Annie is the nickname of Anand Grover, a laidback and idealistic student training to be an architect and who also happens to have a chicken living in his dorm that lays eggs. This is one of many idiosyncratic characters that we encounter. In which Annie gives it those ones, contender for the quirkiest film title ever conceived, has taken on a mythical status amongst Parallel Cinema aficionados, a cult film from the late 1980s partially funded by Doordarshan. Legend has it the film only survives on existing video copies circulating through subterranean channels, allusiveness that adds to the mystique and cult status, along with SRK’s first screen role as a stoner.
Set in the 1970s and with a script by Arundhati Roy and who also stars in the film, it was the second of only two feature length collaborations between Roy and director Pradip Krishen. Roy’s script is very personal, a semi autobiographical take on the counter culture experiences of her time at the School of Planning and Architecture in Delhi, a benign institution symbolised in the character of Yamdoot Bilmoria (the brilliant Roshan Seth), a Head of Department who is lofty and disingenuous towards his students, and a remnant of colonial power and pretentious etiquettes. Adopting an episodic structure, the rapport amongst the students is wonderfully brought to life with Roy and Krishen choosing to present the dorms as an extended hippy commune with pot smoking loafers who embrace the joys of youthful cynicism, sticking up two fingers at the establishment.
Roy takes up the role of Radha, a young trainee architect who has the most scathing political voice, attempting to critique the ideological usage of space in urban planning and what this heralds for the citizen. But Yamdoot effectively censures Radha. Later when Radha gets the chance to polemicize as part of the final exam, Yamdoot and his panel of all male professors are more interested in the dinner menu than affording her the chance to speak her mind. An underlining theme that steadily gains momentum is the farcical nature of civil and government institutions that largely promote conformity and discourage dissent but it is exactly this speaking out against the prevailing powers that be which has made Roy such a significant political activist and voice in India.
Punctuated with covers of The Beatles, an eclectic ensemble cast and end titles that seem to recall American Graffiti (1973), this is a cult film that occupies the similarly eccentric comedic terrain of Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). Together, they make the perfect double bill.
The story of Daasi takes place in 1925 colonial India when the region of Telengana was under the rule of the Nizam. The powerful and vicious landlord who reigns over the small village is Jayasimha Rao (Bhoopal Reddy). One of the significant aspects of Parallel Cinema was the resistance it brought to dominant narratives, disrupting traditional gender paradigms that had become established over time; carving out new spaces for women and female subaltern agency that Indian cinema had not seen before. Films like Maya Darpan (1972), Ankur (1973), Umbartha (1981) and Daasi (1988) constitute a kind of unconscious resistance that was working collectively to redress the gender disparity, although much of this has to be approached cautiously considering many of the films were directed by men and therefore one could argue these films tend to replicate a dominant point of view they are supposedly trying to disrupt.
Nonetheless, Telugu director B. Narsing Rao’s story about female enslavement feels like the flipside of Benegal’s Ankur since it takes an altogether oppositional aesthetic approach to the archetypal Parallel Cinema theme of feudalism, opting for a measured and sparse approach that is effectively a character study of Daasi (Archana), an impoverished, lower caste woman sold into bondage for twenty rupees when she was a young girl. Daasi is confined to the mansion and sexually exploited by the landlord. Rao seems particularly interested in exhibiting the drudgery of Daasi’s daily chores and which steadily take on a ritualised status. Apurba Kishore Bir’s camerawork that glides across the courtyard of the mansion not only extenuates the claustrophobia and imprisonment experienced by Daasi but also illuminates the spaces of the mansion with a wonderful texture through the shards of light, unusual reflections and doorways.
The terrifying scream that rings out at the end, that of Daasi who is being forced to abort the child of the landlord, is marked by emptiness and pain that seems to become swallowed up by history, remaining suppressed in the past, a scream that we would rather not confront. It is a scream of exploitation, bondage and the beleaguered masses that relates the inequities of power that Parallel Cinema was able to articulate consistently in many films. Released in 1988, Daasi won five national film awards and is considered to be one of Rao’s best films.
Born in Kerala in 1933, M.T. Vasudevan Nair is one of India’s most prolific literary voices. Nair is also seen as a key figure in the development of Malayalam art cinema, having written over fifty screenplays and directed a number of influential films. Nirmalayam (The Offering), Nair’s directorial debut, was made at a time when the Parallel Cinema movement was entering the final years of the creative first phase (68 – 75).
