DHARAVI / QUICKSAND (1992, Dir. Sudhir Mishra, India)


A NFDC-Doordarshan Co Production

Much of our cinema, even its so-called modern, alternative strand, is too referential. It thrives on imitation. It is not really our own cinema. We have to learn to break free and do our own thing,” he [Sudhir Mishra] argues.

Hindi cinema’s radical mainstream, Saibal Chatterjee, June 09 http://www.civilsocietyonline.com/jun09/jun091.asp

Should an auteur be judged on the near impossible criteria of consistency or should one simply stand back and simply accept that most film makers can only really ever become accomplished, credible artists if they remain true to themselves. Consistency as a demarcation of a film maker’s authorial status is perhaps arbitrary when considering how virtually most directors unhesitatingly alternate between the personal and the banal. Sudhir Mishra continues to be plagued with what is an inconsistent body of work, wavering from ambitious mainstream failure to realist political cinema. His 1992 parallel art film ‘Dharavi’ set in the slums of Bombay and starring Om Puri and Shabana Azmi (social realist favourites) certainly suggests a consistent authorial approach yet his status as an influential film maker is undermined by an unevenness in terms of narrative structure that characterises a number of key films.

When exactly the parallel cinema movement started and ended is largely unclear because of the reality that an art cinema has tended to exist alongside the mainstream, popular outlets in the film industry of most countries. Shyam Benegal’s ‘Ankur’ (1974) and M. S. Sathyu’s ‘Garam Hawa’ (1973) certainly seem to act as definite starting points, signalling the birth of a new phase in the emergence of what would be dubbed ‘parallel cinema’. Though Sudhir Mishra has found it deeply problematic to make films on his own terms, ‘Dharavi’ was indicative of a movement which had peaked by the end of the eighties, occasionally producing a handful of noticeable art films in what was a largely commercialised nineties cinema. Perhaps this is why ‘Dharavi’ falls into the category of what is labelled as an unmemorable nineties art cinema.

Yet with the recent international success of stylised films like ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘City of God’, which have arguably popularised the imagery of slum poverty, Mishra’s realist morality appears wholly convincing and appropriately suited to depicting the lives of a marginalised underclass without resorting to the artifice of sentimentality or an overly constructed escapist narrative in which characters get the metaphorical chance to punch the air in glib satisfaction. A co production between NFDC and Doordarshan, ‘Dharavi’ revolves around a lowly taxi driver, played superbly by Om Puri, who dreams of starting his own business so that he can elevate himself out of the slums alongside his frustrated wife (Shabana Azmi), aging mother and naive son.

Combining a wonderfully atmospheric feel for authentic locations and an unpretentiously realist visual style, the film preys upon the prescient idea that mainstream entertainment in the form of popular cinema is both a diversion from confronting real man made problems in society and also a worryingly powerful distortion of inner ambitions. Mishra’s illustrative and inspired use of dream sequences which act as a projection of Om Puri’s opportunist fantasies features the presence of Madhuri Dixit as herself. The late Renu Saluja’s influential skills as an editor (a key figure in the parallel cinema movement) are evident in the tightly edited montage sequences depicting the visceral taxi journeys through the streets of Bombay, the original and appropriate use of slow motion and perhaps most significantly in the ideologically suggestive juxtaposition between reality and dreams.

Alternatively, Mishra’s film can also be viewed as a sociological study of male anxieties. Once all sense of moral dignity has become invisible to Yadav (Om Puri), a ferocious and uncontrollable anger stirs within the people of the slums who retaliate with violence, collectively resisting the sense of outrageous exploitation being committed in front of their very own eyes. The denouement may seem a little far fetched yet one suspends disbelief largely because the social oppression visible in the slums of Dharavi cannot remain repressed forever. However, nothing really changes for Raj Karan Yadav (Om Puri) as he reverts back to driving a taxi, confirming how survival and those like him are to an extent dependent on the democratic illusion of social mobility which is crudely propagated by the unattainable imagery of cultural icons like film stars. Mishra seems to be saying that the escape offered by Madhuri’s glowing red Saree may be infinite but at what price must this illusion be sustained?

