India's Parallel Cinema

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 02 January, 2011, 12:00am

In 1948, an essay appeared in the British periodical New Statesman titled 'What's Wrong with Indian films?' In the piece, the writer slams the country's film industry - for that, read Bollywood - for delivering pale, cliched imitations of mainstream Hollywood-style entertainment. What Indian cinema needed, he wrote, was 'not more gloss, but more imagination, more integrity, and more intelligent appreciation of the limitations of the medium'.

'But the truly Indian film should steer clear of such [cultural] inconsistencies and look for its material in the more basic aspects of Indian life, where habit and speech, dress and manner, background and foreground, blend into a harmonious whole.'

The audacity and importance of this proclamation, made by a graphic designer and film buff called Satyajit Ray, predated 'A Certain Tendency in French Cinema', Francois Truffaut's equally hard-hitting critique of old-school French cinema, by nearly six years. By the time the Cahiers du Cinema journal ran Truffaut's declaration of war on cinema de papa, Ray had begun putting his words into action. He was already making a low-budget film about the struggles of a poor family in a village in the 1920s, with a team comprising a cinematographer who hadn't worked a movie camera before, and a cast featuring amateur theatre actors, an 80-year-old thespian who hadn't appeared on screen for 30 years, and - most staggeringly - an inexperienced boy in the lead role.

Ray would eventually finish Pather Panchali in 1955, its stuttering production hampered by a shortage of funds. The film was completed only through the backing of the government of West Bengal, which thought it could serve as a piece promoting the needs for road improvements in the state's rural areas (the title means Song of the Little Road in Bengali). Never would Ray have imagined the film's lasting legacy: it's a regular on 'best-of' lists throughout the past few decades, and its restoration - backed with funds from Martin Scorsese's The Film Foundation - was met with much fanfare.

The film will be screened at the Film Archive today as part of its Restored Treasures programme.

Pather Panchali would eventually become the first instalment in what would eventually be known as The Apu Trilogy, with the two subsequent films being Aparajito (The Unvanquished, 1956) and Apur Sansar (The World of Apu, 1959). While all three films present viewers with a magical, self-contained cinematic experience - Ray's poetic mise-en-scene was supplemented throughout by Subrata Mitra's fluid camerawork, Dulal Dutta's deft editing and Ravi Shankar's music - it would always be the first film that remained the most engaging and heartrending of them all, as we see the starry-eyed Apu (played by Subir Banerjee) grappling with both the warmth and harshness of human existence.

One of Pather Panchali's most memorable scenes is when Apu and his slightly older sister Durga, (Uma Dasgupta), emerge from a wheat field to run after a steam train that's passing by. It's a cutting metaphor of what Apu's generation had to confront then, as their rustic, impoverished existence comes face to face with the modernity dawning on a new, independent India (represented also by their contact with a traveller's film projector, and actors arriving from the city). All this paves the way for the film's finale, as the family is forced to leave its ancestral home for the city of Benares, where Aparajito begins.

Pather Panchali's success in the US (where it premiered at New York's Museum of Modern Art) and Europe (where it won the Best Human Document award at the Cannes Film Festival) propelled Ray into prominence, and made international audiences aware of the existence of Indian filmmakers who elected to produce work which strayed far from Bollywood's all-singing, all-dancing aesthetic. Admittedly, Pather Panchali wasn't the first such film to be shown outside India - Chetan Anand's social-realist Neecha Nagar was shown at Cannes in 1946 - but Ray's emergence heralded the arrival of what is now known as Indian Parallel Cinema, a movement which included Ritwik Ghatak (whose first film, Nagarik, combines realism with doses of avant garde theatre) and Mrinal Sen (whose early, explicitly political films include Under the Blue Sky and Bhuvan Shome).

Similar to other 'new wave' film movements, the Parallel Cinema filmmakers varied in their content, ideology and visual aesthetics. Ray was different from the Marxist Sen, who in turn made very different films from the Malayalam-language director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who spent his first decade making documentaries before delivering his critically acclaimed debut The Rat-Trap, about a paranoid patriarch and his crumbling family. What brings all these filmmakers together is a shared concern about the real state of the country they live in, and a desire to lead viewers beyond glitzy distraction to look at the conditions which shaped Indian society. Or, to use Ray's words, less gloss and more honesty - which is exactly what The Apu Trilogy did, more than five decades ago.

The Film Archive screens Pather Panchali today at 2pm; Aparajito on Feb 6, 2pm; and Apur Sansar on Mar 6, 2pm