Big Screen Movies

New wave Indian cinema in the time of Netflix

Shyam Benegal combined non-conformism with sophistication in his films like ‘Ankur’ (shown here) and ‘Nishant’.  

It’s Gujarat in the 60s and we are introduced to a Bengali bureaucrat through a freeze-frame. A few minutes later, his inner voice is in dialogue with the film’s narrator. In Agra, a youth, whose unfulfilled ambitions are about to be swallowed up by an arranged marriage, reminisces about his past. And in rural Punjab, a desolate housewife waits, her wide eyes lowered, for her truck driver-husband, in a spot that looks like a bus shelter. For the first five minutes, we hear only her silence.

The three scenes, all shot by cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, introduce us to films that each complete half a century this year. The trio — Bhuvan Shome, Sara Akash and Uski Roti — broke the established convention of linear, hero-centric narratives that had neat endings. And they led to a movement in Indian cinema.

‘Uski Roti’ was among the triumvirate of Indian cinema that led to the New Wave movement.

‘Uski Roti’ was among the triumvirate of Indian cinema that led to the New Wave movement.  

The origins of this Indian ‘New Wave’ go further back, to 1925, when, amid the onslaught of mythologicals and fantasy dramas, Baburao Painter’s Savkari Pash showed destitute peasants in a debt trap. That was followed by Prabhat’s films in the 1930s and 1940s, and the cinema of Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy in the 1950s. But none of these led to a ‘movement’. That wouldn’t be until 1968, when Film Finance Corporation (FFC), under B.K. Karanjia, initiated a policy to encourage cinema that involved young artistes, limited budgets, location shoots, and narratives that mixed reality and fiction. Their dialogues were internal, and there was no easy, cathartic climax. The directors were often graduates of the Film and Television Institute of India, and some of them were backed by the state.

Artistic truth

Director Mrinal Sen, in a 1968 manifesto, said such cinema should have the “signature of the maker.” He wanted it to pursue “artistic truth”. In a special issue of Seminar in 1970 titled ‘The Cinema Situation’filmmaker Mani Kaul called for audience involvement in the making of cinema, a radical experiment to blur the line between documentary and fiction.

The 1932 classic ‘Savkari Pash’.

The 1932 classic ‘Savkari Pash’.  

Many filmmakers featured in the Seminar edition unanimously expressed their frustration with the black money dominated structure of film production. Adoor Gopalakrishnan went to the extent of calling for the nationalisation of the industry. Speaking to The Hindu, he now says: “Today, I will not think of it. Not because things have improved greatly but because in a state-controlled situation, bureaucracy will destroy everything.”

Filmmaker Girish Kasaravalli says the movement’s influence on Kannada cinema owes to the incentives given by the government. “The idea was mooted by the [then State Finance Minister] Ramakrishna Hegde. The Navya literature movement played a part.” Kasaravalli says that practitioners of other art forms, artists and writers, began making films, including artist S.G. Vasudev and poet Pattabhi Rama Reddy, who made Samskara, written by U.R. Ananthamurthy, into a film.

‘Agraharathil Kazhuthai’ (1977) was under-appreciated and condemned by many after its release.

‘Agraharathil Kazhuthai’ (1977) was under-appreciated and condemned by many after its release.  

Marathi filmmaker Jabbar Patel also credits the entry of theatre personalities for the movement’s momentum. “In Maharashtra, it was Vijay Tendulkar; Girish Karnad in Karnataka; Badal Sircar in West Bengal; and Mohan Rakesh in Hindi. Amol Palekar and Nachiket Patwardhan, apart from himself, says Patel, were part of this movement in Marathi cinema. “Manik da [Satyajit Ray] and Ritwik Ghatak were a big influence on all of us.”

Tamil Nadu remained largely untouched by such experimentation. Film scholar Theodore Baskaran says that besides a handful of films such as Unnaipol Oruvan, Yaarukkaga Azhudhaan and Aval Appadithan, not many risks were taken. Also, unlike some other States, there was no film society movement here. “Any attempt at making good cinema was suppressed by producers, who were influenced by the DMK brand of films. Agraharathil Kazhuthai was condemned by minister R.M. Veerappan. There were three occasions when plans were made to broadcast it on television, but it was scrapped each time.”

Casting staples

If one filmmaker emerged as the poster boy of art house cinema, it was Shyam Benegal. Using his background as an ad filmmaker, he combined non-conformism with sophistication. He got Blaze Advertising to finance Ankur and Nishant. He also introduced a coterie of actors who became a staple of such films: Naseeruddin Shah, Mohan Agashe, Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Amrish Puri, among others. His lead cinematographer Govind Nihalani later branched out to carve his own niche.

A still from last year’s ‘Soni’ released on Netflix.

A still from last year’s ‘Soni’ released on Netflix.  

The biggest drawback of this FFC-initiated and multilayered experimentation in cinema was the lack of a viable distribution and exhibition mechanism. Benegal was prescient in his Seminar article: “If we are serious about developing an alternate cinema, the FFC would have to develop a distribution circuit that is able to compete for audiences with the regular so-called commercial films.” That did not happen.

Fast forward to the present decade. Most of these films, which in the 90s were a regular feature on Doordarshan, found a new lease of life when the National Film Development Corporation decided to release digitally enhanced versions of them under its ‘Cinemas of India’ initiative. And, this year, these films were stocked in the medium of choice for many experimental filmmakers today — online streaming portals.

So is Indian cinema ripe for ‘New Wave 2.0’? While it is still too early to expect a Bandersnatch, films like the Netflix-released Soni are winning appreciation. Directors are no longer bound to see their films released theatrically only. Perhaps, as Kamal Haasan once envisioned, we may soon have films released simultaneously on direct-to-home networks, streaming portals, and on the big screen. And the relationship between the filmmaker and the audience will be taken to a different plane through these many lives of a film.

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Printable version | Oct 29, 2020 9:35:28 AM |

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