And there are so many stories to tell, too many, such an excess of intertwined lives events miracles places rumors, so dense a commingling of the improbable and mundane!
— Salman Rushdie, Midnight’s Children
Bollywood films are known the world over for their eye-candy dance numbers, bubblegum pop songs, and epic run times. They’re like McDonald’s: Follow the recipe, please millions. They attract the rich, the poor, the young, the old, Muslims, Hindus—you name it. Usually in Hindi—the most common language in India, spoken by about 250 million people—they offer pure escapist fantasy for the masses: a sensory massage to rival Times Square, chock-full of beautiful people who never miss a step.
But taking Bollywood to mean Indian cinema is like assuming that no one in the United States outside of Hollywood ever picks up a camera. With over a billion people, 22 official languages, and hundreds of dialects, India has no singular identity. Yet it is commonly mistaken to have a singular cinema.
India produces more films than any other country in the world—around 800 features a year. And most of them are not from Bollywood (Bombay), or even the lesser-known commercial film centers like Andhra Pradesh, the home of “Tollywood”—or Telugu-language cinema. Instead, most Indian films are non-commercial, regional fare that address economic, political, and social problems, and run just 90–120 minutes. But their directors face a Sisyphean struggle to find distribution for their work, not to mention an audience. Add insurmountable language barriers, puritanical censorship laws, and the simple fact that until recently theaters had just four screening slots per day, intended for very long films, and you can see how Bollywood has become synonymous with Indian cinema.
“The term ‘independent cinema’ is not used in India,” says Vinay Lal, a cultural historian and film scholar at UCLA. “In the US, of course, it means a film that’s somehow outside the studio system, whereas in India you don’t really speak of independent cinema, per se.” Instead, you speak of “parallel” cinema—a term coined in the 1970s for non-commercial films that don’t fit the Bollywood paradigm.
But the term is somewhat misleading: parallel cinema is not a monolithic category, and it hardly keeps pace with its commercial counterparts. Also dubbed “regional cinema,” parallel films are typically in languages other than Hindi, such as Marathi, Sanskrit, or Bengali. Collectively, they reflect the India beyond Bollywood—or, as some have argued, the “true” India.
“[Parallel cinema] tends to be much less jingoistic, much less nationalistic [than Bollywood films],” Lal says. “And I think to some extent they grapple with what you might call the ‘ground realities’ of India. So they’re going to look at the whole array of social problems that the popular film might not look at, such as the exportation of women in small villages or the relations between landlords and landless laborers.” Lal quickly adds that class issues are not entirely absent from popular Hindi cinema. But because independent filmmakers are often rooted in the Marxist and socialist traditions of post-independence India, they are more likely to foreground such topics than Bollywood directors, for whom wide, commercial appeal is paramount.
“But I don’t think that parallel cinema is necessarily better or more reflective of what’s happening in India,” Lal says. “It’s quite clear to me that the popular cinema is able to access different kinds of social worlds and do it quite adequately.”
The difference is in degree, and in the tradition a given filmmaker—commercial or non—may be following.
Shortly after India declared independence from Great Britain in 1947, three types of cinema began to emerge. Bollywood promptly became the preeminent Indian cinema, and its style was soon determined by the musical sequences, opulent settings, and high production values that still define the form today. And the films were always long—three hours on average—in order to provide a full evening’s entertainment for poor audiences.
The second—“middle cinema”—were Hindi-language films that often featured Bollywood talent but were produced on relatively small budgets. These films targeted the same audience as commercial cinema, but they often broke the Bollywood mold and addressed social and political issues.
Finally, there was the so-called “art cinema,” the least commercial of the three. These films often did well at festivals but had trouble at the box office. Indian auteurs of the 1950s and 1960s like Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, and Mrinal Sen are still cited among the likes of Godard, Bergman, Fellini, and Hitchcock as masters of their medium. Today, Lal suggests, the “middle” and “art” cinemas have merged, establishing just two basic categories: Bollywood and parallel cinema. But some Indian filmmakers, perhaps for political or even marketing purposes, still identify themselves and their work according to the previous three rubrics.
Sashi Kumar, who released his debut feature, Kaya Taran, in Bombay and Delhi early this year, says that “middle cinema” still exists. “Increasingly it’s called the crossover film,” he says, “because you can keep crossing over to this side and that side, depending on where you are. But there are other filmmakers—and I like to think that I’m among them—who are in clear opposition to that kind of formula.”
Kaya Taran’s plot hinges on two religion-motivated genocides of the past 20 years: the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 in Delhi, which left about 3,000 dead, and the 2002 slaughter of 58 Hindus by an alleged Muslim mob aboard a train in the northwest region of Gujarat. The latter spurred two months of retaliatory attacks that killed over 2,000 Muslims.
Kumar’s film begins in the aftermath of Gujarat, with a young journalist whose research for an article about religious conversions takes him to a Catholic convent in Delhi. There, he meets a nun whom he recalls having saved him and his mother from anti-Sikh rioters 18 years earlier. Kaya Taran is a difficult film: Kumar weaves together elements of documentary, mystery, and personal history to create two narrative arcs that bear no apparent relation to each other until the film is almost over. Instead, the director requires viewers to piece it together themselves, engaging the audience in a way seldom found in commercial Indian cinema.
“I think that cinema of this kind cannot be subject to the laws of universal culture or mass consumption, or be directed by the tastes of consumers,” Kumar says. “And I think that films like this are influential in many ways because they get people talking about issues, and they give [a director] the sense of having made some kind of impact.”
