Aakrosh, Mandi, Arohan, Pather Panchali, Ek Doctor Ki Maut, Nishant, Ankur and many more names will pop up in your head when someone talks about parallel cinema and how these movies act as a safe haven for your mind and mute the cacophony of mainstream bollywood musicals. Parallel cinema’s origin traces back to the state of West Bengal in the 1950s. It was a movement which focused on the socio-political and represented realism in its true form on a shoestring budget. One thing which made these films different from mainstream cinema was the absence of songs, these movies relied on their background scores which were woven so effortlessly in a movie, soon it became a part of storytelling in parallel cinema.
In the early age of parallel cinema, Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak, Tapan Sinha, Mrinal Sen, Khwaja Ahmad Abbas, Gurudutt and Chetan Anand lead this movement and later it produced pioneers like M.S. Sathyu, Gulzar, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Meera Nair, Nandita Das and many more who have made this genre a vivid mirror of the society.
Parallel Cinemas has a cult following since its inception, in the beginning, most of the cinemas were based on literature making it a topic of research for contemporary cinephiles and students. Long shots, rural or working class as their protagonist, close-ups, toned down colour palettes and rejecting the conventional fighting or musical score made it different from others. The direction is academic, with a keen eye towards framing, colour and composition. These cinemas are heavily fixed on the social evils or breaking the stereotypes like extra-marital affair, patriarchy, corruption, religious intolerance and poverty showing the grim reality of the world on a 70mm screen.
Another contribution of parallel cinema is it has produced many talented actors who reshaped the acting skills and raised the bar for upcoming generations. Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Farooq Sheikh, Smita Patil, Deepti Naval, Pankaj Kapoor are such actors who are usually called ‘the school of acting’ because of their method acting. They preferred parallel cinemas as those movies had the potential to use and nurture their acting skills.
Parallel cinema has always chosen a topic important to society and represented in a manner to leave an impact on the conscious whether it is Om Puri as an honest police officer trapped in the nexus of corruption in ‘Ardh Satya’, Farooq Sheikh struggling for a livelihood in ‘Gaman’, or Jaya Bhaduri suffering from the trauma of his Communist son’s death in ‘Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa’. All these issues were and still prevalent in our society which needs to be addressed and parallel cinema successfully manages to do that. As the time was changing, new directors were emerging who were carrying forward the legacy. It was the time when movies like Garam Hava, Ijaazat, Arth, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Manthan were coming from the arthouse and were swooping major awards of the country and was making its place as a different genre and garnering followers who were truly inspired by the sheer beauty of this genre. Mainstream directors were also making movies which were close to reality but still had the elements of reality. A great example of this genre is the ‘terror trilogy’ (Roja, Bombay, Dil Se) directed by Mani Ratnam which had all the elements of mainstream cinema but terrorism was the background of these love stories.
New experiments were being done in cinema, for instance, Ijaazat was a love story of a married man who is still in love with his girlfriend and his wife is aware of his love interest was a story way ahead of its time and is still considered a brave film to be made in this industry. However, in the 90s, the popularity began to drop as commercialization has taken over the country and bollywood was no exception in that. A bunch of mediocre films were being produced and was doing good at the box office.
Though parallel cinema was on its own course and directors like Govind Nihalani (Drohkaal), Meera Nair (Salaam Bombay), Deepa Mehta (Fire), Gulzar (Maachis), Sudhir Mishra (Hazaaron Khwahishen Aisi) were doing there job and were committed to not let this art form die, but the audience had changed and it was more inclined towards mainstream cinema. This trend continued for a long time but the success of The Lunchbox, Ship of Theseus, Masaan was an indicator that the audience’s preference is again moving towards parallel cinema. The line between Parallel Cinema and mainstream cinema has progressively been blurring as we witness certain mainstream filmmakers experimenting with form and ideas and with socially-engaged cinema reducing itself to a formula. Numerous movies have been made with different content and have been applauded by the critics and audiences. Newton, Shanghai, Shahid, Omerta, Aligarh are the movies which have been made on the real issues and registered a strong box office presence.
Every now and then that we hear that Bollywood has always maintained a distance from reality and we don’t get to see extraordinary content in movies, they are the audience who are naive and have little or no knowledge about the cinema because their choices depend on one quote “We go for entertainment, not to think” and until someone is ready to think while watching a movie, parallel cinema will always remain a distant goal for their intellect.