‘Alternate cinema’ in India, if the term is accepted as a description of films outside the mainstream, has had a fragile existence. Its earliest avatars include films like K.A. Abbas’s Dharti Ke Lal (1946) and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955). But only in the late ’60s did art cinema begin as a movement with state intervention when films like Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash and Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (both 1969) set a new trend. This cinema was meant to talk about the lives of ordinary people. Given this intent, other films financed by governmental agencies also emerged, the films of Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and Basu Chatterjee. But this cinema lost ground eventually, as it was dependent on state patronage and screening on Doordarshan to recover even meagre costs. Since this cinema targeted the educated Indian, the characters portrayed were from novels rather than the epics and Puranas. Mainstream cinema used larger-than-life characters from the oral tradition while these films had characters with everyday emotions.
This brief history is significant today as over-the-top (OTT) portals (Amazon Prime and Netflix, for instance) are assisting in the dissemination of films made with low budgets that cannot hope to get public exhibition in cinema halls. In the new millennium the multiplex revolution made it possible for films to target educated people exclusively, and films like Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox (2013) emerged. Where art cinema has gradually begun to address human rights issues, caste atrocities, displacement of the marginalised, religious tolerance, and so on, new entertainment cinema tells human interest stories for educated people. The popularity of actors like Nawazuddin Siddiqi, Irrfan Khan and Adil Hussain testifies to its success. But where multiplexes have helped small-budget entertainment films — and without them one might not have heard of films like Masaan or Titli (2015) or seen their actors again in cinema — OTT portals are even more audacious in what they choose to show. The arrival of OTT platforms in India has introduced audiences to a class of visual entertainment not seen before. Shows like Breaking Bad and Chernobyl are different from the best of television earlier ( The Sopranos , for example). They are hyper-realistic and give a credible sense of the physical milieu in which the action might have actually taken place, once considered impossible on TV. The Sopranos, for instance, hardly had the kind of artistic depth found in The Godfather . But Delhi Crime is aesthetically superior to even a hyper-realistic film like Gangs of Wasseypur . Independent films on OTT may not always be great but they provide variety and intensity that might not have been risked by producers earlier, when ready formulae were encouraged.
A unique grammar
A fundamental fact about Indian films that is not acknowledged is that they do not quite fit into the world cinema paradigm. Indian cinema has a strange grammar that is perhaps not even recognised as it should be. Indian cinema’s invincibility on its own turf — when better established cinemas have succumbed to Hollywood — as well as Indian art cinema’s inability to make a mark internationally in relation to newcomers like Turkey, Iran and South Korea — testifies to this. How is Indian cinema different? Authorial subjectivity/expression and character subjectivity (an event not as it is but as perceived by a character) do not feature as components. The camera eye is omniscient and what is called point of view is virtually absent. Instead of the story delivered to the audience to be interpreted, it uses the story to relay a pre-existing message to audiences — the sanctity of parental dictate (in Hum Aapke Hain Koun..!) or Marxist messages in the films of Mrinal Sen about the solidarity of the working class. Ambiguity and complexity are virtues in art-house cinema but one does not often find them in Indian films. In Indian cinema the tastes of the audience were always an imponderable, but now that does not seem to matter as much. Films on Netflix and Amazon Prime get reviewed in the media and opportunities are opening up. Directors working on low budgets can experiment, although experimentation still implies being able to hold the attention of an audience; it does not mean ‘avant-garde’. With a new kind of cinema, new kinds of actors and technicians are emerging. This means that small budget cinema has entered a new age; a novelty like Super Deluxe (2019) might not have been anticipated a few years ago. Mainstream cinema will, of course, continue to hold its own but one’s choices in entertainment will certainly expand, as will the artistic freedom available to young filmmakers.