Indian Cinema is redolent of colour, life, energy, predictable plots, simple characters and cliched endings. The mainstream commercial movies nearly always sit comfortably within a long-established paradigm. Dance sequences, romances and happy endings are rarely replaced by something more challenging. However, behind the first glimpse of midriff-flaunting heroines and hunky heroes lies the dark and enchanting world of Indian alternative cinema.
For many, India is a world of harm and pain. In a country of such glaring poverty and suffering, it is remarkable how easily mainstream cinema ignores social problems, indulging in pure escapism. The alternative cinema, however, points the camera away from the ideal lives and perfect bodies of the Bollywood scene and chases something more profound. Unsurprisingly it started in Bengal. This state, on the eastern shoulder of India, is known for its intellect. Many of the philosophical pathbreakers of independence came from here and Bengalis take up more than their fair share of seats in India’s prestigious universities. Here, India’s version of the New Wave was born.
The paterfamilias of this genre is Satyajit Ray. A child of Bengali intellectualism, his grandfather was a known philosopher and founding member of the influential cultural movement known as the Brahmo Samaj. Satyajit Ray’s career was all set to be typical Bollywood until Jean Renoir, The Bicycle Thieves and Italian Neorealism hit him while on a trip to London.
In a brilliant inter-cultural sleight-of-Hind Ray took the New Wave of European Cinema and gave it a local twist. In a kind of reverse-colonisation he took a western form and made it Indian, giving birth to a whole genre in the process. His sparse and moving Panther Panchali is a tour-de-force of independent film making. It was filmed over three years in fits and starts, as and when funding became available. He maintained his integrity at all costs – refusing funding from anyone that required an alteration of the script or demanded the imposition of a producer. The resulting film is a stark and moving portrayal of the desperation of poverty. Its searing portrayal of human weakness fills it with an almost Tolstoyan spirit.
Ray was a filmmaker able to use the magic of cinema, formerly mostly used for entertainment, to help a nation realise itself and come to terms with its own (often forgotten) realities. Many followed him and the Indian Art Cinema represented a kind of renaissance as the artists of this most modern form re-discovered the power of traditional Indian literature and folklore and created something sublime. From Ritwik Ghatak’s portrayal of homeless and rootless refugees in Calcutta to the startling representation of modern Gandhianism in Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mar to the frank defence of Nehruvian socialism in Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin, there have been many superb films produced in this genre that address a vast number of issues and ideas, populated with diverse and unique characters and all driving home a powerful and dissenting message.
There is a permanent struggle between the commercial and the artistic throughout the world of cinema. In India it looks like the commercial side is winning. The financial untenability of many art films, the rapacity of film financiers (including the Mumbai underworld) and the limitless demand for run-of-the-mill movies in India has threatened independent film. One can only hope that some of the millions of rupees that float around Bollywood find their way to a modern-day Satyajit Ray. India is a land with a billion stories to tell and it a shame that Bollywood keeps retelling the same one.