Chalchitra / Kaleidoscope (1981, Dir. Mrinal Sen, India)

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This semi-comical snapshot of the middle class Bengali experience in Kolkata is apparently a minor work in Sen’s oeuvre. The story is slight; a young Bengali man Dipu (Anjan Dutta) aspires to be a journalist and as a sort of test of creativity, the editor of a newspaper (Utpal Dutta) asks Dipu to write a story based on his own middle class experiences. The story of Dipu trying to write is merely a pretext for Sen to remain connected with the urban landscape of Kolkata, a return to the richness of the city spaces, last probed with such pleasure since his Kolkata Trilogy. The socio-political urgency of Sen’s cinema after the aesthetic and thematic experiments of The Kolkata Trilogy never really went away from his work – he remained just as connected with the social milieu of the city. For instance, the uninhibited camera roaming freely through the fish market recalls Interview (70) when Ranjit meets his uncle, the first of many self-referential instances. Later, when Dipu tries to flag down a taxi in the bustling streets of Kolkata, Sen adopts an erratic editing style, articulating a blinding disorientation reminiscent of the street cinema of The Kolkata Trilogy, in which characters are liberated and imprisoned by the city in a scarring psychological duality.

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The Dream Sequence.

There is probably a consensus that Sen made two trilogies. The Kolkata Trilogy (1970 – 1973; Interview, Calcutta 71 and Padatik – although you could probably argue for Chorus too, which was released in 1974), and The Absence Trilogy (Ek Din Pratidin/And Quite Rolls The Dawn – 1979, Kharij/The Case Is Closed – 1982 and Ek Din Achanak/Suddenly, One Day – 1989).  I would argue Chalchitra is part of another trilogy, although much looser, but nonetheless important, which also includes Akaler Shandhaney/In Search of Famine (1980) and Khandahar/The Ruins (1983). The abiding theme in this trilogy is concerned with the media apparatus (film crew, photographer, journalist) and the role of the middle class in terms of mediating the politics of representation, exploitation and the gaze. In Chalchitra, Dipu’s urge to sensationalise the mundanity of the middle class experience constantly backfires on him because numerous opportunities for journalistic fodder are met with resistance from the people he encounters notably his mother (Geeta Dutt). It is only when a little boy poses the banal question: ‘How many ovens are there in Kolkata?’ does Dipu finally finds something to write about – pollution, smoke and coal. But this degree of obscurity points to something elemental about the middle class mentality and which results in Utpal Dutta enquiring if Dipu is a communist, a question first posed in Ray’s Pratidwandi (1970), and which seemingly never went away from the psyche of the older generation of Kolkata. Chalchitra features an elaborately staged but very comical dream sequence, clearly a manifestation of Dipu’s jumbled, anxious mind, and which features microcosmic imagery of smoke, women, the police and the press. There is a danger of dismissing Chalchitra as a minor, insubstantial work. However, once situated as part of a loose trilogy, the film takes on an added resonance and deserves a further look.

Canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema – Part 3: The Transitional Years (1978 – 1979)

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Smita Patil in Gaman (1978).

This Third phase marked the transitioning of Parallel Cinema into perhaps the high point of creativity. During the Emergency, the FFC criteria was re-written in 1976, whereby avant-garde pursuits were discouraged and ‘Indianness’ promoted. Perhaps it would be absurd to say this was the beginning of the end but risk, adventure and experimentation would be curtailed. Some of this about turn was at the behest of Satyajit Ray and the apparent failure of films in the developmental phase to turn a profit, which in fact was not the case at all. The real failure had been with the FFC to invest in a viable distribution and exhibition network to fully support the access of Parallel Cinema for a specialist film audience. By the time we reach the end of the 1970s, popular Hindi cinema was on the ascendancy again with the multi starrer. Although many of the newly established filmmakers of the early years of Parallel Cinema continued to make films, the time frame of 1978 to 1979, hardly two years, is the shortest of the phases that I have mapped since it was a period of transition structurally for the FFC. However, since the centre had been smashed, it was the South that seemed to take up the aesthetic and thematic challenges.

