Imagine the track of railway, the two lines running along simultaneously but never meeting at any point. Well, that is exactly what parallel cinema is all about; a type of cinema that never meets the criteria of commercial cinema. It is also known as the “Art Cinema.” A cinema that stays honest to the society. No melodrama, no over the top comedy, just mirroring to the society is what the art cinema does.

It is the effect of post independence era of India, inspired by the Italian Neo- Realism and precursor of French New Wave and Japan New Wave. It originated from regional cinemas prominently from West Bengal in 1950-60 which was further inspired into the development of New Wave.  The Bengali cinema produced internationally acclaimed filmmakers like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, and many more. This part of era is also considered as the ‘Golden Age’ of Indian cinema. The people who were becoming a part of this segment in Indian cinema they wanted and did use cinema more than an entertainment source. They used it to highlight prevalent issues and sometimes to throw open new issues for the public.

The art cinema is known for its serious content, realism and naturalism, symbolic elements with a keen eye on the socio-political climate of the times, and for the rejection of inserted dance-and-song routines that are typical of mainstream Indian films. Hence ideally, realism datezs back to the 1920’s and 1930’s. For example, Baburao Painter’s 1925 silent film classic ‘Savkari Pash’ (Indian Shylock), about a poor peasant (portrayed by V. Shantaram) who loses his land to a greedy moneylender and is forced to migrate to the city to become a mill worker. The 1937 Shantaram film ‘Duniya Na Mane’ (The Unaccepted) also critiqued the treatment of women in Indian society.

A still from Savkari Pash.(1925) source: Wikipedia
Duniya Na Mane (1937) source: cinestaan

Since the 1960s to 1980s, the art film or the parallel cinema was usually government-aided cinema. Such directors could get federal or state government grants to produce non-commercial films on Indian themes. Their films were showcased at state film festivals and on the government-run TV. These films also had limited runs in art house theatres in India and overseas. In South India, art cinema or the parallel cinema was well-supported in the state of Kerala. Malayalam movie makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, and M. T. Vasudevan Nair were quite successful. Starting the 1970s, Kannada film-makers from Karnataka state produced a string of serious, low-budget films.

During the 1970s and the 1980s, parallel cinema entered into the limelight of Hindi cinema to a much wider extent. This was led by such directors as Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, Mani Kaul and more. Many films started gaining commercial gains due to the amalgamation of art and commercial features in them, like ‘Do Bigha Zameen’ (1953) by another popular director Bimal Roy. Hrishikesh Mukherjee and Guru Dutt were one of the pioneers in integrating the parallel and mainstream cinema together into a new style of films.

Do Bigha Zamin (1953) - IMDb
Do Bigha Zameen (1953) source: imdb

By the early 1990s, the rising costs involved in film production and the commercialisation of the films had a negative impact on the art films. The fact that investment returns cannot be guaranteed made art films less popular amongst filmmakers. The decline of the parallel cinema in India is that the F.F.C. or the National Film Development Corporation of India did not seriously look into the distribution or exhibition of these films. The mainstream exhibition system did not pick up these films because these films did not have the so-called ‘entertainment value’ that they were looking for. There was a talk of building small theatres for such film, but there was no serious attempt made to realise this alternative mode of exhibition. Thus, it left to a few Film Societies to screen these films; on a single screening basis. The advent of television and its popularity saw the film society movement decline.

By, Khushali Thakar


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