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Celebrating International Movies: India

The perception of Indian cinema is often associated with the insanity that is Bollywood. Us Bollywood fans have fun singing and dancing along to the songs, making memes out of classic scenes, and getting together to turn our brains off and just watch it. The Facebook group Subtle Curry Traits' very existence is dependent on everyone making fun of Bollywood movies.

Of course, it should not go without saying that many of the big mainstream Bollywood movies aren’t good. My father can’t even bear to rewatch some of his favorite movies from when he was growing up. A lot of them are considered mindless entertainment for a good reason. But there is a whole world of Indian cinema that Indians today don’t know about, and it would certainly stop people from claiming that India isn’t capable of making great movies or hasn’t made any great ones in the past.

One of these great films was directed by an avant garde Bengali director named Satyajit Ray, who many Indians will have heard of. He is essentially India’s version of Akira Kurosawa, though their films couldn’t be more different. Ray’s films are inspired by the Italian neorealists, but the timeline is often associated with that of the French New Wave or the Japanese New Wave. He is one of the main figures in Indian parallel cinema, which was started in West Bengal in the 1950s to make better films than the Indian mainstream. It was the first of the many New Wave movements in Indian cinema.

His most famous set of movies are Pather Panchali, Aparajito, and Apu Sansar, frequently called The Apu Trilogy. They’re incredibly immersive coming-of-age stories about an impoverished boy growing up in a village. Pather Panchali was made for about $3,000 at the time. One distinct quality about his style is how lyrical the films are. They flow more like songs or Indian ragas rather than traditionally structured films. The Apu Trilogy also pioneered bounce lighting, which is a method of lighting that allows filmmakers to recreate the effect of daylight.

There are a lot of other greats in his filmography besides the Apu Trilogy. Nayak is a great drama about celebrity idolatry. Kanchenjungha explores the life of an upper class family with a hyperlink narrative structure similar to that of Babel. Ashani Sanket, my personal favorite, takes an unflinching look at the impact of the Bengal famine in 1943.

Indian parallel cinema has gone through various phases. Alongside Satyajit Ray was another director named Ritwik Ghatak, who directed Jukti Takko Aar Gappo, and Mrinal Sen, who directed Calcutta 71 and Padatik. Many of these films were not in Hindi, and all of them focused on the sociopolitical reality of India that the mainstream films would often sanitize.

Ghatak’s protégé, Mani Kaul, made Hindi language parallel cinema films like Uski Roti and Duvidha, as well as Kumar Shahani, who directed Maya Darpan. The movement had spurts throughout the 1970s and 1980s. It started to decline toward the end of the 1980s as films became more commercial, and there was less desire to fund art films.

However, as this happened, directors were also working on bringing parallel cinema to the mainstream, especially in the Tamil industry. One of those directors is Mani Ratnam, who has directed amazing films like Roja, Bombay, and O Kadhal Kanmani. His films take the traditional narrative structures and combines them with a lot of the neorealist styles of previous directors. He was able to break into the mainstream and make a film called Dil Se, which stars Shah Rukh Khan, one of the most famous actors in India.

South India has brought about some of the best directors in Indian cinema. Mani Ratnam was inspired by the legendary Tamil director Mahendran, who directed Uthiripookkal, a story about a sadistic man manipulating his village. Ram Gopal Verma is a Telugu director who introduced steadicam in India, and he has directed lots of notable films like the gangster film Satya, the political thriller Vangaveeti, and the horror film Raat. Ratnam’s contemporary, Bala, directed Sethu and Paradesi. The former movie is a dark romantic drama about a brash student union leader, and the latter is a political drama about the working class.

The current independent film scene owes a lot to directors like Mani Ratnam and Ram Gopal Verma. The introduction of the elements into the mainstream breathed life into independent filmmaking across India, though the distribution and marketing for films is still monopolized by mainstream Bollywood. It was proof that art films had entertainment value, and that the regressive view of the mainstream was shifting. Over the past 20 years, many great directors have emerged and have been working to close the gap between the fringe art scene and the mainstream.

My personal favorite is Anurag Kashyap, who combines elements of Tarantino and Scorcese with neorealist cinema of the past. His two best films are Ugly, which follows the hysteria of an entire community concerning the disappearance of a wannabe actor’s daughter, and Gangs of Wasseypur, a sprawling, five-hour intergenerational gang war split into two parts. If his name sounds familiar, he also is one of the creators of the Netflix show Sacred Games, which is amazing.

Anand Gandhi made Ship of Theseus, which is about various characters exploring the meaning of life and death. Jahnu Barua is from Assam and has directed Ajeyo, which is about a revolutionary activist. Dr. Biju is a Malayalam director who has made masterpieces like Akasathinte Niram, which is about an old man on an island confronting a young man robbing him, and Perariyathavar, which is about a father-son scavenger duo.

Female directors are also becoming more prominent in the parallel cinema movement. Deepa Metha directed the Elements trilogy, Fire, Earth, and Water, all of which focus on social issues in India ranging from gay marriage, to partition, to the mistreatment of widows. Kiran Rao directed Dhobi Ghat, a series of stories about the lives of people in Mumbai. Aparna Sen is one of the best directors currently, with films like 15 Park Avenue, which is about a woman taking care of her schizophrenic sister, and Goynar Baksho, which is a horror comedy about a matriarch protecting her family jewels.

The Bollywood mainstream is seeing an increase in quality of films overall as a result of the growing acceptance of parallel cinema in India. Aamir Khan, another famous Indian actor, dedicates his studio to creating art films with commercial appeal, such as Talaash and Dangal, the latter being one of the highest grossing Indian movies. Zoya Akhtar has also broken through with famous films like Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara and Gully Boy.

The 2020s are looking up for Indian movies, with more unique voices entering the film scene, especially for female directors. Hopefully more Indians can take note of what India has to offer, instead of bashing the obviously bad content that Bollywood tends to push out.

Notable recommendations:
Vanaja (Rajnesh Domalpalli)
The Lunchbox (Ritesh Batra)
Vihir (Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni)
Mitr, My Friend (Revathi)
Little Zizou (Sooni Taraporevala)
Udaan (Vikramaditya Motwane)