Co-written with Jai Arjun Singh. This is the story on the Mint site.
In 1969, Basu Chatterjee’s kitchen-sink drama Sara Akash, Mrinal Sen’s playful Bhuvan Shome and Mani Kaul’s spare, experimental Uski Roti were released. They didn’t have much in common except that they were far outside the mainstream and felt like the start of something new. This sort of film-making soon acquired a label—Parallel Cinema—and its own star directors (Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, Saeed Mirza), actors (Smita Patil, Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi), cinematographers (K.K. Mahajan, Virendra Saini) and composers (Vanraj Bhatia, Rajat Dholakia). Its heyday was 1973-85, a time when film-school students took meagre National Film Development Corporation funds and tried to change society, one feature at a time.
Parallel Cinema has today been replaced by indie and arthouse, but we are taking this opportunity to celebrate a half-century of the alternative movement. We have chosen 50 films, one for each of the last 50 years, which are notably influential, obscure or under-appreciated. These have been drawn from a number of allied movements: not just Parallel Cinema but arthouse, Middle Cinema, experimental and avant-garde, documentary, indie. We have limited ourselves to Hindi-language films; we would be doing a disservice to other language cinemas if we attempted to include them. Streaming has made these films more accessible to the public than ever before, and we have indicated, wherever possible, how you can watch them.
Canons are invaluable—right till the point they’re not. Indian cinephiles have long bemoaned the absence of our films in Western canons, yet keep circling back to Satyajit Ray and Ritwik Ghatak, Guru Dutt and Mani Kaul. With this in mind, we have tried to avoid the already canonized Ardh Satyas and Jaane Bhi Do Yaaros in favour of equally worthy but less-discussed films. These 50 titles, together with suggestions for further viewing in each year, represent our modest attempt at an alternative Hindi film canon.
1969: Bhuvan Shome (Mrinal Sen)
Given the deep impression Bengali arthouse made on Hindi Parallel Cinema, it’s fitting that a Bengali director helped kick off the movement. From the opening credits, Bhuvan Shome carries the shock of the new—a furious taan (flurry of sung notes) as we race over train tracks. In his film about a stuffy bureaucrat (Utpal Dutt) who goes duck-hunting in Gujarat, Sen combines the playfulness of the various New Waves breaking across the globe—animated sequences, freeze frames, a self-reflexive final shot of a movie camera—with the realist approach of Satyajit Ray and Bimal Roy. He also tossed a bit of voice-over work to an unemployed young man—Amitabh something. (YouTube)
Also: Sara Akash, Uski Roti, Saat Hindustani
1970: Dastak (Rajinder Singh Bedi)
It’s significant that writer Rajinder Singh Bedi, a compatriot of Saadat Hasan Manto and Ismat Chughtai, made one of the important early films of the Parallel movement, given that a torch passed from the Progressives to Shyam Benegal, M.S. Sathyu and other socially minded directors in the 1970s. Dastak is adapted from Bedi’s Naql-e-Makaani, a play about a young Muslim couple who move into a flat, only to discover that it used to be occupied by a sex worker, who still attracts callers. You can see the influence of Bimal Roy, for whom Bedi had written Devdas and Madhumati, in the shadowy photography (by Kamal Bose) and psychological unease. As it happened, Rehana Sultan, cast opposite Sanjeev Kumar here, was in another film that year which dealt head-on with the then-taboo subject of sex work, B.R. Ishara’s Chetna.
1971: Anubhav (Basu Bhattacharya)
We spend a third of our time asleep, someone muses in Anubhav—20 years in a 60-year life. The theme of time‘s flow—and how it petrifies relationships—runs through this formally experimental film. Meeta (Tanuja) and Amar (Sanjeev Kumar) are a couple who feel they barely know each other. To convey this stasis, