The Rise & Rise of Alternative Cinema

Yeh Wasseypur hai, yahan kabutar bhi ek pankh se udta hai aur doosri se apni izzat bachata hai.

Gritty, dark, mafia-esque, obscene, sensationalist and masterpiece – these are some of the words that best describe Anurag Kashyap’s modern day celluloid saga Gangs of Wasseypur. Yet, what lies at the heart of this gripping tale and is perhaps its most noticeable and attractive asset is the rustic, regionalist flavour (take the profanity laced dialect, for starters) that gives it the shroud of authenticity – the topic of many a debate, but more on that later.

Regionalism in cinema with its semi-conventional plot lines juxtaposed with socially relevant issues is a glorified, if at times, neglected road. The resurgence of late, with filmmakers Anurag Kashyap, Sujoy Ghosh and Mahmood Farooqui (to name a few) blending the line between regional and parallel cinema, has brought regionalism in the public eye, albeit catering to a minority. India does have a history of art house cinema, even if Bengali director Satyajit Ray is the only filmmaker most have heard of. Film critic Anupama Chopra says the term ‘independent cinema’ applies, in India, to a film’s creative sensibility. “We’re not talking about finance or distribution, but content and storytelling. These films don’t adhere to the song-and-dance formula we’ve had for many years,” she says.

It all started with ‘The Indian New Wave’ movement. Known for its serious content, realism and depictions of the prevalent issues of those times, it dates back a long way with V.Shantaram’s 1925 silent film classic Savkari Pash as one of the earliest examples. The movement, initially led by Bengali cinema, started to take shape in the 1940s to the 1960s – a period often referred to as the ‘Golden Age of Indian Cinema.’ Most films made during this period were funded by the State Governments with an aim of showcasing an authentic art genre. Filmmakers, frustrated with the musicals of those times, set out to produce films with an intention of using the medium for something more than entertainment. Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar (1946), Satyajit Ray’s The Apu Trilogy (1955-1959) (produced on a shoestring budget of $3000), Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) and Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) are some of the defining movies of those times, garnering critical but moderate commercial success. They dominated International Film Festivals including Cannes, Berlin and Venice, winning multiple awards and captivating international audiences with their neo-realist brand of cinema, and are often listed among the greatest films of all time.

“There are good films, there are bad films, and then there are Bollywood films.”

The 1970s and the 1980s saw alternative cinema branch out of Bengal and enter the sparkling limelight of Hindi cinema. Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Mahesh Bhatt and co., the defining directors of this era, tried their hand at promoting realism in their own different styles while embracing certain conventions of popular cinema in some of their other ventures. The Middle Path, sparsely explored in the previous era, came to the fore. Consider it as walking a tightrope of sorts, between the extravagance of mainstream cinema and the stark realism of art-house. At this time, Malayalali Cinema experienced its ‘Golden Age’ with Adoor Gopalakrishnan, often referred to as Satyajit Ray’s spiritual heir, at the helm of things. Alongside the likes of Shaji N. Karun and G. Aravindan, they produced critically acclaimed cinema regularly screened at International Film Festivals. Their movies include the Sutherland Trophy winning Elippathayam (1981), Shaji’s Piravi (1989), (which won the Camera d’Or at Cannes) and Swaham (1994).

Actor Naseeruddin Shah once said that films cannot change the world and the only thing they might change is hairstyles. The 90s were an entirely different ball game. Blame the rising costs of film production or blame the sudden penchant for ‘Indianised’ Hollywood Cinema. Blame underworld financing or blame television. Blame piracy. Bollywood (as most of us have come to know it) became a self-referencing phenomenon with its typical song-and-dance numbers, nubile young heroines and macho heroes, and plots charged with lots of melodrama and family values. As Canadian Actor Lisa Ray puts it, “There are good films, there are bad films, and then there are Bollywood films.”