Kumar’s goal is to stop what he calls the “willful, collective amnesia” among people that follows such atrocities as those in his film. “With time, as memory gets erased, we exonerate the culpable,” he says.
One of India’s premier broadcast journalists for 25 years, Kumar funded and produced Kaya Taran himself for $300,000. To appease censors, he had to display a disclaimer during the film’s titles that identifies it as a work of fiction—though he emphatically refutes that claim in conversation. Still, he says the biggest hurdle was publicizing the film, a prohibitive cost for many independent filmmakers in India (indeed, anywhere).
Kaya Taran ran for 10 days in Delhi and one week in Bombay, at multiplexes in those cities. A burgeoning phenomenon across India, the multiplex provides unprecedented opportunities for non-commercial filmmakers to exhibit their work. With the addition of hundreds of new screens over the last five years, multiplex owners are willing to risk showing films that won’t generate the proceeds of a Bollywood film. Indeed, Kumar’s film attracted less than 25 people per night during its two runs.
The reason is simple, and a little ironic: Kaya Taran is a Hindi-language film, accessible to a quarter-billion people in India, and it screened in the country’s largest two cities. But it failed at the box office because it was competing with the lighter, happier, more entertaining Bollywood fare also screening those nights. Meanwhile, an Assamese-language film from Assam, in the northeast corner of India, may have significant success in that region. In fact, if it became really popular, it could even be picked up by a Bombay studio and remade in Hindi.
“But if you’re a Hindi filmmaker, making a film on a much smaller scale with a much smaller budget about progressive social values, [your work] more or less gets drowned out,” Lal says. “So I think those films get less of a hearing, whereas regional films may get more of a hearing because their audiences are already more attuned to that kind of cinema.”
On the other hand, Kumar says that screening a film like Kaya Taran in major, Hindi-speaking cities also maximizes an independent filmmaker’s odds. “You have a bigger market, so you can have your film seen in many places at different times—and you’re more likely to recoup your costs,” he says.
Shonali Bose, an Indian filmmaker now based in Los Angeles who premiered her debut feature, Amu, at multiplexes in India last January, says: “I’ve had young people and college students come up to me and say they went to my film at a multiplex because they couldn’t get tickets to the big film they’d meant to see. They said they expected to walk out after 15 minutes, that [my film] didn’t sounded like something they’d be interested in. But they just got hooked.”
Like Kaya Taran, Amu focuses on a young protagonist—in this case an Indian woman now living in the United States—as she discovers how her own past coincides with the anti-Sikh riots of 1984. Also like Kaya Taran, Amu is part-mystery, but less difficult viewing than Kumar’s film. “[Filmmakers like me] are taking different themes, but using narrative in a way that’s accessible and can reach a wider audience,” she says. “That way it’s not just an intellectual cinema.”
Kumar’s film is not strictly intellectual, but it is more experimental in its form than Amu. And this was largely the point: “At heart I’m still a journalist,” Kumar says. “But I’m also very frustrated with journalism. While journalism can deal with facts, facts don’t mean a thing beyond a point. If you want to give a sense of the truth, you have to be an artist.”
Amu also represents another strand of contemporary Indian cinema. Over the past five years, increasing numbers of non-resident Indians—or NRIs—in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Great Britain have begun making films that specifically address the challenges they face in reconciling their two cultures into a coherent personal identity. Such films are often set outside of India and feature westernized characters as they struggle with, or discover their Indian heritage for the first time.
One such film, Leela (2002), tells the story of an Indian woman who breaks Indian customs when she leaves her husband and moves to the United States to teach at an American university. There, she develops a close bond with one of her male students, an Indian-American who is wrestling with his own cultural identity. “It’s kind of a Graduate meets Summer of ‘42,” says the film’s producer, Kavita Munjal.
Unlike Kaya Taran and Amu, Leela used Bollywood stars, but Munjal and the film’s director, Somnath Sen, sought funding themselves and shot the film in just 25 days—all but one in Los Angeles. In form, too, Leela embodies this conflation of Indian and American cinema. “Leela was really a marriage of western forms, in terms of storytelling, using the three-act structure, with the Indian way of telling stories,” Munjal says. “There’s a lot of music and dance.”
The latter quality garnered the film a lot of attention in India during its 15-week run, but the former disqualified it at awards ceremonies. “We used a top-level Indian cast, it had songs and dances, and we shot in India for one day. But all of our financing was US-based, and our production company was based in the US, so we were considered a foreign film,” Munjal says— specifically, an American film. “But I think that more than American or Indian, I just view it as world cinema.”
Films like Leela also reflect a growing frustration with Bollywood’s treatment of the NRI experience. “If Bollywood makes a film about NRIs, it’s about the rich NRIs,” says Bose. “There’s no reflection of the struggles they face here, or of what’s happening in the rest of American society. It’s just glamorized.” They also tend to reflect antiquated social customs, traditional family values, and conservative politics, further capitalizing on the nostalgia among certain NRIs for a motherland that no longer exists. And they altogether ignore the NRI experience in third-world countries like Trinidad, South Africa, and Fiji—all of which have large populations of Indian émigrés.
But the films and filmmakers discussed above represent a new Indian cinema, one that departs from such rose-colored fictions.
“And this new kind of auteurship is not to be underestimated,” Kumar says. “Young people all over India are taking their cameras and shooting their stories and expressing their concerns. And this is gathering as one huge oppositional form of art to the bigger, Bollywood narrative that has been developing for decades.”