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DEVAYUSH CHOWDHARY | 26 APRIL, 2015

The ‘New’ Indian New Wave


To talk about a ‘New Wave’ in Indian cinema is complicated, for unlike the French New wave and Italian Neorealism of the 1950s, and indeed several prominent film movements around the globe, the Indian New Wave has no clear beginning and end, and no defined aesthetics or issues. While Mrinal Sen’s NFDC-financed ‘Bhuvan Shome’ is widely considered to be the beginning of the New cinema movement, it has no clear culmination. The Avant Garde bug has caught Indian filmmakers in bursts and pauses. For example—Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, and Ritwik Ghatak in the 1960s and 70s, Shyam Benegal, Kamal Swaroop, Mani Kaul in the 80s, and Ram Gopal Varma, Mani Ratnam, Aparna Sen in the 90s and early 2000s—all brought new grammar and ideology to Indian cinema. But their films remained commendable singular works rather than culminating into a movement, and the makers themselves, with the exception of Ray, were either unable to continue with the kind of cinema they wanted to make, or adjusted and assimilated with the mainstream bandwagon.

Every year a bevy of films strive to tackle new concerns and do away with the aesthetics of mainstream Indian cinema to a certain extent, and are thus marked harbingers of a ‘New Wave’ movement; but a movement is much more than that—it is not only a cumulative shift in the ideology, aesthetics, modes of finance, production, and distribution of films, but also of audience appreciation. However, when a blind, middle-eastern girl appears on screen photographing the by lanes of Mumbai in Soap opera writer turned Avant Garde filmmaker Anand Gandhi’s ‘Ship of Theseus’, it becomes clear that something is afoot in the world of Indian cinema.

Gandhi’s is a film that uses three stories—those of a blind photographer who grows uneasy about her craft once her sight is restored, a monk who is forced to consume allopathic medicine—against which he is campaigning—to save his own life, and a stock broker who feels guilty after a kidney transplant by possibly dubious means—as pieces of a puzzle which finally unravel the makers thoughts on an age old philosophical conundrum (If each of the parts of Theseus’s Ship needed repair, and were replaced one by one, is the resultant vessel still “The Ship of Theseus”?) . The filmmaker uses characters and their stories to discuss his thoughts on the matter, rather than the film being driven by plot or characterization, as is the case with mainstream cinema. ‘Ship of Theseus’, which delves into intricacies of everyday life and transcends the material to philosophical discourse, is as much an experiment of the cinematic form as it is of the stories and characters it brings to screen. The film, which is densely packed with textual matter and comprises of scenes that seem more like panel discussions on art, philosophy, theology, and the universe, than conversations between two people, often frustrates the viewer. Nevertheless, this enigmatic and unique film can certainly claim to be ‘New Wave’ because to find an equivalent of ‘Ship of Theseus’ for what it aims to say, and how, one would need to do a thorough examination of contemporary cinema from all over the world. Interestingly, the film was presented by Kiran Rao, filmmaker and wife of actor Aamir Khan (and hence indirectly by the superstar himself), and thus acquired a kind of release, reception, and visibility that a film like this would find hard to secure in cinema markets anywhere in the world, let alone in India. For a brief moment, the makers managed to get actors, filmmakers, mainstream media, and the paying public sit up and take notice of the film. That a film of this kind was supported by mainstream star giants, and did the kind of business it managed to is certainly indicative of a new wave in audience appetite for cinema in India.

But in spite of its undeniable influence on the film fraternity, ‘Ship of Theseus’ fell short of making much impact at the box office. The monopolization of the distribution and exhibition network by the major studios and stars in Mumbai, and indeed in regional cinema hubs too, make it impossible for small independent films to find breathing space. Moreover, the multiplexes, which often credit themselves as supporters of Indie films, hike up ticket rates and give the best show times to the masala star vehicles. In recent times, debutant Ritesh Batra’s film ‘The Lunchbox’ was able to navigate through this nexus and to find box office success and global appreciation; and that in itself makes it a remarkable film. Of course, the film was able to get that kind of visibility because it was backed by mainstream giants in India, as well as renowned film personnel from over the world; which is reassuring because global players are beginning to take notice of Indian films enough to invest their faith and fortunes in them.

