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

SALIM LANGDE PE MAT RO / Don’t Cry for Salim the Lame (Dir. Saeed Akhtar Mirza, 1989, India)

Kutte Ki Maut…’ (A Dog’s Death)

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Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro is one of Mirza’s most respective films, exploring his own identity as an Indian Muslim. In terms of research, Mirza spent time in the deprived milieu of Bombay, interviewing many hoodlums and rogues, all of which explicate a marked authenticity in the final film. This is a film about the street, and is dedicated to influential street theatre activist and Marxist-communist Safdar Hashmi, murdered in Jan 1989 by Congress thugs. Whereas both Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro and Naseem (1995) can certainly be inferred as a rejoinder to the upsurge of Hindu fundamentalism, consolidating tragically in the mid 1990s with the Babri Masjid demolition, the pseudo documentary style makes the representation of the Muslim community altogether exceptional in contrast to the largely deleterious representations perpetuated by mainstream Hindi cinema. But this is a film not solely about the Indian Muslim experience; Mirza uses this doctrinally sensitive issue to explicate a deeper political fragmentation, the perpetual displacement of an Indian underclass. It is significant to note that Mirza has said the 1984 Bhiwandi riots are a catalyst for the both the anti-Muslim sentiments portrayed in the film and the emerging communal politics of the late 1980s that was being shaped by the rapid ascent of Hindutva violence.

The central character in Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro plays up to the archetype of the streetwise, narcissistic rogue and impish Tapoori but is complexly drawn, emerging as a deeply contradictory figure with a profoundly despairing point of view. Salim, played with a riotously anarchic streak by Pawan Malhotra, terribly underrated as an actor, in a breakthrough role, performs the role of a wannabe local hoodlum. Mirza’s sense of milieu is devoid of any kind of cinematic romanticism and the decision to shoot in the working class district of Mumbai foregrounds the iconography of the street to take on a wider symbol of class struggle. There were a number of films made in the late 1980s and early 1990s including Dharavi (1992) and Salaam Bombay! (1988), that architecturally broadened the dynamics of the Bombay filmic space, reconfiguring the passé spatial figurations of classic Hindi cinema. The urban slum often displaced from cinema is re-centred as a form of ideological inquiry in Mirza’s Bombay. The street as a communal place, explicating a complicated bind of ethnic, religious and caste differences was first explored by Mirza and Kundan Shah in Nukkad, the seminal Doordarshan TV series, and is a key spatial and thematic feature in the film.

The call for tolerance, understanding and religious harmony is advocated strongly through the sequence in which an activist/filmmaker, a clear reference to Anand Patwardhan, screens a documentary in the basti on the aftermath of the Bhiwandi (narrated by Naseeruddin Shah) riots and the political realities of communalism. It is a sobering political sequence in the history of Parallel Cinema, pedagogically articulated and with a didactic clarity of which an authorial political protestation links Mirza’s work with Hamara Shahar (1985) and Kya Hua Is Shehar Ko? (1986). Ethnic violence was quite high at the time of the film’s release and with the cataclysmic events of Ayodhya only a few years away, the politics of nationalism that lurk sinisterly in the background seem to make a direct ideological correlation between Salim’s poverty and the endemic religious hatred propagated by the state. Salim does choose to reform at the end, taking up a legitimate job and arranging his sister’s wedding, but his death that comes at the hands of an old enemy bleakly suggests the Muslim community in Bombay exists precociously on the precipice of life and death. The sense of loss in Mirza’s film registers palpably but it is allusively denoted, creating an indescribably wretched dissonance.

Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro will be screening on Zee Classic: Sat 30 July at 10pm

GHASHIRAM KOTWAL (Dir. K. Hariharan, Mani Kaul, Kamal Swaroop, Saeed Mirza, 1976, India) – Experiments in Time & Space

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Watching Ghashiram Kotwal is equivalent to a punch in the face, cinematically speaking of course, since here is a film, a belligerent work in terms of parallel cinema, antithetical to Indian Cinema. It was a film all but forgotten, salvaged from the Berlin film archive, and restored. Yet again preservation intervened in the historiography of Indian Cinema, revising the past. Ghashiram Kotwal seems like a seminal work now, a crossroads in terms of ideological and aesthetic experimentation, arriving at the peak of the parallel cinema art film movement in 1976. Although the FFC had nothing to do with Ghashiram Kotwal in terms of funding, a natural project to support really, they did help to put in place the necessary conditions for such an experimental film to be realized by a group of emboldened, agit-prop filmmakers coming out of the film institute in Pune. In many ways, Ghashiram Kotwal may not have been possible without Bhuvan Shome or more significantly Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti. The critical success of both films, part of the New Cinema Movement (NCM), and the work of the Film Divisions of India, commissioning experimental shorts facilitated an age of iconoclastic esotericism. The rules of Indian Cinema were being broken, re-written and assimilated with the influences of European cinema, chiefly the long take cinema of Hungarian Miklos Jancso, into a counter cinema that for a brief moment proposed conventions could be subverted to enunciate existing social and political torments.

