Parallel cinema

Parallel experience

Print edition : October 18, 2013

Farida Jalal in "Mammo". Photo: The Hindu Archives

Smita Patil with Raj Babbar in "Mirch Masala". Photo: The Hindu Archives

Shyam Benegal. Parallel fim-makers delivered heart-warming moments, particularly for those who cared for cinema that was close to reality. Photo: K. Murali Kumar

Govind Nihalani. Photo: Sushil Kumar Verma

Jahnu Barua. Photo: The Hindu Archives

Sai Paranjpe. Photo: Satish. H

Om Puri. Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and, to a lesser extent, Pawan Malhotra, Sulbha Deshpande and Deepti Naval became feted names on the circuit. Photo: V. Sreenivasa Murthy

Naseeruddin Shah. Photo: Shanker Chakravarty

100 years of Indian Cinema

WITH three films Shyam Benegal did what countless other directors with their thousands of films failed to do: reveal the psyche of Muslim women, their unique position in society, their historicity. Mammo, Sardari Begum and Zubeidaa were not exactly masterpieces of cinema but they played a vital part in completing the rainbow. Largely considered parallel cinema offerings, they were much cherished by serious audiences though not quite the stuff the first day-first show crowd would appreciate.

Therein lies the greatest irony as well as contribution of parallel cinema: it showed a side of Indian society our mainstream film-makers shied away from. It gave voice to the voiceless; talked of the angst and the aspirations of the minorities, women, lower–caste people, the deprived, the marginalised, the exploited. Yet it never quite reached that segment of the audience—the subjects of their films. Their reach at cinema halls was often confined to a handful of metropolises. They usually won accolades on the festival circuit, even bagged National Awards, but only occasionally got more than the morning show slot at a central cinema hall. They were, unfortunately, more talked about than seen. Unless, of course, one was watching Doordarshan, which played a laudable role in showing these films at a time when there were hardly any other options.

The subjects were unusual, ranging from the plight of the milkmen of Gujarat ( Manthan) to women’s rights to reproduction in the family ( Hari-Bhari by Benegal) to corruption in our legal system (Govind Nihalani’s Aakrosh) to the exploitation of villagers by greedy landlords (Mrinal Sen’s Mrigayaa). Later came men like Jahnu Barua (of course, after a brilliant innings in Assamese cinema), Goutam Ghose, Saeed Mirza and Ketan Mehta. Each of them gave a little glimpse of the real Bharat, something many contemporary film-makers reared in urban India have failed to do. Films like Paar, Mirch Masala and Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro were far from faultless exercises, but they filled a particular vacuum at a particular time. The treatment in all the films was never grand or spectacular; the canvas was never larger than life. The budgets almost always constrained. The cast comprised people who had no aspirations to stardom and derived their satisfaction from fulfilling roles: Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil and, to a lesser extent, Pawan Malhotra, Sulbha Deshpande and Deepti Naval became feted names on the circuit.

Despite their obvious limitations, the parallel film-makers—they even contested their works being called art house cinema—delivered heart-warming moments, particularly for those cinegoers who watched films only at film festivals but cared for cinema that was close to reality. All this was far removed from the escapist fare of, say, Manmohan Desai or Prakash Mehra, both of whom were instrumental in chiselling out Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man image.

Though always serious, at times even grim and scathing, the parallel cinema movement was not without some spots of cheer. There were some directors, who without being mainstream masala churners, saw the sunny side of life and came up with memorable satire: films of Sai Paranjpe (of Katha and Chashme Buddoor fame) and to an extent Kundan Shah ( Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron) fall under this category.

Parallel cinema, which enjoyed its high-water mark between the early 1970s and early 1990s, gradually faded away with the coming of multiplexes from the mid-1990s. It yielded place to a new brand of urban cinema, to films that talked of middle-class aspirations and problems rather than a dispossessed villager or an oft-exploited Dalit in the hinterland. With strong, well-etched-out characters and a persuasive style of storytelling, parallel cinema was good as long as it lasted. It offered thinking men and women a completely different cinematic experience. It seldom commanded attention, it often had to appeal for it. But for those who answered the appeal, the result was a fulfilling experience.

Ziya Us Salam