The film’s story about desperate loneliness shared by two strangers—Saajan Fernandez, a grumpy widower who is about to opt for voluntary retirement, and Ila, a housewife and mother who is feverishly trying to win back her husband’s affection—turning into love within the backdrop of urban chaos is certainly not a novel one, but the film managed to strike a global chord because of the universal emotions it captures. The film espouses a rare quality which is often attributed to Satyajit Ray’s work—it is so deeply rooted in its cultural milieu that the world it creates is almost completely real and thus immediately relatable. Subsequently the sentiments attached become as real and passionate as human emotions can be on screen. This in turn lends a universal quality to the conditions of the characters, and indeed the film too. The ‘Dabbawallah’ culture through which Ila and Saajan make their initial contact is unique to Mumbai and may take outsiders a moment to orient themselves to it, but the idea of something mystical lending itself to make unlikely love happen is an universal one. The film uses the claustrophobia of Mumbai to further separate Saajan and Ila from everything around them and add to their isolation, thus heightening the passions associated with the individuals and making them more unanimously relatable. For example, the extent of Saajan’s loneliness is fully realized by the audience, and indeed Saajan himself, when he cannot help himself from peeking into the happy dining room of a neighboring family while he smokes alone on his balcony.

The contemporary New Wave in Indian cinema is distinguishable from previous movements through several factors, the most relevant of which are the issues and themes it concerns itself with. Unlike in the past when India’s existence was a story of nation building, and thus the works of Avante Garde filmmakers were entirely socio-political in nature where the plot and characters served only as commentary on worldly matters concerning the Indian nation, today India is a nation that has made its mark on the global landscape and is now debating its identity. It is a relatively more affluent and secure state, and consequently the concerns of people have moved away from the world outside to the world inside—or perhaps it is a reflection of the egocentric times we live in, that matters concerning personal well being of the individual have taken precedence over well being of the state as overarching entity. It is the characters and their unique psychological issues that take the forefront in contemporary New Wave Indian films. Of course, the socio-political climate still plays an integral part, but as a backdrop. While Lakshmi in ‘Ankur’ had to deal with her tribulations because of her caste and position in society, Ila’s troubles in ‘The Lunchbox’ arise out of her personal relationship with her husband. Yes, the fact that she is a middle class housewife with a child does restrict her to a large extent, but her conflict does not directly arise out of that.

With the exception of the Bengali trio of Ray, Ghatak, and Sen, almost every New Wave Indian filmmaker had adopted a laissez faire approach as far as the craft of their making went. Films like ‘Ankur’, ‘Uski Roti’, and ‘Ardh Satya’ kept the focus on the narrative and adopted an almost dry approach in utilizing cinematography and other tools of filmmaking. Of course, there was the odd ‘Om Dar Badar’, which twisted cinematic storytelling on its head, but such incidents remained a rarity in Indian cinema. The current crop of New Wave filmmakers, like the Hollywood brat pack of the 1970s, are aware of their role as artistes and storytellers, but more specifically as filmmakers. While watching films like ‘Dhobi Ghat’, ‘Gandu’, ‘Ship of Theseus’, or ‘The Lunchbox’, the audience is very much made aware that the lights, sounds, rhythms, and patterns bombarding their senses are tools in the hands of the makers. Kiran Rao told an entire story using talking heads recorded by the subject on a handycam in ‘Dhobi Ghat’, Q mocked all limitations of editing and production design to create a world with his unique stamp in ‘Taasher Desh’, and Ritesh Batra placed known actors like Irrfan Khan and Nawazuddin in real nooks and corners of Mumbai which would only be populated by native Mumbaikars lending a quality of authenticity to the film that the most craftily casted sets could not.

The last few years, and more specifically 2013, has given exposure to more Avant Garde Indian films than can be covered in one article. While the impact made has been too minute to challenge the establish norms of filmmaking in India, and the concerned time span too little to conclude towards the beginning of a new New Wave in Indian cinema, one can positively assert that cine-goers are spoilt for choice. Be it Q’s trippy take on Tagore’s ‘Taasher Desh’, Kaushik Ganguly’s meta look at the world of a foley artist loosing his hearing in ‘Shabdo’, or the upcoming ‘M Cream’ which explores the curious relationship between frivolity and rebellion, Indian filmmakers are going places—perhaps not yet in the geographical or market sense, but surely in their own mind spaces. This is a vital first step.

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