Sunday, May 05, 2019

50 years of “alternative cinema” – the Lounge list

For the latest issue of Mint Lounge, Uday Bhatia and I did a special cover story marking the 50th anniversary of the important cinematic year 1969 – we put together a (non-canonical and hopefully intriguing) list of Hindi films from outside the mainstream, for each year between 1969-2018. These are not long or analytical pieces, they are just samplers –but hopefully they will provide some food for thought, or introduce you to a few films you didn’t know about.

The story looks best in print -- so do try to get hold of the issue -- but here is the link to the full piece. And included below, for easy access, are the 23 entries that I wrote (including two that had to be taken out from the published story because we got the years slightly wrong).

Anubhav (Basu Bhattacharya, 1971)
We spend a third of our time asleep, someone muses in Anubhav, which means 20 years in a 60-year life. The theme of time and its flow – and how it petrifies or builds relationships – runs through this fascinating, sometimes annoying film, a formally experimental work unlike few others of its era. Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) are a married couple who feel like they barely know each other. To convey the stasis of their lives, Bhattacharya employs naturalistic sound, unexpected freeze frames, and – with more mixed results – a self-consciously Brechtian approach to acting; Tanuja rises above the pitfalls of that device with a wonderful monologue that may remind you of a scene from Ingmar Bergman.

Garm Hava (MS Sathyu, 1973)
Not long ago, Garm Hava was a holy grail – a decent print almost impossible to get, even in underground DVD stores. That changed with a recent restoration, and it’s possible now to appreciate what a monument this is, a story about Partition trauma told in an intimate key. A world of sadness and unrest is revealed in Balraj Sahni’s little gestures: a shift of the eyes, a cane tapped on the floor. When a dying old woman is carried back to her ancestral house, the framing and sound suggests her memories of her first trip here as a young bride. Many Partition films contain or allude to gruesome violence, but Garm Hava’s violence is subtler – it is about the uncoiling of the threads holding a world together.

    Charandas Chor (Shyam Benegal, 1975)
Benegal’s Ankur is commonly regarded a cornerstone of the mid-1970s New Wave, but it’s perplexing how neglected his second feature is. This version of Habib Tanvir’s celebrated play about a thief who cheekily speaks truth to power was made in collaboration with Tanvir before the play acquired its final form. It is one of our sharpest satires on class and religion, and a fruitful meeting between cinema and folk theatre (with contributions by musicians and actors from Chhatisgarhi Nacha troupes). But it is also an imaginative, playful film, beautifully shot in black and white by Govind Nihalani (who has much fun with zoom lenses), and the debut of the young Smita Patil, as a besotted princess.

Bonga (Kundan Shah, 1976)
Studying at FTII, the serious-looking Kundan Shah suddenly discovered a talent for slapstick comedy and made the diploma film no one expected from him – a wacky, free-association tribute to Chaplin, Godard and the American gangster film. The dialogue-less, 23-minute Bonga may or may not be a story about five people and a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are irrelevant; what matters is the rhythm and exuberance, the sense of a filmmaker finding his voice. Here is the palimpsest for Jaane bhi do Yaaro, the cult comedy Shah would make with his FTII colleagues six years later; it’s possible that one reason why Satish Shah got to “relax” in the role of a corpse in that film was because of his wonderfully energetic physical performance in Bonga!

Alaap (Hrishikesh Mukherjee, 1977)
An Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha-starrer directed by Hrishikesh Mukherjee may seem an odd pick for this list, but Alaap, made near the peak of Bachchan’s superstardom, was among his least-seen films. This loving tribute to the world of classical music and its practitioners (with a wonderful soundtrack by Jaidev) also offers a “parallel” take on tropes from Bachchan’s mainstream roles: for instance, compare the protagonist’s clashes with his authoritarian father to scenes in Shakti, Sharaabi or Trishul which operate in a much higher dramatic register. Made in the multiplex era, this low-key film would probably have found its small, dedicated audience; in 1977, competing in large halls, it stood little chance.

