Cinema has seen new meanings get attached to it since its start. The early films made by the Lumiere brothers were mere documentation, where the camera was kept in one position, and all the action in front of it was recorded. This was the beginning of cinema, where the moving image fascinated large numbers of people. Over time, as many began making different films, a certain level of meaning started to get imprinted on the medium. And with the kind of mass appeal hardly seen in any of the other arts, cinema emerged slowly as a medium of entertainment, a place where you can forget all sorrows and just escape into the lives of your characters. But then there were also some people who wanted to break that notion and had an unlikely story to be told in an equally unlikely manner. They saw the world around them and came to terms with their own individuality, only to later splash all those emotions onto the screen. The cinema came to them with a new light, which allowed their artistic expressions to spread far and wide and spark up in the minds of the masses. Thus came a new kind of cinema which was named differently in all countries. In India, it came to be known as “Parallel Cinema.”
Satyajit Ray is often hailed as the pioneer who started the parallel cinema movement in India. His first film, “Pather Panchali,” became widely popular on the international circuit and is known for its humanism. Ray was influenced by world cinema, especially European cinema. With the destruction caused by the Second World War, everything was in shambles. It put some filmmakers on the ground, recording in real locations with non-actors. Vittoria De Sica made “Bicycle Thieves,” which influenced Ray a lot. The Italian films of that time evoked a certain kind of realism that was of a different kind and became a part of a movement coined by later theorists as Italian Neo-Realism. In India, filmmakers before Ray had also made films showing stark social realities. “Do Bigha Zameen” by Bimal Roy is also a film influenced by Italian Neorealism.
The fifties were formative years in the making of our nation after independence, with mass displacement of people and the trauma of partition. Plus, with the advent of this new filmmaking, many picked up the camera to tell these stories. It was certainly a new kind of cinema, but it was still made in isolation by Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak in Bengal and some in the Bombay Film Industry. Almost all of these films look at the world differently, infusing the creative spirit along with the known language of cinema to mend ways and arrive at new ways of storytelling—all of this in the sixties.
The advent of the Film Finance Corporation, which later became the NFDC, was an important factor in financing these films after 1970. Here were a bunch of young filmmakers, passing out of the Film Institute of India, having watched films from all over the world, coming out and telling stories of inequality, caste struggles, and tribal rights. Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Mani Kaul, and Saeed Akhtar Mirza brought with them their own distinctive styles and a critical understanding of the world to make films that we now know as the Indian New Wave. What encouraged new voices to tell their stories was the backing of the government. However, the NFDC failed to provide enough screens for their release. Due to the widespread appeal of popular films, these films could not secure an audience. And so they were screened later only by film societies in small gatherings.
There is a need for art to be slow and reflective sometimes, which takes you to a different realm of thought and experience. It should be a mirror at times and also be able to go into the intrinsic qualities of being human while remaining true to the aesthetics. “Pather Panchali” by Ray feels like a different experience because Ray tells his story that way. There is a striking sensitivity with which he looks through the lens and presents his flowing images. In a similar fashion, shifting the background to a city landscape, he explores the loneliness of a woman in “Charulata.” A small homage is given to the French New Wave filmmaker Francois Truffaut in the end when the film ends with a freeze-frame invoking the climax of his film “400 Blows”. Ray was an important figure in the parallel cinema movement. His name is evoked in India and abroad, with his films influencing filmmakers like Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese. Along with others, Satyajit Ray became the torchbearer of a new ‘meaningful’ cinema, exploring the medium and reveling in its successes.
Cut to present times, where there are many filmmakers who are keeping that sense of aesthetics and poetics alive by making films that are off-beat and visually striking. The curse of the mainstream is yet to take everything under its arms in India, and now, with the streaming platforms, small films are finding more viewers who appreciate and want to see more such films. “Masaan” by Neeraj Ghaywan is one film released in recent years which has already turned into a classic. Made with non-popular faces, with a different approach to storytelling, and based on such complex themes, it is proof of how there is a space for that distinct voice to be heard. It is a film that forced its way into the mainstream, making everyone notice. Then there is the regional cinema, which is starkly original in its portrayal of the local countryside and its people. All of these films are challenging the old norms and rules and creating new ground in storytelling.
We need films to talk about the meticulous details of life. We need filmgoers who want to watch films with a different perspective. We need makers who want to imbibe a certain learning about the medium to the masses. It’s only when we reflect in contemplation that we get closer to a certain truth. Films have the means to do that. The parallel cinema movement brought new stories to the screen, making space for fresh voices. They further stretched the boundaries of narrative, and filmmakers today continue to do so. They are like echoes that spread far and wide, diffusing through the air and sending ripples of thought to the limited number of people they manage to enthrall. And the echoes do remain.