Rebellious Poets and Radical Spirits: Indian Parallel Cinema – Il Cinema Ritrovato

(20 – 27 July 2021, Bologna, Italy)

The new strand on Indian Parallel Cinema that I have co-curated with Cecilia Cenciarelli and Shivendra Dungarpur showcases some of the best examples of the early years of Parallel Cinema, which we have titled ‘The Foundational Years’ (69 – 76). This eclectic strand with a strong regional slant looks back at the significance of Parallel Cinema in the broader historical context of alternative Indian Cinema but more importantly attempts to reclaim and reassert the rich creative achievements in the wider cine-geography of the late sixties and early seventies of global film where we saw a concerted shift in terms of aesthetics, form and style. The last ten years has seen an increasing number of Parallel Cinema films being made available for the first time in restored prints; a boon for film preservation and research. However, just as many films still remain out of reach whereby the process of recovery and restoration is likely to be a gradual one and will continue to be dictated by various economic and political factors.

In the past the public screening of Parallel Cinema was achieved through television such as Doordarshan, film societies/collectives and also film studies/educational courses. And in the 1980s, there were major retrospectives of Parallel Cinema that toured internationally, with two prominent programmes at MoMa in New York and the National Theatre in London. Sadly, after the decline of Parallel Cinema in the mid 1990s, many of these films were simply forgotten about and the original prints either disappeared, languished or were lost. We have arguably been playing catch up ever since. The absence of Parallel Cinema from the narrow, Anglo-centric discourse in which film history is taught and discussed in wider film circles is not simply about cultural and historical ignorance but can also be attributed to the ways in which so many of these films have never been programmed publicly outside of India in retrospectives or seasons. Some of this is down to the role of film programmers and curators but some of it is also because of the lack of access, logistics and expensive costs involved in trying to programme or curate alternative Indian cinema particularly outside of India, something that I have witnessed at a distance co-curating the Parallel Cinema season for Il Cinema Ritrovato. It is rare that Parallel Cinema films are screened publicly in their original physical prints which makes this retrospective altogether unique and special for film audiences.

This strand at Bologna is one of the first of its kind in Europe for a long time, and will help to play a part in the on-going process of reclaiming Parallel Cinema and making many of the films accessible to film audiences around the world. The painstaking 4K restoration of Govindan Aravindan’s Kummatty which has been completed in conjunction with Scorsese’s World Cinema Foundation, Film Heritage Foundation and Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna is a deeply encouraging sign of the progress Parallel Cinema is making in terms of garnering the recognition it deserves. It is highly likely that Kummatty will be the first Parallel Cinema film to make the leap to Criterion, and if that does happen, it will be another significant step for the canonisation of Parallel Cinema into the realms of film culture and history, and that could potentially act as a gateway for film audiences who have never come across Parallel Cinema before. The eight films we have curated is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the remarkable thirty-year output of Parallel Cinema which constituted in excess of two hundred and fifty films stretching across many regions and languages.

Chokh / The Eyes (Dir. Utpalendu Chakraborty, 1982, India/Bengali)

The eyes speak, harbouring and chronicling histories, emotional sentiments and even memories. Chokh, a stark political exercise in neorealist aesthetics, opens with the petrified eyes of Jadunath (Om Puri in blistering form) who looks directly at us with a totalizing gaze of defiance. Jadunath, a union leader, has been convicted of murder, and waits impatiently in prison to be executed by the establishment. It is 1975, the time of the Emergency, and dissent is all but unthinkable. Still, the political impulse of the Left remains, manifested in the undeniable resistance articulated by Dr Mukherjee (Anil Chatterjee), a benevolent eye surgeon working at a government hospital, and who in the opening polemic draws the benign connection between poverty and blindness. Against this nexus of economic and social deprivation are inserts of colonial statues, spectral reminders of a colonial legacy that bears down on the people of West Bengal. It is a Bengal familiar to us from Sen’s Calcutta Trilogy in which the Naxals are in a constant struggle against a rotten underbelly intact after independence, transitioning from one elite to another.

As a final request before his execution, Jadunath consents to a conditional donation of his eyes to a fellow worker who is blind and in need of a transplant. Jadunath’s friends, comrade workers who were also in the union, stake their claim to the eyes, informing Dr Mukherjee of the news. It transpires that Jethia, industrialist and owner of a jute mill, has a young teenage son who is going blind and is also in need of an urgent eye transplant. Jethia’s son is a victim of political violence, blinded in a bomb blast, supposedly instigated by Naxals. With political support from the establishment, Jethia reaches out to the superintendent working at the hospital and convinces him that his son should be the recipient of the next pair of available eyes. The corrupt superintendent complies and sanctions the operation without approval from the panel at the hospital, abandoning his ethical responsibilities. In this contestation between rich and poor, director Utpalendu Chakraborty lays bare the ways in which entitlement and privilege bypasses the layers of bureaucracy typically faced by the powerless unionised workers who can do nothing but plead indefinitely. Within less than twenty-four hours, Jethia has his son admitted and readied for an eye operation that for many poor blind people is a distant dream.

