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  • Writer's pictureArya Kastwar

Indian Parallel Cinema Through the Decades

Updated: Jan 24, 2023

What kind of a movie would you never miss watching in the theatres? A nice, refreshing mainstream romcom shot amid the beauty of Milan, or a little darker, exponentially lower budget film with a plot revolving around more personal, moral, and cultural grounds? If you fall under the category of the latter, this blog might pique your interest!

Today we learn a little about the Indian Parallel Cinema, its purpose, and witness how they serve their audience with an appetite for ingenious masterpieces, never lacking in substance or essence.

The concepts of Contemporary, Parallel, Art House, and New Wave, in the context of cinema, dance around the same fire- with little difference, and deeply interwoven elements. Among these elements, one that remains unchanged through generations and genres is the niche that is maintained through stories that are as far away from mainstream cinema as they can be. Which is why some contemporary films, despite commercial elements, go down in history as niche/indie/parallel masterpieces that will never be forgotten.

With its roots sprouting from the state of West Bengal in the 1950s, Parallel Cinema came to be as an alternative to the mainstream, commercial cinema, vastly prevalent then, and now, around the world. Indian Parallel Cinema rejects entirely the glamour and romanticism of mainstream cinema. It provokes, and often crosses by a generous length the line between conventional and unconventional filmmaking and storytelling.

A still from Bimal Roy's Do Bhiga Zamin (1953)

A still from Satyajit Ray's Aparajito (1956)

While the thicker plot of Parallel films is grounded profoundly in culture, politics, social and moral dilemmas, it also vultures around the more niche elements of the society, lores unheard, and conflicts unresolved. These films are real to the very core, neglecting not the smallest, most insignificant detail of human nature, proving Leonardo da Vinci right when he said,

“Details make perfection, and perfection is not a detail.”

Parallel cinema in India has been brought to life, and over decades, kept alive and flourishing by brilliant filmmakers who know no bounds to character and culture representation, and are not scared to venture far and beyond what they know already. Among these filmmakers remain a few names that even the most oblivious of us have on the tip of our tongue, like Satyajit Ray, Balu Mahendra, Mrinal Sen, and in the more recent times, Neeraj Pandey, Vikramaditya Motwane, Anand Gandhi.

In this blog, we take a look at some of the most iconic and cherished parallel films India has given us through the decades in an attempt to understand the changing trends in the narration of these films that run parallel to the circumstances and the state of the society.

Satyajit Ray’s Mahanagar (1963)

Shot in the early 1960s, Mahanagar reflected many contemporary realities and conflicts of the urban middle-class. Being an era when women working was no longer a farfetched, visionary concept but a reality, the film, with its portrayal of the then juxtaposition of the society and patriarchy, earned it the well deserved recognition and success.

Mahanagar was ahead of its time in more ways than one. Not only did it shed light on women empowerment but also communicated the rationale of family, as well as the society at large, through subtle intricacies in behaviour and responsiveness of the characters.

Arati’s husband may be conservative, but he is educated enough to acknowledge it. It is also evident throughout the film that he loves Arati more than he is conservative, drawing a distinct line between the two. The line established here may not seem to hold serious significance from an overview, but really, it is what the entirety of the plot rests upon. It helps us realise that unorthodoxy and lack of affection are two mutually independent factors, which do not always share a cause and effect relationship.

When Arati seeks Anil’s permission to work, Anil, although not too pleased, does not stop her. Her little son, too, was reluctant at the prospect only because of generational brainwashing and misogyny, not really understanding the reason behind his own reluctance; but after getting his favourite toy, soon learned to swim with the changing current. Anil’s mother and father, too, took their time but eventually redeemed themselves.

Satyajit Ray’s raw fabrication of stories borrowed plainly from life itself, has, over the decades, made his name synonymous with the term “Indian Parallel Cinema”.

Mahesh Bhatt’s Saaransh (1984)

India’s nomination for the 1985 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film - Saaransh was one of the most influential parallel films of the time. Highlighting the plight of the working class against the whims and prejudices of politicians spoke volumes to the masses; and not so much as addressing the female supporting character’s film career in the movie (which was vastly questioned by society and looked down upon as “indecent”) was in itself a strong message.

It is a tale that mourns death, a tale that celebrates life despite the sorrows and hopelessness it brings with itself - a tale of a mother and a father coming to terms with the loss of their son.

Parvati seems to be stable for the first three months since their son’s death, but Pradhan continues to be deeply disturbed, showing clear signs of PTSD and depression. This disparity in their acceptance of fate stems simply from their beliefs - While Parvati believes in God, Pradhan is an atheist; while she believes Ajay will soon be reincarnated in their house, he knows Ajay is gone.

Unable to bear the loss of his son, to see the beauty in life again, it is Pradhan who first decides to commit suicide; but protecting Sujata’s (their paying guest) unborn child keeps him from acting upon his impulses for a while. Although, both Pradhan and Parvati will put up a fight beyond their capacity to keep the child safe, they have reasons entirely different. To Parvati, the unborn child is Ajay reincarnated, and to Pradhan, protecting the child is a way for him to redeem himself for being unable to protect his own.

When Pradhan realises Parvati’s growing delusion and asks Sujata to leave before it cannot be curbed anymore, it is now she who attempts to kill herself, just like Pradhan had. To learn how to live again after losing everything you hold dear is what the Saaransh of the film really is. There are always little moments of joy - when Vishwanath asks Pradhan and Parvati to “choose a finger” to hear a good news, when Parvati sees Pradhan in a suit and blushes - waiting to be cherished, even in the face of abysmal despair.

With flowers blooming all over the piece of land Pradhan had dotted Arjun’s ashes, Saaransh is a gentle and beautiful reminder that man is mortal, but life itself is immortal.

Mani Ratnan’s Bombay (1995)

Based on the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the consequent Bombay riots between Hindu and Muslim communities, Bombay continues to be one of the most poignant films in the entire history of the parallel cinema movement. In the words of Mani Ratnan himself, the movie was a “cry of agony”, something that every family living in the big city could deeply resonate with, many of them being direct victims of the local hell.

The movie follows the tale of Shekhar and Shaila, who elope to Bombay to start a family, away from the little village they come from and their orthodox families. Little do they know, what the big city has in store for them is far more diabolical than the capacity of man, both to endure and to commit.

Escaping the wrath of their families, Shekhar and Shaila live a comfortable life in Bombay, raising their twins - Kabir Narayan and Kamal Basheer, in both religions. They continue to write to their families hoping to once again establish their relationship.

For a sweet but painfully short amount of time, the riots upon the demolition of the Babri Masjid is what brings the families together. Instigated by political figures, these riots soon progress into complete anarchy. Both Shekhar and Shaila lose their parents to the bombings, and are separated from their children.

Bombay is a harsh reminder of the reality of the lives of innocent civilians who are robbed of their homes and have to see their families die every day. To no civilian does these socio-politically laced, religious propaganda bring peace and joy. It is a reminder that bloodshed and burnt flesh after the carnage does not unite people; that people need to be united by harmony, not by grief and loss.

Neeraj Pandey’s A Wednesday (2008)

Thirteen years later, we got another gem of a parallel movie, which was, yet again, based on the tension between Hindu and Muslim communities. A Wednesday, based on the 11 July, 2006 Mumbai train bombings, which led to hundreds of casualties and countless injuries - served a strong message to the people of the Republic, the government of the Democracy, and the system of the Soveriegnity of the country.

A nameless man takes it upon himself to avenge the common man and get rid of the four terrorists who had helped carry out the 2006 Mumbai train bombings. A Wednesday brings out the weaker side of the government and the more frustrated side of the common man, who wants to live but in peace, without the fear of being robbed, of being assaulted, of being murdered for reasons irrelevant to the peace and harmony of the society.

As the nameless man said,

“We are resilient by force, not by choice.”

We are able to understand his plight so intimately because we share the same plight. We, too, are nameless men, victims of crime living in perpetual fear every day as the evils of immorality feed upon our helplessness and become stronger.

A Wednesday, in its genuine narration, is a reminder to the authorities and the constitution that the commoners do not care enough about the differences in caste, religion, culture, creed to wage war against one another; a solemn reminder that losing our families and everyone we care for to mass shootings should not be something we have to get used to.

The movie carefully, but firmly highlights how the system lacks without making it seem weaker or incompetent, but by making one common man bold enough to take a stand. It neither villainesses the police nor glorifies the nameless man, but simply puts both into each other’s shoes for a brief moment, to draw a portrait of the system with more clarity.

In the end of the film, the commissioner decides to kill the last terrorist despite knowing there was no other bomb ever planted in any of the five locations. This tells us that the decision of the commissioner was one of confidence, not of fear. Looking back at the Wednesday of this case, the commissioner also refuses to take the name of the “nameless” man, which tells us that he sympathises with and recognises the common man.

Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan (2010)

Udaan, the first Indian film represented at Cannes in seven years, was written way back in 2003, but took seven years in the production, merely because of its lack of commercial appeal. Although Motwane himself does not consider this piece an art house film, it technically still passes as one - in his words, “It is a very simple coming of age story, it is a father-son relationship, it is a relationship between two half brothers, it is a boy’s journey from becoming a boy into a man.” With the “men don’t cry” belief still widely fed to children in the 2010s, Udaan questioned and challenged the unhealthy and imposed adolescence in boys.