Notable also in this period is the continuing emergence of Malayalam Parallel Cinema predominately in the form of John Abraham and Govindan Aravindan. We also start to see a second cycle of Naxalite films that begin to look back at this polarizing historical moment from a critical distance, if not romantic, including a contribution from K. A. Abbas in 1979 with The Naxalites, a work that only seems to exist in a poor VHS transfer on YouTube. More importantly, one can also begin to see the impact of Shyam Benegal on films like Muzaffar Ali’s Gaman (1978) and Sai Paranjpye’s Sparsh (1979). Indeed, Benegal and Shashi Kapoor’s collaboration seemed to consolidate the path forged by Middle Cinema, pointing to the varied attempts to incorporate and fuse the socio-political aspects of Parallel Cinema with more palatable, mainstream narrative storytelling idioms – as evidenced in Junoon (1978). Relatedly, the ensemble of actors who had first worked with Benegal on his early films, notably Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patil begin to branch outwards, appearing in more mainstream projects. It is Smita Patil who arguably becomes the ‘face’ of Parallel Cinema, a major discovery, working prolifically and starring in half a dozen new films. Quite telling also is that in this period Sen turns his back on earlier agit-prop political experiments and begins to find a totally new style, leading to perhaps his first truly accomplished work – Ek Din Pratidin (1979) and the first in Sen’s Absence trilogy. The other filmmaker to mention is Saeed Akhtar Mirza who debuted in 1976 with Arvind Desai, his first full length feature, and who would go on to make some of the most important Parallel Cinema films of the 1980s.

Third Phase: Transitional Years (78-79)

79. Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan/The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai, dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1978, Hindi
80. Dooratwa/Distance, dir. Buddadhev Dasgupta, 1978, Bengali
81. Gaman/Going, dir. Muzaffar Ali, 1978, Hindi
82. Grahana/The Eclipse, dir. T.S. Nagabharana, 1978, Kannada
83. Junoon/The Obsession, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1978, Hindi
84. Ondanondu Kaladalli, dir. Girish Karnad, 1978, Kannada
85. Parashuram/The Man with the Axe, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1978, Bengali
86. Pranam Khareedu, dir. Vasu, 1978, Telugu
87. Prisoners of Conscience, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1978, English/Hindi
88. Sarvasakshi/The Omniscient, dir. Ramdas Phutane, 1978, Marathi
89. Thampu/The Circus Tent, dir. G. Aravindan, 1978, Malayalam
90. Avalude Ravukal, dir. V. Sasi, 1978, Malayalam
91. Yaro Oral/Someone Unknown, dir. V.K. Pavithran, 1978, Malayalam
92. Cheriyachente Kroora Krithyangal, dir. John Abraham, 1979, Malayalam
93. Ek Din Pratidin/And Quiet Rolls the Day, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1979, Bengali
94. Estheppan/Stephen, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
95. Kummatty/The Bogeyman, dir. G. Aravindan, 1979, Malayalam
96. Maabhoomi/Our Land, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1979, Telugu
97. The Naxalities, dir. K.A. Abbas, 1979, Hindi
98. Neem Annapurna/Bitter Morsel, dir. Buddhadev Dasgupta, 1979, Bengali
99. Sinhasan/The Throne, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1979, Marathi
100. Sparsh/The Touch, dir. Sai Paranjpye, 1979, Hindi

GALIGE (Dir. M. S. Sathyu, 1995, India)

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I recently caught Galige (1995) lurking in the library of Amazon’s Indian film channel Heera. Many of the key titles first made available by the NFDC on DVD through the Cinemas of India label can be found in the library. Most of the films have subtitles and claim to have been restored, which judging by some of the films I have seen, either the original negative must be in a sorry state or the term restoration has been somewhat inflated. Galige, directed by M. S. Sathyu, released in 1995, returns to the topic of secularism (Garam Hawa, 1973) but this time through the perspective of two youth; an orphaned girl who does not believe in religion or caste and a young Sikh boy who is on the run after committing an act of terrorism in the name of religion. Since they have both seen the ways in which religion separates rather than unites brings them closer together, creating a striking and refreshing socialist worldview. It might be reasonable to include Galige as part of a cycle of films released in the mid nineties, including Naseem (95) and Mammo (94) that dealt with the politics of secularism at a critical historical juncture, broadly signalling the end of Parallel Cinema.