The story explores the anxieties of a village oracle, a man of faded glories and religious servitude who fails to recognise and accept to what extent his family cope with an abject poverty that he cultivates. Parallel Cinema was often characterised by the ideological capacity to directly critique and deconstruct orthodoxy and which appeared in many guises. In this case, it is religious orthodoxy. Since very few people in the village go to the temple anymore to give offerings, the oracle is forced to beg for food. In one sequence, the oracle, exploiting his status as a religious figure that everyone respects, visits the homes of local people for rice. However, when a women rebuffs the oracle for begging, it is just one of many humiliating scenarios that marks the decline of faith in the village and ridicules his position.
The film opens with a montage of quick edits venerating the image of the Mother Goddess followed by a short sequence in which the oracle performs a ritualised Chenda dance in the temple. Nair imbues the oracle’s extended religiosity as a feverish performance, a true devotee. The ritualised dance is made altogether potent with the iconography of the ceremonial sword wielded by the oracle in a brazen style and that draws blood. But as soon as the ritualised dance is over, we learn about the dearth of offerings and how the people of the village have stopped visiting the temple. The priest who has been appointed to serve at the temple announces he is leaving, arguing a dwindling lack of revenue cannot sustain him a livelihood in the village anymore. Unlike the priest who abandons the temple, the oracle is dead set in his ways, dismissing the warnings of his wife that they are barely surviving. Later, a new priest arrives, an educated young man, who seduces the oracle’s daughter, Ammini, but only to leave abruptly to get married. Appu, the son of the oracle, also leaves the village, completely disillusioned with the family’s impoverished state. Even the feudal landowner who lords over the village pokes fun at the redundancy of religious rituals, ceremonies and processes that can no longer be sustained in the face of modernity.
But what makes Nirmalayam a daring work is the ending, a radical tour de force of expressionist imagery and religious symbolism. Upon discovering his wife has been sleeping with a Muslim shopkeeper from whom he has borrowed some money and which he has no way of paying back, the oracle who is set to perform a ritual dance at a major ceremony in the village unleashes his rage at the Mother Goddess whom he has served with such unswerving dignity. In the closing moments when he is in the temple, the oracle spits blood at the Mother Goddess, a defiant gesture that he also realises will curse and condemn him. But Nair frames this defiant gesture as something instinctive, necessary, and a source of expiation, carrying with it a vehemently anti-religious coda that is inherently radical in the way modernity and change devours all that stands in its path. P. J. Anthony is remarkable in the main lead of the village oracle. Nirmalayam is a rich and subversive work.
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)
Aakrosh/Cry of the Wounded, dir. Govind Nihalani, 1980, Hindi
Akaler Sandhaney/In Search of Famine, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1980, Bengali
Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyon Aata Hai/What Makes Albert Pinto Angry, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1980, Hindi
Bara/The Famine, dir. M.S. Sathya, 1980, Kannada/Hindi
Bhavni Bhavai/A Folk Tale, dir. Ketan Mehta, 1980, Gujarati/Hindi
Chakra/Vicious Circle, dir. Rabindra Dharmaraj, 1980, Hindi
Chann Pardesi, dir. Chitrarath Singh, 1980, Punjabi
Hum Paanch, dir. Bapu, 1980, Hindi
Kalyug/The Machine Age, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1980, Hindi
Kolangal/Caricatures, dir. K.G. George, 1980, Malayalam
Satah Se Uthata Admi/Arising from the Surface, dir. Mani Kaul, 1980, Hindi
Adharshilla/The Foundation Stone, dir. Ashok Ahuja, 1981, Hindi
Chaalchitra/The Kaleidoscope, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1981, Bengali
Chashme Budoor/Shield Against the Evil Eye, dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1981, Hindi
Dakhal/The Occupation, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1981, Bengali
Elippathyam/The Rat Trap, dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1981, Malayalam
Pokkuveyil/Twilight, dir. G. Aravindan, 1981, Malayalam
Sadgati/Deliverance, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1981, Hindi
Thanneer Thanneer/Water Water, dir. K. Balachander, 1981, Tamil