EK DOCTOR KI MAUT / DEATH OF A DOCTOR (Dir. Tapan Sinha, 1990, India) – Victims of the State


Bengali director Tapan Sinha had a prolific career, steadily working outside the mainstream on a range of socially engaged projects. In 2009, he sadly passed away at the age of 84, leaving behind a body of work that remains some what undiscovered and unrecognised. ‘The Films of Tapan Sinha’ by Subhajit Ghosh provides an excellent, worthwhile overview of the films he directed and also examines his journey from working in the British film industry during the 1950s to his eventual position as an unpretentious auteur in the parallel cinema movement. ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ was made in the final phase of his directorial career and like many of the most powerful Indian art films, it was funded by The National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC). Based on a true story titled ‘Abhimanyu’ by writer Ramapada Choudhury and starring an ensemble cast made up of parallel cinema regulars including Shabana Azmi, Pankaj Kapoor and Irfan Khan (in one of his earliest roles), Tapan Sinha’s realist melodrama uses the medical, health and science institutions of India to offer an agonizing study of one doctor’s struggle to seek recognition for the vaccine he has developed to fight leprosy.

Using his academic position as a means of sustaining his interest in scientific and medical research Dr. Dipankar Roy (Pankaj Kapoor) spends his nights at home in what is a rudimentary make shift laboratory. Experimenting on mice, Dr. Roy succeeds in developing a vaccine for leprosy but in the process, the relationship with his wife (the consummate Shabana Azmi) becomes fraught with accusations to do with neglect and abandonment. Aided by the leftist ideals of an aspiring journalist (Irfan Khan) who helps to publicise Dr. Roy’s important discovery, the state (symbolised by the archaic medical and health organisations) persecutes, demonises and humiliates the doctor’s breakthrough as merely an extended lie. What Dr. Roy’s discovery reveals is the savage jealousy and ugly scepticism that plagues the middle classes who collectively stand in the way of his brilliance, preferring instead to vilify than endorse progressive ideals. Inevitably, Dr. Roy is severed from his research and once the state intervenes by virtually exiling him in to a remote village, it becomes an impossible task for him to complete the publication of his research notes.

Having made sure of his public humiliation and professional denigration, Dr. Roy is devastated when he hears the discovery of the vaccine is credited to the work of two American doctors. It is a moment of bitter disillusionment at the failure of the state and Indian society to embrace change and celebrate individual achievement. Both Pankaj Kapoor and Shabana Azmi effortlessly deliver a series of equally superlative performances, fiercely conveying an outrage at their wrongful condemnation. The character of the lonely, educated housewife (Shabana Azmi) and her willingness to put up with her husband’s intolerant research habits has origins in the 1960 film ‘Anuradha’ directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee. However unlike Leela Naidu’s repressed housewife, Dr. Roy’s wife is later forced to take up a job as a teacher so they can maintain some semblance of normality in what becomes a disruptive relationship. Tapan Sinha was a key film maker in the parallel cinema movement and also a hugely significant figure in Bengali cinema, and ‘Ek Doctor Ki Maut’ is yet another creative high point in the parallel cinema movement.

NISHANT / NIGHT’S END (Dir. Shyam Benegal, India, 1975)


Indian film director Shyam Benegal made a series of films in the 1970s that would came under the auspice of a parallel art cinema. Beginning with ‘Ankur’ (The Seedling) in 1974, the ideological interest with feudalism characterised much of the social criticism typically evident in the fiercely angry films of Benegal. ‘Nishant’ was the film Benegal directed after ‘Ankur’ and it occupies a strange place in his career as it is often eclipsed by films like ‘Bhumika’ which is considered by many to be his greatest achievement. Benegal’s pared down approach to film making illustrates his commitment to representing the aesthetics and ideology of realism:

His debut film Ankur (The Seedling, 1974) was a breakthrough in more ways than one. It defied all the ground rules of popular Hindi cinema. Without a star cast, without a song and without melodrama, Ankur was produced with a paltry sum of Rs. 5 lakh but fetched more than a crore for producer Lalit M. Bijlani.

‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi

Released in 1975, ‘Nishant’ is Benegal at his angry best and it is an anger largely directed towards the treatment of women in a traditional Indian village ruled by a powerful zamindar (landowner). Most of Benegal’s work is still largely unavailable on DVD in the UK but it is possible to order many of his more widely seen films through specialist DVD websites. The difficulty with this option is that many of the DVDs available are often poorly subtitled and suffer from inconsistent picture quality. Many of the prints have simply been imported from inferior VHS copies including an indistinct soundtrack. In many respects, the films of Benegal have regularly played at film festivals internationally and his reputation as a world cinema auteur continues to fascinate contemporary film critics and academics. Most recently, the BFI published a book on the films of Benegal and he is still very much active in the film industry today, having just released ‘Welcome to Sajjanpur’ with the financial support of UTV Motion Pictures.

It might be an idea to begin preserving the films of Benegal and those of the parallel cinema movement as they are in danger of becoming extinct and obscure. The Indian government and film industry must implement some kind of programme that receives funding to catalogue and preserve the original prints of many of these hugely important films. I am not sure if such an institution exists in India already but the difficulty I have had in trying to access much of the work produced by the parallel cinema movement has been deeply frustrating.

The 1970s found Benegal at his creative best. His first three films form a thematic trilogy. Ankur deals with the slow transformation of the feudal system in India. Nishant (Night’s End, 1975) shows a kind of actual confrontation between feudal value systems and a new emerging rural society in India. In Manthan (The Churning,1976) one sees social change actually coming. The popular acclaim of these three Benegal films (Ankur, Nishant and Manthan), made him the pioneer of new cinema in the 1970s.

‘India’s Art House Cinema’ by Lalit Mohan Joshi

Nishant is a harrowing study of the power and gender relations in a village that is dictated by the hegemonic impulse of a feudal law that marginalises women and provides moral immunity for the male landowners. In one of the most disturbing moments in the film, Sushilla (Shabana Azmi), wife of the local school teacher, is abducted by the abusive sons of the zamindar (Amrish Puri) and literally held against her will in the local farmhouse. Sushilla is repeatedly raped and becomes a prisoner, forced to co exist with the wife (Smita Patel) of the youngest son, played by Naseeruddin Shah. The abduction of Sushilla is made altogether more powerful as it takes place before the very eyes of the villagers who like the school teacher are powerless to resist feudalism. At first, Sushilla’s husband criticises the villagers for their complicity in his wife’s abduction but his plea for help from civil institutions like the local police unveils a system that is corrupt, oppressive and regressive. Benegal politicises the school teacher and gradually he realises that the frightening ancestral impunity and political influence manifested by the zamindars can only be contested if feudalism and orthodoxy are openly challenged through collective revolution and in this case, violence as a means of self defence. The rage unleashed by the villagers at the end of the film upon the zamindar is bloody and chaotic, bringing about a justifiable reconstruction of power relations. ‘Nishant’ is provocative cinema in how it asks a multitude of pertinent questions relating to patriarchy, feudalism and feminism.

Though the film does not set out to provide any kind of firm solutions to the many social problems plaguing rural India at the time, Benegal is nevertheless uncompromising in how he approaches such issues. It is also important to mention that Benegal sympathises strongly with the contemporary plight of women and his collaboration with both Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel characterises some of his best work. The ensemble cast is made up of an amazing array of talented actors; Amrish Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Smita Patel who incidentally would forge parallel careers in mainstream Indian cinema, starring in instantly disposable, formulaic masala films whilst remaining committed to supporting the evolution of a burgeoning art cinema. One could argue that Benegal has become somewhat of an institution in Indian art cinema today and his reputation as a film maker who has been able to make films on his own personal terms reminds emerging film makers of the need to retain some sense of artistic integrity.