Ghashiram Kotwal is a difficult film to position and would in some respects fall into the parallel cinema category. However, it is more evidently a radical work that has no ambitions to occupy a middle ground. Experiments in formalism came most boldly from Kaul in the 1970s and his involvement with Ghashiram Kotwal was critical for the film finding both financing and an aesthetic unity. The Yukt film cooperative only made two films; Ghashiram Kotwal and later Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastan (although this is clearly a parallel cinema film), Saeed Akhtar Mirza’s directorial debut, released in 1978. Yukt (which means strength) was merely an isolated group and the cooperative, made up of 16 members including co-director K. Hariharan and actor Om Puri, rose financing for the project through a bank manager contact of Kaul. Such creative freedom instinctively meant as a collective they could take risks. Hariharan says that Kaul was very much the creative senior, someone they greatly admired, an established filmmaker, who helped to guide and shape the project. Equally participatory was the role played by Kamal Swaroop and Saeed Mirza in developing ideas central to the film.

The collective also drew directly from the events of the time in India. The Emergency declared by Indira Gandhi, lasting between 75 and 77, violated the constitution, leading to an outcry from the cultural community. Ghashiram Kotwal was originally ‘a play chronicling the Peshwa regime in western India’, featuring a plot in which the Prime Minister Nana Phadnavis appoints Ghashiram ‘as a senior police official cum espionage agent’ in an attempt to hold on to power in a territory being challenged by the arrival of the British. The parallels with Indira Gandhi’s tyrannical rule were striking; a hegemonic impulse articulated by the use of the police as a means of manifest repression found a metonymic parallel in the way Nana used Ghashiram to enforce terror amongst the Brahmins. Such timely and considered ideological engagement avoids polemicizing, instead relying on a self reflexive approach, combining some of the dance traditions of Indian culture with Brechtian devices (the omniscient narrator, title cards, direct camera address to name a few) to fuse together a postcolonial non-linear dialogue of history and politics that is both diachronic and synchronic. Just like the impact of the IPTA in the 1950s led to a more concerted ideological and aesthetic engagement with cinema, producing some affecting neorealist work, a similar precedent was clearly in work with the 1970s Indian Experimental Theatre of Badal Sircar, a major creative influence on the film.

There are instances in the film that spuriously communicate Kaul’s repeated authorial interests with temporal and spatial disjuncture, evident most strikingly in the moment when Nana (Mohan Agashe) and Ghashiram (Om Puri) meet for the first time. In a classic Kaul move, a very trivial and ordinary action, the meeting between two characters, is disrupted in terms of time and space, making us look at the meeting through a new spectatorial gaze. Thematically, Nana and Ghashiram emerge as a mirror image, morphing into one. Kaul frames this first meeting in such thematic terms, obscuring our view of both characters, denying us the predictable reaction shots used to fill in the traditional dramatic narrative space. At one point in the sequence, Ghashiram is completely obscured by Nana’s symmetrical position in the frame, producing a spatial ellipsis that creates a momentary disjuncture, instructing us of their ideological synchronicity.

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Yet by choosing to film from the back of Nana is also significant, it is the master, the one who rules, that seems to literally swallow up Ghashiram into his treachery. In many ways, this sequence violates conventional framing but its experimentational tone is very much implemented at the service of key themes: the contestation of power, and the ostensibly eternal master and slave dichotomy. Even more audacious is the final shot of the film, lasting for an uninterrupted, continuous ten minutes, and directly inspired by the cinema of Miklos Jancso, and which in the opinion of K. Hariharan is unique in film history since it ‘must remain the world’s longest shot on a standard reel of 1,000 feet to be shot by four camera operators’. In this final shot, the camera completes a 360-degree movement at least four times, capturing the way history unfolds disruptively, and also witnessing a subdued transference of power, the British coming to the fore.

Arsenal – Institute for Film and Video Art, based in Berlin, has over 8,000 films in its archives. To date, Arsenal has restored two significant Indian films, Deepa Dhanraj’s Kya Hua Is Shahar Ko? (1986) and Ghashiram Kotwal. Both of these films have been released by Arsenal on DVD (region free luckily) after receiving retrospective screenings at the Berlin film festival.

Bibliography

Accompanying DVD Booklet by Arsenal; featuring an interview with K. Hariharan conducted by Shai Heredia, filmmaker and curator.