Arvind Desai ki Ajeeb Dastaan (Saeed Mirza, 1978)
Mirza’s debut begins and ends with unforgettable images of poor, voiceless carpet-makers, but its protagonist is a very privileged young man. The handsome, somewhat callow-looking Dilip Dhawan is perfectly cast as Arvind, a businessman’s son who is aware of the unfairness of the world (which he benefits from), but incapable of action. Here is one of the most passive “heroes” our cinema has ever had; as Dylan sang, “You know something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr Jones?” With its stately visuals and unusual sound design – overlapping dialogue, murmurs that we strain to hear, an explosive percussive score for the final view of the carpet-weavers – this film draws us into Arvind’s tortured inner world.

Sparsh (Sai Paranjpye, 1980)
Paranjpye’s most popular films – warm, whimsical – are Chashme Buddoor and Katha, but before them came this somber story about a blind school principal finding companionship with a widowed singer. Since they are both, in different ways, wounded people, there is friction. This sensitively performed film was particularly notable for Paranjpye’s workshop-style methods – it was shot at a real blind school, with unsighted children – and her emphasis on finding authenticity, especially in Naseeruddin Shah’s performance as Anirudh. What is underlined are other aspects of this character’s personality, notably his mix of masochism and fortitude; here is an “angry young man” as convincing as Naseer’s Albert Pinto the same year.

Sadgati (Satyajit Ray, 1981)
Om Puri, Mohan Agashe and Smita Patil in a grim 1980s film about caste oppression? You’d think this was Nihalani or Benegal terrain, but the made-for-TV Sadgati is Satyajit Ray’s other Hindi venture, a few years after Shatranj ke Khiladi. Based on a Premchand story and centering on a Brahmin priest’s mistreatment of a low-caste shoemaker, this film is full of simmering anger and builds towards an apt, poetic resolution. It is the closest Ray came to working in the Hindi “parallel” movement, and it should be seen alongside the 1982 documentary Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker – directed by Benegal, shot by Nihalani, and featuring a scene where the Bengali master supervises a bashful-looking Puri and Patil as they dub for Sadgati!

Namkeen (Gulzar, 1982)
Perhaps even more than the other “Middle Cinema” directors, Gulzar adeptly toed the line between mainstream and arthouse, and never more so than in this beautifully observed film which brought together a fine cast of star-actors – Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar – in a story about a household of women trying to maintain dignity against immense odds. Though too downbeat in the end for many tastes, Namkeen works as a fine double bill with a Gulzar comedy released the same year, Angoor; it also calls out across cinematic time and space to Basu Bhattacharya’s Teesri Kasam, in which Rehman similarly played a nautanki performer.

Arohan (Shyam Benegal, 1983)
It isn’t often acknowledged how self-reflexive Benegal’s cinema is – how aware of the innate artifice in even the sincerest, most well-intentioned storytelling. His 1999 Samar offers the most lacerating evidence of this quality, but much earlier came Arohan, which opens with a remarkable sequence. Om Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, tells us about the story we are going to watch – about the exploitation of land tillers in the rural Bengal of the 1960s, overrun by Naxalbari. He introduces the other cast and crew members – standing around on location, grinning, chatting, smoking – and then they slip into their roles. It’s as if the film is showing us its hand: look, we’ll do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know.

Party (Govind Nihalani, 1984)
A room full of Arvind Desais, but more pretentious, pseudo-intellectual versions? In this brilliantly structured and performed film, a group of people – mostly connected with the cultural world – attend a high-society party, and the conversation converges on a poet who has removed himself from this milieu to fight for exploited tribals. Adapted from Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, Party is a self-denouncement made by and for people who know that they too are armchair activists; that they still have tongues in their mouths, and hands to write with, only because they stay in sheltered spaces and don’t protest too loudly. Regardless of your ideology, or which “party” you support, this is a universal human story about the chasm between impulse and action.