36 Chowringhee Lane, dir. Aparna Sen, 1981, English
Umbartha/Dawn, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1981, Marathi/Hindi
Umrao Jaan, dir. Muzaffar Ali, 1981, Urdu
Aarohan/The Ascent, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1982, Hindi
Aparoopa, dir. Jahnu Barua, 1982, Assemese/Hindi
Chokh/The Eyes, dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1982, Bengali
Dhrupad, dir. Mani Kaul, 1982, Hindi
Grihadjuddha/Crossroads, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1982, Bengali
Kharij/The Case is Closed, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1982, Bengali
Katha/The Tale, dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1982, Hindi
Adi Shankaracharya/The Philosopher, dir. G.V. Iyer, 1983, Sanskrit
Ardh Satya/The Half-truth, dir. Govind Nihalani, 1983, Hindi
Godam/Warehouse, dir. Dilip Chitre, 1983, Hindi
Holi/Festival of Fire, dir. Ketan Mehta, 1983, Hindi
Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron/Who Pays the Piper, dir. Kundan Shah, 1983, Hindi
Khandhar/The Runs, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1983, Bengali
Mandi/The Marketplace, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1983, Hindi
Maya Mriga/The Mirage, dir. Nirad N. Mahapatra, 1983, Oriya
Smritichitre/Memory Episodes, dir. Vijaya Mehta, 1983, Marathi
Andhi Gali/Blind Alley, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1984, Hindi
Damul/Bonded Until Death, dir. Prakash Jha, 1984, Hindi
Ghare Baire/Home and the World, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1984, Bengali
Mati Manas/Mind of Clay, dir. Mani Kaul, 1984, Hindi
Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!/A Summons for Mohan Joshi, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1984, Hindi
Mukha Mukham/Face to Face, dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1984, Malayalam
Party, dir. Govind Nihalani, 1984, Hindi
Paar/The Crossing, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1984, Hindi
Tarang/Wages and Profit, dir. Kumar Shahani, 1984, Hindi
Utsav/The Festival, dir. Girish Karnad, 1984, Hindi
Chidambaram, dir. G. Aravindan, 1985, Malayalam
Debshishu/The Child God, dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1985, Hindi
Hamara Shaher/Bombay Our City, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1985, Hindi/Tamil/English/Marathi
Mirch Masala/Spices, dir. Ketan Mehta, 1985, Hindi
New Delhi Times, dir. Ramesh Sharma, 1985, Hindi
Parama, dir. Aparna Sen, 1985, Bengali/Hindi
Amma Ariyan/Report to Mother, dir. John Abraham, 1986, Malayalam
Genesis, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1986, Hindi
Massey Sahib, dir. Pradip Krishen, 1986, Hindi
Oridatha/Somewhere, dir. G. Aravindan, 1986, Malayalam
Panchagni, dir. T. Hariharan, 1986, Malayalam
Papori, dir. Jahnu Barua, 1986, Assamese
Phera/Return, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1986, Bengali
Susman/The Essence, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1986, Hindi
Tabarana Kathe, dir. Tabara’s Tale, 1986, Kannada
Anantaram/Monologue, dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1987, Malayalam
Antarjali Jatra/The Voyage Beyond, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1987, Bengali/Hindi
Pestonjee, dir. Vijaya Mehta, 1987, Hindi
Tamas/Darkness, dir. Govind Nihalani, 1987, Hindi
Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly One Day, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1988, Hindi
Khayal Gatha/Khayal Saga, dir. Kumar Shahani, 1988, Hindi
Marattam/Masquerade, dir. G. Aravindan, 1988, Malayalam
Om Dar-B-Dar, dir. Kamal Swaroop, 1988, Hindi
Bagh Bahadur, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1989, Hindi
Banani/The Forest, dir. Jahnu Barua, 1989, Assamese
Ganashatru/An Enemy of the People, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1989, Bengali
Kaal Abhirati/Time Addiction, dir. Amitabh Chakraborty, 1989, Bengali
Ek Ghar, dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1989, Hindi/Kannada
Marhi Da Deeva/The Lamp of the Top, dir. Surinder Singh, 1989, Punjabi/Hindi
Mathilukal/The Walls, dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1989, Malayalam
Nazar/The Gaze, dir. Mani Kaul, 1989, Hindi
Percy, dir. Pervez Mehrwanji, 1989, Gujarati
Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro/Don’t Cry for Salim the Lane, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1989, Hindi
Sati, dir. Aparna Sen, 1989, Bengali
Siddheshwari, dir. Mani Kaul, 1989, Hindi
Una Mitterandi Yaad Pyari/In Memory of Friends, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1989, Punjabi/Hindi/English
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