Galige does not have an entry in The Encyclopaedia of Indian Cinema and I had problems finding information and reviews on the film which makes me wonder why and how so many of these films have made it to DVD and now on digital platforms without any context whatsoever. Although making a title accessible to film audiences is a major step in the right direction, especially for Parallel Cinema, the dearth of basic contextual information in the shape of reviews, interviews and analysis is unsurprising in the broader picture of Indian film titles shabbily making their way onto home video. Not all of the films warrant context but there is a critical historical dimension to Galige, namely the Khalistan movement, which demanded elucidation and has rarely been depicted on screen, perhaps in the shape of a booklet or companion video of some kind. In all, the Cinemas of India label is a missed opportunity in terms of bringing to life one of the most significant and prolific film movements of the last fifty years. I guess we should be grateful the NFDC didn’t watermark all their films!

Canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema – Part 2: The Emergency (1975 – 1977)

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Ghashiram Kotwal

This is part two in a series of five posts on canonizing Indian Parallel Cinema. Part one was published in January 2017.

The Emergency, an extended period of state repression and censorship, is one of the darkest times in India’s recent history. The foundational years of Parallel Cinema, where some thought it was possible to create an alternate non-commercial cinema, ended chaotically in 1975 when Indira Gandhi, foreseeing her dwindling grip on power, replaced information and broadcasting minister Inder Kumar Gujral overnight with V. C. Shukla. This was because Doordarshan had not given live coverage to an Indira Gandhi rally (Hashmi, 2013). Shukla’s dictatorial reign as minister of information and broadcasting was marked by notoriety, bullying film stars and coercing directors in a period of intense repression. (See Decline and Fall of Indira Gandhi, D.R. Manekar, 2014). No films were financed by the FFC in this period, indicative of the severity of state repression, albeit new and important voices still emerged including John Abraham and Anand Patwardhan.

When ‘In September 1975 V.C. Shukla informed Karanjia that the Board of the FFC would be reconstituted and a new policy framed’ (Vasudev, 1986: 158), it was based on the findings of the Committee on Public Undertakings (1975-1976). Shukla had falsely skewed the facts about the loans, which had been given out by the FFC, thus implicating Karanjia publicly. After a meeting with Indira Gandhi in an attempt to resolve the differences with Shukla, Karanjia and many of his colleagues would later resign in protest, bringing to an end the first wave of Parallel Cinema. In 1987 Karanjia would return to the FFC (later the NFDC), taking up the post of Chairman for a second time. In many ways Karanjia was the perfect candidate for the job, having been editor of Filmfare, he was perfectly placed to navigate between commercial and non-commercial cinema. Also, if one looks at the first phase, Karanjia’s reign was impressive to say the least.

In many ways, Indira Gandhi’s declaration of the Emergency has been interpreted as a last ditch attempt to hold onto the hegemonic idea of a developmental state but historian and cultural commentator Vivek Chibber poses the question: ‘Why did Indian political leaders and bureaucrats fail to build the institutions adequate to the task?’ (Chibber, 2003: 7). If film organisations and funding bodies established by the state, namely the FFC, the FTII, and the International Film Festival of India are institutions we can include in this paradigm then this is certainly a charge that can brought against the economic and industrial inadequacies of the state, which by 1975 had been repeatedly undermined by the capital class of the Indian film industry. As Chibber states: ‘The evidence for Indian capital’s resistance to state regulation and discipline, which is at the heart of any industrial policy, is overwhelming’ (Chibber, 2003: 224). Naturally, the issue of industry status, raised as early as 1955, that would take decades before it came to fruition, can be accounted for in terms of the deeper antagonistic cultural and patronage contest that had become entrenched in the national psyche by the late 1960s. In fact, Veena Nargal claims ‘the Bombay industry responded to the FFC program with an increasingly standardized “hold-all” entertainment formula’ (Nargal, 2004: 522), popularly known as the Masala film, which was ultimately able to communicate with a broad Indian audience.

