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.

THE BATTLE FOR BANARAS (Dir. Kamal Swaroop, 2015, India) – The Crowd

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There is a spectacular political trice at the end of Swaroop’s participatory documentary. At night, on the banks of the river Ganges, which is teeming with euphoric revellers and a swathe of India’s police, Modi emerges victorious, returning to Banaras, where he had stood for election as a BJP candidate. As he makes his way down to the banks, the crowd parting restlessly, Modi continually raises his hands in reverence to the electorate and to the people of India. The crowd, a metonymic focus of Swaroop’s documentary, now markedly acquiescent than ever before, is no longer the impulsive, unpredictable and incensed mass. The insipid demagogy of the BJP and Modi have won out, the crowd is now benign, overwhelmed by political spectacle. And the declaration of Modi’s victory, unfolding on the banks of the Ganges, a sacred site for Hindus, reconnects the modern to the ancient in a grand democratic totem. Modi’s speech, narrating an anecdote about Neil Armstrong, and referring to himself as a ‘son of the land’ invokes a cosmic nationalist dogma, displacing the memories and history of secularism with an insincere centrist appeasement. Swaroop’s plural and largely unbiased account of the electioneering in Banaras in 2014 is an ideologically prescient encounter between cinema and history, but it is one the BJP have suppressed (the film has not past the censor board) since Swaroop’s work does not fit a polarising, nationalist agenda.

Swaroop does exceptionally well to detail the contesting political parties in Banaras, positing a deeply complex yet richly connected and inclusive democratic process, in which the Indian electorate is shown in dialogue with contesting ideological voices. On so many occasions, Swaroop sutures the contradictory voice of the electorate into the narrative, whereby ordinary people of Banaras speaking candidly about the dubious electioneering gives the work a distinctly communicative, inclusive legitimacy. However, when political leaders speak, they do so at a distant and through the apparatus of the mainstream corporate media. By denying the politicians an authentic voice and subsequently a privileged position, which is often facilitated by a wider institutional infrastructure, Swaroop’s semi-observational approach catches those details, which are often edited out by the media, so to construct democracy and politics as a kind of theatre. It is the extraneous minutiae particularly the body language of the politicians, notably Modi, who is shown desperately trying to project an underdeveloped image of the statesman that Swaroop exposes as a false yet uninterrupted performance. Swaroop’s vatic documentary is an intellectual enquiry, probing the image of the crowd and its many avatars, notably the concept of hysteria, in this case ‘Modi hysteria’, which once amplified, completely takes over the crowd and creates an unsettling doubling in the people, as exemplified in the visually ubiquitous ‘Modi mask’ the electorate naively don as both a worrying form of submission and idolisation.

HIGH-RISE (Dir. Ben Wheatley, 2015, UK)

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Class devours itself. And the politics of class creates an indescribable antagonism that often spills over into violence, and in the case of Ben Wheatley’s High-Rise, class is explicated through the prism of satire in which modernism is a debauched, sulking creature. Intrinsic to Wheatley’s treatment of Ballard’s writing is an abandonment of logical narrative contrivances in which a spasmodic flurry of visual and tonal meta-cinema explications rise up from a corpus of anarchic British iconoclasts, of which Wheatley now holds company with, notably Nicholas Roeg, Ken Russell and Joseph Losey (an American exile who made his best films in England). High-Rise as dystopian science fiction is an equitable genre reading to make. But Wheatley’s deliberately modernist cinematographic voice is augmented by a meaty political tract, featuring the Utopianism of Old Labour with a contemporary sagacity of Yuppie, white privilege. And beneath the deplorable sentiments of an opportunistic class ridden society is an atavistic impulse threatening feeble democratic notions of social mobility. Wheatley orchestrates a transgressive, masala like parable of mischief, conducting an indescribably palpable ideological discord of congenial malfeasances. What rise indistinctly to the surface is a gamut of modernist disturbances: psychological disembodiment, sexual malady and consumerist neophytes – a cinematic orgy of 1970s British cultural tropes. Wheatley has crafted something bravura with High-Rise, a work of staggering cinematic resolve, a wretched, cannibalistic tour through the cabals of political and social modernism.

DEUX JOURS, UNE NUIT / TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (The Dardennes, 2014) – Try not to breathe

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Two Days, One Night continues an abiding interest in female driven narratives which has marked many of the films directed by The Dardennes. Could we call Two Days, One Night the final part in a trilogy of films, started in 2008 with The Silence of Lorna and also including The Kid with a Bike, that depict women in crisis? It might be detrimental to suggest such a pre-determined logic to the trajectory of The Dardenne’s career since the term trilogy is often associated with the mainstream blockbuster. One could only argue for such a trilogy based on what the Dardennes do next so we will have to wait and see if such an arbitrary categorisation could be made in the future. Two Days, One Night is a film about breathing and knowing how to breathe when faced with the most dreaded of anxieties – the ever present threat of unemployment.

If the Dardennes style of cinema could be labelled as naturalistic then their ideological agenda certainly recalls neorealist cinema especially Italian neorealism from the 1940s. The spectre of Antonio from Bicycle Thieves haunts the cinematic landscapes of realist cinema, resurfacing this time in Sandra (Marion Cotillard), who is made to relive similar anxieties, that of unemployment, poverty and personal failure. More than De Sica the Dardennes focus on the behaviour of Sandra in terms of her bodily reactions edging closer to a kind of corporeal cinema with the camera pausing at every opportunity to detail Sandra’s nausea. Her sickness is a direct manifestation of the current recession; the end of long term job permanency has left many in a state of unease, living in fear of being unemployed or worse redundant. All of this is channelled through Sandra’s fragile state, teetering on the brink, shutting herself away, sleeping, hiding, retreating into medication to numb the senses. Just as Antonio has to depend on Maria and Bruno so that he could deal with the anxiety of personal failure, Sandra is supported both emotionally and physically by Manu, her husband.

This is a political work just like many of the best neorealist films but it is political without being political. Politics emerge metonymically, through human behaviour and interaction which becomes integral to the way we respond to Sandra. The politics are in the way characters talk to one another, pause to reflect on decisions, carry boxes of pizza out of a car, and simply in the most overlooked of cinematic gestures/motifs – walking. Like Bicycle Thieves and many other Dardennes films this is a film about walking, but not just about showing Sandra walking, but to show her walking endlessly becomes a profoundly human action, that gradually becomes imbued with a dignity. Just in the way De Sica and Zavattini made Antonio realise his own self worth and the poverty of his fellow class by having him undergo an odyssey of sorts Sandra undergoes a similar ritual. By visiting her colleagues Sandra sees a new truth about her own position within a wider nexus of economic and social bankruptcy. It’s the same for Antonio in Bicycle Thieves – on many occasions he is faced with a poverty worse than his own.

Sandra’s journey is a personal one from the outset but it becomes a fable about the politicisation of an individual since by the end of the film Sandra realises what is at stake is more precarious, fragile and sacred than her own predicament – it is at this point do we see the film at its most political, its most transparent and its most moving. In truth the Dardennes raise questions concerning community, solidarity, exploitation and power, which are also some of the defining ideological themes of realist cinema and of course the eponymous melodrama.