Cut to the new millennium and you have the emergence of a whole new breed of directors and filmmakers raised on Bollywood and Hollywood with a penchant for telling modern urban tales fused with rural elements. Sounds familiar? Think Dor. Think Gulaal. Think Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi. Think Udaan. Think Gangs of Wasseypur (I bet you were thinking about it all along). Regionalism made a comeback, albeit under a rather modified tag of alternate, ‘parallel-mainstream’ cinema. Driven by an exploratory urge, these movies lay bare Indian cinema off its presumptuous mindset, instead showcasing India’s traditions and its idiosyncrasies. Q, an alternative film-maker from Kolkata (his full name is Qaushiq Mukherjee), strives to explore sexuality in the context of modern relationships between men and women by drawing deeply into timeless Indian cultural and mythological epithets, while Onir’s efforts to highlight the plight of the gay community through his movies like I Am have won him critical appreciation and a National Award.

With directors venturing towards realism in cinema, it begs the question that just how real is real enough? One cannot simply ignore the fact that Indian audiences dig that ‘filmi’ aspect which remains a part of our cinema, whether it’s mainstream or modern day parallel. Be it Kashyap’s GOW or Milan Luthria’s The Dirty Picture, accusations of sensationalism seem to emerge every other  day. The chronicler of Waaseypur, Zeishan Quadri, admits that the movie is 80% fact and 20% fiction. One might be led to believe that he reached this figure oblivious of the action scenes charged with Coppola, Scorsese and Tarantino influences. Wasseypur turned up on the map of India post the movie, though not for reasons its residents are glad of. In fact, the anger is so widespread that besides the usual ‘painting posters black’ and shutting down theatres, its citizens have surprisingly channelled their efforts into a rather creative pursuit – a movie tentatively titled I Live in Wasseypur that highlights the success stories emerging from Wasseypur. Although it remains to be seen as to how effective it will be in wiping out the memory of GOW from one’s mind. Early predictions would suggest not too much, if any.

What’s been good to see in the last few years is that there has been a rich diversity in films that have been made and this variety speaks for the improving health of the industry. With a trio of three ‘Hindi Indie’ films screened at Cannes this year, Indian cinema has surely turned a new leaf. Dealing with tabooed subjects of impotency, the porn industry (yes, we finally have our very own ‘Boogie Nights’, consider it to be a reincarnation of our mid-80′s C-grade movies) and the coal mafia, it is perhaps apt to say that Indian cinema is coming of age.

So, what has changed? While a Dor garnered a meagre Rs. 3 crore in its lifetime, a GOW earned Rs. 30 crore in three weeks. This is a stark example of changing trends, but what is different? The audience for one, what else? Well, the answer lies with what I call the ‘Snowball’ effect. Set in 1997 with the arrival of the first multiplexes, it has festered ever since. Housed in AC shopping malls, these multiplexes have enough screens for both Bollywood films like your good old ‘Rowdy Rathore’ and art house films. You no longer need a big film to fill up a theatre. Single screens are a thing of the past or soon will be. The corporate entities, namely Reliance, haven’t hesitated in backing this new age cinema either. They are willing to enter co-production and market the film, thus reaching a global audience. Another new initiative, rather clumsily titled ‘Director’s Rare’, represents a path less travelled. It has gone where Bollywood is too cowardly to go, screening offbeat and under-the-radar movies at select multiplexes in the country. It has created a rare opportunity for viewers in metros to watch such films like Superman of MalegaonThe Untitled Karthik Krishnan Project and so on.

Michael Sragow of The Atlantic Monthly once said, “The youthful coming-of-age dramas that have flooded art houses since the mid-fifties owe a tremendous debt to the Apu trilogy“. Filmmakers such as Martin Scorsese, James Ivory, Abbas Kiarostami, Carlos Saura and Wes Anderson have been influenced by Ray’s cinematic style, and many others including the legendary Akira Kurosawa have praised his work. So, why have Indian filmmakers remained aloof? Why the dearth of alternative cinema in India? Perhaps I ask this question a decade too late. The ever changing trends of Indian cinema have, of late, proven kind to this novel pursuit. Let us hope that this resurgence is here to stay and hopefully grow beyond the realms of what now seems possible.

But before I let you go, let this writer ask you something? You’ve probably seen a Tarantino or a Spielberg flick, but have you ever bothered to watch one of Satyajit Ray? Probably not. This writer hadn’t, not before he wrote this. So if you have stuck with me to the very end, in which case I’m surprised you read till here, do yourself a favour – open up one of the movie streaming websites (or DC) and watch one. You might be pleasantly surprised by what you see!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.