Khamosh (Vidhu Vinod Chopra, 1985)
Coming in the middle of a decade where ensemble casts of “parallel stars” had Serious conversations about Meaningful things (see the last two entries), Khamosh is one of the most fun films made by the non-mainstream regulars. Chopra had a grand time overseeing this murder mystery set during a location shoot, where Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar play the actors “Shabana Azmi” and “Amol Palekar”, and Naseeruddin Shah shows up as a suave investigator. This is classic meta-film terrain, but it has genuinely scary moments – including the climactic revelation – if you watch it alone in a dark room.

Mirch Masala (Ketan Mehta, 1987)
On one level, Mirch Masala – about village women in 1940s India taking on a lascivious subedaar – is an obvious allegory, full of symbolism: not least in its final moments where a makeshift “fort” is besieged and underdogs rise against their oppressors with the only weapon they have, something they use every day. But there is also a sense here for the keenly observed small moment: the subedaar listening to a gramophone while getting a shave, the conversations and changing equations between the women, as they move towards solidarity. An intriguing companion piece from the same year is N Chandra’s Pratighaat, another feminist work but located in a contemporary, urban setting.

Kaun? (Ram Gopal Varma, 1999)
The two-or-three-person film, shot in a limited setting, can be very hard to pull off, more so when the genre is a whodunit (or a “who is lying, and how much”?). Ram Gopal Varma had already infused adrenaline into 1990s Hindi cinema with films like Rangeela and Satya when he made this modest-seeming thriller, shot in 15 days. Even while introducing dabs of Hindi-film melodrama into noir staples – the imperiled women, the sinister stranger who comes knocking on the door – Kaun? keeps its suspense taut, aided by a super Manoj Bajpayee performance that has the viewer off balance. You almost expect him to channel Bhiku Mhatre and holler “Iss film ka psycho Kaun?”

Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap, 2004)
While dealing with the bitter disappointment of his debut feature Paanch being held up by the censors, Kashyap made what many still consider his most “disciplined” film. That word is not necessarily praise when discussing a restless auteur, but Black Friday – while more focused, less meandering than many other Kashyap works, and respectful of its subject matter, the 1993 Bombay terrorist attacks – has many directorial flourishes. Among them, a marvelously shot chase through Dharavi, and an extended episode involving the reluctant cross-country travels of a man on the run. Though the point isn’t underlined, this poignant pan-India tour shows him – and us – the cultural variety and dynamism of a country under threat (then and now) from single-agenda forces.

The Blue Umbrella (Vishal Bhardwaj, 2005)
Ruskin Bond and Vishal Bhardwaj are the most unlikely of collaborators. The former’s writings are genteel, old-world, deceptively simple; the latter’s best films are baroque, set in the contemporary Indian hinterland, full of rough-speaking characters. But they share a penchant for dark humour, and in taking Bond’s children’s story “The Blue Umbrella”, Bhardwaj gave it the texture of a jet-black fairytale and shifted the narrative focus, providing Pankaj Kapoor with one of his best roles as a greedy Himachali shopkeeper. The tone and visual palette subtly changes from a bright, sunshiney one to a nightmarish one full of shadowy figures; the Brothers Grimm come to Hindi cinema.

Being Cyrus (Homi Adjania, 2006) 
 Saif Ali Khan has been applauded for performances that required the suave, urbane actor to step out of his comfort zone – as Langda Tyagi (Omkara) or Sartaj Singh (Sacred Games). But two films showed how his natural persona could be put to delicious use in a twisted suspense-comedy. One was Sriram Raghavan’s Ek Hasina Thi; the other is the under-seen Being Cyrus, in which Khan plays a drifter who stumbles (accidentally?) into the lives of an eccentric Parsi family. Even though it arrived right at the start of a more experimental era in Hindi cinema, this film was too offbeat (or posh) for many tastes. It needs revisiting.

Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh, 2007)
Singh’s debut has a great establishing sequence, beginning with a brief shot of a water tank, then acquainting us with a parched small-town landscape and the daily routine of Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), an ennui-afflicted engineer and pulp writer. Asked to play detective, he finds himself in a labyrinth of deception. This part-homage to Polanski’s Chinatown (with nods to films by Antonioni and Lynch) is a reminder that film noir doesn’t have to be about dark shadows or smoky black-and-white cinematography; it is about the nighttime of the soul, even when it unfolds below a blazing Rajasthani sun.

Videokaaran (Jagannathan Krishnan, 2010)
The protagonist of this documentary is a young man who used to run a video theatre near a Mumbai slum. Philosopher, street savant, teller of rude tales, the giggling Sagai Raj is a real person in a non-fiction film, but he is also one of the most riveting “characters” you’ll see – whether he is discussing the merits of Bachchan and Rajinikath, relating his misadventures smuggling DVDs, or holding forth on how porn helps men figure out women. Sagai has star quality, he is a construct of the movies he loves – and by the film’s end he forces us to reflect on the essential, nourishing link between deprivation and fantasy.

Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia, 2012)
To say that Miss Lovely is about two brothers making low-budget sex-and-horror movies in the 1980s – and falling out over a girl – barely scratches the surface. Here is an abstract, slow-moving, anti-narrative work that builds a sense of time and place – some scenes are intensely nostalgia-inducing for anyone who experienced the period firsthand – while also raising questions about masculinities. What happens when an introspective, “unmanly” man (the younger brother Sonu, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui), given to philosophising and dreaming, has to negotiate a coarse, cut-throat world like this one?

Ship of Theseus (Anand Gandhi, 2013)
The title of this elegant film comes from a well-known philosophical query, which suggests a measure of intellectual self-consciousness built into the project. A triptych of stories about individuals struggling with bodily changes and emotional epiphanies (a vision-impaired photographer has her sight restored; a monk faces a moral dilemma when he is diagnosed with cirrhosis), Ship of Theseus lends itself to being discussed in terms of its big themes. But it is also a splendidly constructed, visually fluid work, with some of the best ensemble acting we have seen.

Gurgaon (Shanker Raman, 2017)
This is one of a few recent indie films (another obvious title being Kanu Behl’s 2014 Titli) that present the Family as a nasty, self-cannibalising beast. Equally notable is how it achieves its effects, through a series of crepuscular vignettes rather than expository dialogue – so that what at first seems to be a plot-driven film (about a brother-sister conflict in a nouveau-riche family of builders) soon becomes languid and dream-like, as if parts had been shot underwater. People do terrible things here, yet Gurgaon has little interest in passing judgements; it observes, like we might watch fish in an aquarium.

Soni (Ivan Ayr, 2018)
The neologism “Madam Sir” – a form of address for a senior policewoman in India – has something pointed about it, often implying the respect is being offered not to the woman in the high position but to the position itself, traditionally occupied by men. Soni, a quiet, meditative story about the daily frustrations of two woman cops – and what it means for such a person to lose her temper – is very aware of this. It is a riposte to the macho swagger of films like Dabangg and Simmba; a line like “Dil kar raha tha goli se maar doon sab ko” – spoken by a 13-year-old girl – contains more anger and pain than the fight scenes in those blockbusters.


  1. Any idea where to get "Bonga" from?

    1. Don't know where it would be available these days. (I saw it exactly 10 years ago on a "Cinemas of India" DVD by a company called Palador -- they had FTII diploma films as "extras" with the main film, and Bonga was on one of those.) They really should make those diploma films available, on the FTII site or something.

    2. Here you go
      Yes they should make these gems available somewhere.

  2. Wow, thanks for this
    It will be my checklist for films to see, or in some cases, to re-visit