Upon visiting Dr Mukherjee at his home, Jadunath’s worker friends relay a stark truth about Jethia’s crimes. The first of two extended flashbacks, details Jadunath’s influence to organise a collective resistance to Jethia’s inequitable rule. We learn that Jethia has dismissed labourers at the factory in an attempt to weaken the union but Jadunath refuses to back down, insisting the labourers be reinstated for the strike to end. When Jethia sends scab labourers to suppress the strike, Jadunath retaliates and orders the striking labourers to lie down at the gates of the factory, defying both the police and Jethia. Outraged, Jethia resorts to violent thuggery, sending his goons to drag the labourers out of their homes, humiliating them in front of their families, and executing three of them in cold blood. However, when Jadunath hears of this, he too retaliates with political violence, killing Jethia’s brother and the manager of the jute mill. Later Jadunath is arrested, convicted of murder and sentenced to be hanged. Unlike Jethia’s violence and killings, which is legitimised by the establishment, Jadunath’s response is framed as terrorist acts against the state, leading to his incarceration. The union of the factory labourers is undermined, and essentially neutered. Jethia’s unchecked power to use violence to protect the status quo emerges as a terrifying metaphor for the 1975 Emergency while Jadunath’s imprisonment and death symbolises the victims of the Left who were rounded up, persecuted and made to disappear.

Armed with this new wider historical and political context, Dr Mukherjee resists the unruly demands of the superintendent, arguing he cannot operate on Jethia’s son until he has seen and verified the papers. Dr Mukherjee recognises a case of conditional donation is not only an ethical issue and unmasks the entitled political machinations of Jethia in getting what he wants and at all costs. Nonetheless, the superintendent takes Dr Mukherjee out of the equation and assigns the operation to another surgeon. It is only later when Jethia reads a hospital file does he come to realise the donating party is none other than Jadunath, which horrifies him to such an extent that he cancels the operation. This discovery by Jethia leads to the second of two flashbacks. In this flashback Jadunath is at loggerheads with the owners of the factory and refuses to deal with any kind of revisionism to the demands of the workers, demarcating his intense political integrity and incorruptible nature for which he will have to pay a price. The thought of his son inheriting the eyes of a supposed criminal leads to further outrage, and in a final act of defilement, Jethia instructs his goons to steal the eyes from the hospital and dispose of them, which they do, burying the eyes as if to silence and smother what remains of Jadunath’s political dissent. For the establishment particularly capitalism, the physical destruction of Jadunath has to be totalizing since it comes to exist as proof of not only their unspeakable dread but paralysing omnipotence.

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.

Rangula Kala / Colourful Dreams (Dir. B. Narsing Rao, 1983, India / Telugu) – ‘I’m an artist not a trader’

Rangula Kala, released in 1983, was the directorial debut of Rao and is an accomplished work, exploring the role of the artist in society. It would make a brilliant triple bill alongside Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa and Kagaaz Ke Phool since all three deal with the value of the artist in the marketplace which is in turn contested through differing perspectives on the significance of art and its relationship with the broader social, economic and political landscape of India.

Rao essays the leading role of Ravi, a bearded beatnik painter, who is tormented by the ‘emotional conflict inside him’ and trying desperately to make a living while developing his distinctive style as a painter. Although Ravi is not concerned that his work is derivative of existing forms, what really matters to him is the connection he continually tries to forge with the real world, an existential search that is manifested in a series of tangible dream sequences that finds Ravi lost in a consciousness clouded by guilt, doubt and truth. Many of Ravi’s closest friends including a Marxist journalist (Narayana Rao) and Ramesh, a successful painter (Saichand), actively encourage Ravi to pander to the whims of the audience and the market but he defies this way of making art because it is based on compromise, a betrayal of artistic integrity. Ravi values the work for what it is and represents not what it is worth in the marketplace and what price it will fetch for the pontificating and pretentious upper classes. An exhibition of his work (much of it resembling a modern style) fails to strike a chord with art promoters and is labelled a flop, leaving him in despair both emotionally and economically. As a result, in one sequence, Ravi is forced to visit Mrs Ramarnath, a faux high society figure, and sell one of his paintings simply because he needs the money to survive. Later, Ravi tells Sarala, his girlfriend, that people like Mrs Ramarnath have very little regard for artists and treat art as a commodity that sits alongside their other possessions as part of a twisted capitalist logic.

Rao is also critical of the hypocrisy that circulates amongst fellow artists and Ramesh, the hypocritical snob, who has literally sold out to the marketplace, misleads Ravi and goes to great lengths to mask over his precarious position as a social climber: ‘I’m an artist not a trader’, he exclaims in a radio interview. Ravi’s search for his role as an artist comes to fruition when Suraya, a trade union leader, invites him to attend May Day celebrations for workers. Here Rao uses the first of two political songs of working class resistance by Gaddar, a revolutionary Telugu poet and Naxal activist, that articulates a rising tide of anger in Ravi’s shifting mindset. Later, Suraya, instructs Ravi that he can use his art for a far greater ideological cause, to serve the people and be part of a political mobilisation, an idea that he responds to immediately and eventually embraces. What follows after Ravi’s realisation is the remarkable insert of another resolutely angry protest song by Gaddar, this time criticising the tyranny of the capitalist system and how it has enslaved the poor. The link between a cultural front and political movements has often been a significant one in helping to narrate and express an unofficial story, that of the workers on the front line. Exhibiting his work on the streets forges an authentic connection with the people and his paintings come closer to capturing a reality that he has been searching for. Critical acclaim follows and his journalist friend extols Ravi for finally developing a distinctive style, academic praises that Ravi humbly accepts.

While Ravi continually experiments with the aesthetics of painting, Suraya’s murder at the hands of the state at a peaceful demonstration, galvanises Ravi’s political awakening. Sympathising with the plight of the workers, Ravi finally pushes himself to make the transition to a state of alertness and ideological mobilisation. Imposing upon himself a state of imprisonment, Ravi re-thinks his role as an artist, his monochrome and starkly abstract paintings now embodying the figurative images of the workers and the repressive state apparatus expressly the police. In the closing moments, the extreme zoom in on Ravi’s eyes seething with rage followed by a fade to red unmasks a violence yet to come, and extenuates a revolutionary fervour that echoes films like Padatik and Ankur.