India



ART CINEMA

In the 1950s Satyajit Ray's films placed regional Bengali cinema (received as Indian cinema) on the international map, and although other Bengali filmmakers, such as Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen, shared some of the national attention, Ray's international status gave him undisputed standing as the master of this cinema. The three films of Ray's Apu trilogy— Pather Panchali ( Song of the Little Road , 1955), Aparajito ( The Unvanquished , 1957), and Apur Sansar ( The World of Apu , 1959)—derive their strength from Ray's ability to create indelible moments from a naturalistic, understated style and simple narrative. Each film forces Apu to confront painful losses, which are offset by moments of quiet joy. Critics praised the films for their universal humanism, whereas the former Bombay star Nargis, serving as a member of Parliament, famously denounced Ray for "exporting images of India's poverty for foreign audiences." In 1970 an official art cinema developed in India, helped in no small part by state subsidies and promotion at international film festivals. A handful of directors emerged, filling the space occupied almost exclusively by Ray in the two preceding decades. A pan-Indian and growing middle class expanded Ray's audience beyond Bengal, and in 1977 he made Shatranj Ke Khiladi ( The Chess Players ) for a national audience.

Pinaki Sen Gupta (right) as young Apu in Satyajit Ray's Aparajito ( The Unvanquished , 1957).

Subsequently, other art film directors who emerged in the 1970s created a distinct niche in Indian cinema termed "New," "Parallel," or "Art" cinema. Subsequently, other art film directors emerged in the 1970s—Govind Nihalani, Ketan Mehta, Saeed Mirza, M.S. Sathyu, and the most notable among them, Shyam Benegal. Benegal's trilogy Ankur ( Seedling , 1974), Nishant ( Night's End , 1975) and Manthan ( The Churning , 1976) marked the beginning of the twenty-odd feature films he went on to direct. Art cinema's financing, distribution, aesthetics, and audience were in sharp variance with popular cinema. Eschewing popular cinema's musical and melodramatic formulas, the new cinema embraced realism in terse dramatic narratives that were often exposés of corruption among powerful rural landlords, urban industrialists, politicians, or law enforcement authorities. Although its output was a small fraction of that of popular cinema, art cinema received disproportionate attention in part because of its influential consumers, the Indian literati and middle class, but also because its novelty generated genuine enthusiasm in film critics. Critical commentary on cinema emerged along with this cinema, marking the beginnings of Indian cinema literature. Unfortunately, this literature polarized the relationship between popular and art cinema and favored the latter. During the 1990s state subsidies for art cinema diminished considerably, and the search for commercial success led some directors to pay closer attention to popular cinema, at times even adopting its aesthetic strategies.

By the 1990s art cinema had become repetitive and somewhat stagnant and began to morph under the influence of new entrants—diasporic filmmakers, some of whom were second-and third-generation Indians located in Canada, the United Kingdom, and the United States. These films' central theme is the cultural dislocation created by migration to the metropolitan centers in the postcolonial era of accelerated globalization. If Ray was the precursor to a broader art cinema that took off in the 1970s, the antecedent to the generation of diasporic filmmakers is Merchant-Ivory Productions—the combined effort of the producer Ismail Merchant (1936–2005), from India, the director James Ivory (b. 1928), from the United States, and the writer Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (b. 1927), of Polish-German descent, who together have made films about Indo-British encounters during and after the mid-1960s using a more or less fixed ensemble of Indian and British actors. Diasporic cinema since the late 1980s has focused instead on the experiences of middle-and working-class immigrants in their host countries, in particular the ways in which they negotiate cultural distance from the homeland. The audience is both the Indian diaspora and the middle class, a section of which dwells in both domains. Although the quality of these films varies, some auteurs stand out: Srinivas Krishna (b. 1913) and Deepa Mehta (b. 1950) in Canada, Gurinder Chadha (b. 1966) and Hanif Qureshi (b. 1954) in the United Kingdom, and Mira Nair (b. 1957) in the United States. Some auteurs have forged international collaboration around financial investment, distribution, and even talent. In searching for their own distinctive aesthetic, some have tried to appropriate or pay homage to popular cinema by adopting its most significant insignia, the song and dance sequence, whereas others have chosen realism, comedy, or lampoon as their preferred style.

In the twenty-first century, some in Hollywood have been carefully following the lead taken by diasporic filmmakers in collaborating with the mainstream Bombay film industry. Hindi cinema and Hollywood, long functioning in parallel global markets, have begun to take stock of the mutual benefits collaboration might bring. Hollywood is driven by its interest in novelty, lower production costs, and cheaper talent, the same forces behind globalization. For the Bombay industry's new generation of filmmakers, who since the 1990s have energetically experimented with commercial cinema, this presents an opportunity to tie in new sources of international capital, especially after the spectacular losses the industry suffered in 2002, and the lure of a crossover market beyond its domestic and diasporic audience. However, some Indian filmmakers are keen to win this market on their own terms, which to them means preserving the charm, romance, and aesthetic of popular Hindi cinema.

SEE ALSO National Cinema

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Corey K. Creekmur

Jyotika Virdi



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