Perhaps the most audacious moment of this second phase was the boldly experimental, collaborative work Ghashiram Kotwal (dir. K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Kamap Swaroop, Saeed Mirza, 1976), a film about the Emergency which saw the daring marriage of blackboard political cinema and the austere avant-garde sensibilities first nurtured in the foundational years by the cinema of Kaul and Shahani. This phase also produced perhaps Benegal’s finest work, Manthan (1976)yet another film cooperative venture in the vein of Ghashiram (Yukt) and Abraham’s dazzling Agraharathil Kazhuthai (1977, Odessa). Significant in this phase is that many of the films and the best ones came from beyond the Hindi centre, regional cinema particularly in the form of Malayalam, much of it starkly political, continued to wield an iconoclastic agenda that took on many prevailing social maladies such as feudalism and broadening the intellectual and aesthetic scope of Parallel Cinema.

 Second Phase: The Emergency (75 – 77)

47. Aandhi, dir. Gulzar, 1975, Hindi
48. Kabani Nadi Chuvannapool/When the Kabani River Turned Red, dir. P.A. Backer, 1975, Malayalam
49. Chhotisi Baat/Little Affair, dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1975, Hindi
50. Chomana Dudi/Choma’s Drum, dir. B.V. Karanth, 1975, Kannada
51. Ganga Chiloner Pankhi, dir. Padum Barua, 1975, Assamese
52. Hamsa Geethe/The Swan Song, dir. G.V. Iyer, 1975, Kannada
53. Jana Aranya/The Middleman, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1975, Bengali
54. Nishant/Night’s End, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1975, Hindi
55. Avasesh, dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1975, Kannada
56. Samna/Confrontation, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1975, Marathi
57. Waves of Revolution, dir. Anand Patwardhan, 1975, English
58. Bhumika/The Role, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1976, Hindi
59. Ghashiram Kotwal, dir. K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Kamap Swaroop, Saeed Mirza, 1976, Marathi
60. Hungry Autumn, dir. Gautam Ghose, 1976, English
61. Manthan/The Churning, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1976, Hindi
62. Mrigaya/The Royal Hunt, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1976, Hindi
63. Pallavi, dir. P. Lankesh, 1976, Kannada
64. Chitrakathi, dir. Mani Kaul, 1976, Hindi
65. Bonga, dir. Kundan Shah, 1976, Hindi
66. Agraharathil Kazhuthai/Donkey in a Brahmin Village, dir. John Abraham, 1977, Tamil
67. Ghattashraddha/The Ritual, dir. Girish Kasaravalli, 1977, Kannada
68. Kanchana Seeta/Golden Seeta, dir. G. Aravindan, 1977, Malayalam
69. Manimuzhakkam/Tolling of the Bell, dir. P.A. Backer, 1977, Malayalam
70. Kodiyettam/The Ascent, dir. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, 1977, Malayalam
71. Kondura/The Boom, dir. Shyam Benegal, 1977, Hindi/Telegu
72. Oka Oorie Katha/The Outsiders, dir. Mrinal Sen, 1977, Telugu
73. Shatranj Ke Khiladi/The Chess Players, dir. Satyajit Ray, 1977, Urdu
74. Swami, dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1977, Hindi
75. Alaap, dir. Hrishkesh Mukherjee, 1977, Hindi
76. Jait Re Jait, dir. Jabbar Patel, 1977, Marathi
77. Chaani, dir. V. Shantaram, 1977, Marathi
78. Khatta Meetha, dir. Basu Chatterjee, 1977, Hindi

Bibliography

Chibber, V. (2003), Locked in place: state building and capitalist industrialization in India: 1940 – 1970, Woodstock: Princeton University Press

Mankekar, D. R., (2014), Decline and fall of Indira Gandhi, New Delhi: Vision Books

Vasudev, A. (1986) The New Indian Cinema, New Delhi: Macmillan India

Nargal, V. ‘Bollywood and Indian Cinema: Changing Contexts and Articulations of National Cultural Desire’ in Downing, D. H., (ed.) (2004) The Sage Handbook of Media Studies, London; Sage