciousness. Cheriyachan’s increasingly anxious view of the world is visualised through a series of dream sequences that relates a nightmarish guilt ridden fear of the peasant worker rising up in a perpetual and relentless chorus of insurrection. The alignment between the petit bourgeoise and the capitalists is just one aspect of resistance to political revolution Abraham deals with, suggesting how the ruling elite like Cheriyachan legitimise this union in their inability to sympathise with the plight of the oppressed workers.

Choosing to deal with peasant insurgency through the eyes of a landlord complicates the revolutionary politics at stake since the unexpected humanization creates a tension in the viewer. Moreover, reducing Cheriyachan to a child gives the work an absurdist, even nonsensical quality. As Cheriyachan’s wife becomes increasingly concerned by her husband’s erratic behaviour, his brief departure to get medical treatment is short lived and suggests that any kind of intervention including religion cannot overcome and stop the forces of historical change. In this respect, Abraham’s approach to feudalism is a novel one since converging on the psychological rather than the political makes for a work that is cerebral, allegorical and burlesque at times. The psychological disintegration of Cheriyachan with the roving hand-held camerawork pushing up against faces, distorting the frame and resorting to nightmarish inserts evokes the work of Polanski 1960’s work expressly Repulsion.

The politics of Naxalism is ever present throughout, reminding us of Naxalism’s widespread impact outside of West Bengal. Montages detail the peasant farmers mobilizing to tear down feudalism while the atrocities of workers who are killed during the harvest and their bodies thrown into the sea come back to haunt Cheriyachan, resurrected in his dreams. In one explicit reference to Naxalism, Cheriyachan listens to workers read out a news story that tells of a landlord who was killed by peasant farmers in act of insurrection, with direct mention of the act being instigated by Naxalites. It only seems logical that Abraham resorts to yet more satire in the Cheriyachan’s literal fall from grace when he ascends a coconut tree and refuses to come down as the village looks on in astonishment, completing a totalizing public humiliation of the figure of the landlord, a constant motif and archetype in Indian cinema who comes to symbolise the fulcrum of a colonial feudal system that was continually under attack in the critical vestiges of Parallel Cinema.