Contributed by Rochona Majumdar
The expression “Bollywood” writes the film scholar Tejaswini Ganti was a “tongue-in-cheek term created by the English language press in India.” Today it has become a global term that designates the large number of Hindi language films made by the film industry based in Mumbai. The history of Hindi (and other regional language) films goes back to the 1930s when the earliest sound films were made in India. Most of these films featured set pieces of song and dance, a love story between a man and woman, and the trials and tribulations of a large joint family. By the 1970s as more and more Hindi films were made with the goal of raking fortunes in the box office, additional features were added to the above—elaborate chase and fight sequences, a rain song, corrupt politicians and policemen, and a melodramatic ending.
The so-called independent cinemas of India came later. It is typical to date the beginnings of such film-making to Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Song of the Road) in 1955. Ray was followed by many other directors whose films did not always succeed at the box office in India but were often feted by festival juries both at home and abroad. Some important names of independent cinema would include Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Shyam Benegal, Aparna Sen, and Govind Nihalini. Both Bollywood films and art films in India have their repertoire of classics–Sholay, Maine Pyar Kiya, Qayamat se Qayamat Tak, and Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jayenge, the Apu trilogy, Meghe Dhaka Tara, 36 Chowranghee Lane, and Garam Hawa would be included in any account of cinema in India.
The most important difference between independent cinema and Bollywood cinema lies in the thematic focus and narrative style of the films. Parallel cinema in India has remained committed to theories of realism/ neo-realism/ and modernism in cinema.
Most important, however, is the fact that many hugely successful Bollywood films are often quite conservative in their depiction of Indian family values and defense of patriarchal norms. Independent cinema is much more about questioning established social structures and cultural practice—both in the public and private spheres of Indian life. This is true not only of alternative films made in the 1960s and 1970s, but has become more prominent as a young breed of filmmakers has emerged on the Indian cinematic horizon. They simultaneously mark their distance from Bollywood style filmmaking even as they frequently utilize the star power of Bollywood and are sometimes patronized by the same production houses.
What marks them out as independent filmmakers (whose works are being showcased by this festival) is their commitment to represent a slice of contemporary Indian socio-political life without the frills of a typical Bollywood masala film. Many of these filmmakers, such as Anurag Kashyap, may even include a song number in their films. But the picturization of the song is deliberately different from a Bollywood number. Independent films are made on themes such as rural poverty, dowry problems, urban ennui and violence, changing sexual mores of urban and suburban India. They are different from Bollywood films in their narrative style, camera work, mise-en-scene, and dialogs. Above all else, however, their commitment to capture ‘change’ in India, in both its progressive and retrogressive aspects marks these films out as distinct from their Bollywood counterparts.
A few names of contemporary Indian independent cinema include Anurag Kahsyap, Aparna Sen, Kiran Rao, Rituparno Ghosh, Aniruddha Roy Chowdhury, Nandita Das, Vikram Motwane, and Deepti Naval. This list is by no means complete. These directors stand out in their success in making low budget (especially in comparison to Bollywood), politically charged, and sensitive films that appeal to both global and local tastes.
- Rochona Majumdar is assistant professor at the department of South Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Chicago. She teaches and writes on Indian gender and cinema histories.
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