It is a coming of age parallel film that follows the life of two boys, and unfolds just as much, the life of their father, although in details so nuanced they are often overlooked.

Rohan’s father, a self-righteous man, like many fathers, is rigid in his ways, unforgiving, scarring even; and each one of us is familiar with the trauma of abusive parenthood, either through personal experience or through the stories narrated to us by our own parents. While some have the privilege of having parents who rejected the ways of their mothers/fathers, some have parents who absorbed it instead, repeating history. Nonetheless, we are all intimately familiar with neglect and toxicity involved in the upbringing of a child, which is why Udaan was so immensely personal to absolutely everyone who watched it.

Bhairav Singh was unarguably raised by a father he himself grew up to be. He wanted nothing but the brightest of futures for his sons, but at the cost of everything else life is worth living for, even the love of a father. It is not that he has less love for his sons, but is merely a classic case of the conditioning of a son to show no emotion. Although, it is true that Bhairav was too self-righteous and confident in his ways to ever realise where he was lacking. Even when he apologised to Rohan and Arjun, it was more for failing as a father in being more unyielding than for beating them categorically.

In the entirety of the film, we can see Bhairav constantly conflicted within himself - when he is drunk, he confides in Rohan for a brief moment, telling him how much his mother loved him; when he accidentally hits Arjun a little too hard, demanding immediate hospitalisation, he is guilty, and keeps his ego aside to genuinely apologise to Rohan; on Rohan’s 18th birthday, he continues the family lineage unfeignedly, giving him the watch his father had given him when he had turned 18. We also see the more orthodox side of him, which is beyond salvation at this point, when he judges his own son for looking feminine; and when he humiliates his brother for his inability to have a child of his own.

In the end, Rohan and Arjun leave their father, as well as the watch behind, which, in essence, signifies that the family now ends at Bhairav, until he marries someone else and has another child to give the watch to. Despite this, Rohan’s letter to Bhairav ends with “...your son, Rohan”, entailing that he still has a father, but Bhairav, a son lost; which leaves us thinking about the constitutional bond a father and a son share, with or without realising, and to what degree is it invulnerable to suffering.

Rahi Anil Barve’s Tumbbad (2018)

Taking about an entire decade to be materialised, Tumbbad was never about Vinayak’s journey alone, but was about the journey of India, the transformation of the nation. Divided into three parts - the first part, with Vinayak’s mother in the picture, was primarily set on the premise of feudalism and exploitation prevalent in the 1920s; the second part, set circa 1936 introduced a young vinayak thriving in a British dominated imperialist society; and the third part acquainted us with the third generation of the family, Vinayak’s son, training to make ends meet with growing capitalism. With every successive generation expands the greed of our protagonists, much like the society we live in today.

Tumbbad, a horror thriller period film, shakes you to your core not through ghosts or demons but through the greed of man himself. Despite the presence of demons, it is Vinayak Rao who discomforts us with his insatiable greed and how far he can go to serve it. The demons, in comparison, seem just as human, if not more.

Revolving around the lore of Hastar, the first son of the Goddess of Prosperity, who was cursed to neither be worshipped nor forgotten, the plot follows Vinayak’s rendezvous to the Goddess’ womb to snatch gold from the demons resting within. He goes as far as putting his physically disabled son under rigorous training, demanding beyond his capacity, so he is ready to continue the business when Vinayak no longer can.

Just when you think one cannot possibly stoop any lower than Vinayak, his son, despite his physical impairment, surpasses his father in ways even he cannot begin to comprehend. Every passing moment in the film unfolds a more malicious layer of the protagonist, instilling secondhand fear and guilt in the audience on behalf of Vinayak and his son.

Tumbadd has created a niche for itself, a whole new genre of horror, where nothing horrific really happens, but the audience feels uneasy and unnerved throughout the length of the film. It has carved its name among the few masterpieces of parallel cinema in recent history, setting a benchmark higher than ever for any filmmaker to compete in the genre.

Revisiting some of the most iconic parallel classics through the decades, there is an unmistakable pattern we can make out from the plot and the execution of the films. In the era each of these films was released, it focused on the then prevalent socio-political and human quandaries in the society. Yet, more than being merely “prevalent”, these conflicts are intrinsic in nature. Intrinsic to the body and heart of mankind - greed, lust, jealousy, anger, vengeance, despair, and the many evils we are plagued with, which continue to get the better of us despite generations of evolution. This is why these movies still resonate with us deeply, and continue to be timeless pieces of art.

While it is true that commercial cinema can romanticise both the good and the bad in its melodramatic reenactment of life, parallel cinema manages to leave an impact more sincerely felt and thought-provoking than any mainstream drama.


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