Fifteen years ago I was talking to film director Mani Kaul, the father of parallel cinema in Hindi, about his films. He told me out of curiosity in the middle of the conversation – ‘Very few people went to the extreme more than me. All the films made, all the flops!’ This thing stuck in my mind. Mani Kaul’s films are still discussed among cinema lovers of the country and abroad, but in the 70-80s of the last century, when he was making films, his films were not released in theaters.
The line between commercial and art films has blurred in the 21st century with directors like Anurag Kashyap, Hansal Mehta, Diwakar Banerjee. Today Mani Kaul’s influence is on the films of many film directors in different Indian languages. His films (Ashadh Ka Ek Din, Dilemma etc.) are being seen a lot on the OTT platform and the Internet. In that era, these films were shown in film festivals, but the general audience did not get it.
In the year 1969 Mani Kaul’s ‘Uski Roti’, Basu Chatterjee’s ‘Sara Akash’ and Mrinal Sen’s ‘Bhuvan Som’ started a new stream of Indian films called Parallel or New Wave Cinema. Filmmaker and critic Chidanand Das Gupta used to call the films of this stream ‘unpopular films’. The films of this stream gave many great actors to Indian cinema.
Mainstream cinema always demands huge capital and distributors shy away from putting their hands on experimental cinema. In the year 1969 itself, the ‘Film Finance Corporation’ (Film Finance Corporation) had issued a directive to provide assistance to talented and promising filmmakers by giving loans to ‘off beat’ films. Directors like Mani Kaul, Mrinal Sen, Basu Chatterjee were able to take advantage of this. In this period, apart from Hindi, many great filmmakers emerged in regional languages such as Malayalam, Bengali, Kannada etc., whose films brought a different language and aesthetic to the audience.
The 70s and 80s were favorable for filmmakers associated with parallel cinema. But it is not that all the films of this period were ‘away from the audience’. During this period, many such films were made which were said to be successful on both artistic and commercial criteria.
When Basu Chatterjee made his first film on Hindi writer Rajendra Yadav’s novel ‘Sara Akash’, it also proved to be his first commercially successful film. This realistic story of a middle-class family was well-liked by the critics as well as the audience. Similarly, ‘Bhuvan Som’ starring Utpal Dutt was also successful. The artistic and commercial success of these films encouraged Hindi cinema directors to experiment, explore new subjects.
Hindi filmmakers trained from FTII, Pune, Kumar Shahani, Ketan Mehta, Adoor Gopalakrishnan (Malayalam), Girish Kasaravalli (Kannada), Janu Barua (Assamese) and KK Mahajan enriched this stream of Indian cinema. But there were also many names that were outside the FTII, such as Shyam Benegal. His films were commercially successful as well as won awards at various film festivals. Shyam Benegal did not take a loan from the Film Finance Corporation to make the film. His first film ‘Ankur (1974)’ and second film ‘Nishant (1975)’ were financially supported by ‘Blaze Advertising’, while the third film ‘Manthan (1976)’ was made with the help of members of milk cooperative society of Gujarat. All these three films were commercially successful.
Commercially, Benegal’s films can be compared to Malayalam film director Adoor Gopalakrishnan, most of whose films were also successful at the box office. His first film ‘Swayamvaram’ (1972) won four National Awards. Similarly, ‘Elippatham’, ‘Anantaram’, ‘Mukhamukham’, ‘Kathapurushan’ etc. are also artistically excellent and thought provoking, which received many awards in the country and abroad.
Talking about Hindi cinema, MS Sathyu’s ‘Garm Hawa (1973)’, Govind Nihalani’s ‘Aakrosh (1980)’, ‘Ardha Satya (1983)’ and Ketan Mehta’s ‘Mirch Masala’ (1983) set against the backdrop of the partition of the country. ‘ Will also be said to be commercially successful. Socio-cultural elements were artistically incorporated in these realistic films.
Finally, let’s take a look at what the film’s lead actor Girish Karnad has to say about ‘Sanskar (Director, Pattabhiram Reddy, 1970)’, which pioneered parallel cinema in Kannada. In his book ‘This Life at Play’, he has written: ‘The whole film was made for 95 thousand rupees. Not only did the film do well at the box office, but it also won the National Award for Best Feature Film of the year – Swarna Kamal.
In fact, in the era of parallel cinema, films were being made for only a few thousand rupees. There were no ‘stars’ in it. Due to the low cost of these low budget films, it used to be compensated. Along with this, profits were also made from many films. We see and test parallel cinema only because of artistic values. We cannot compare the commercial success of these films with today’s or mainstream films made in that era.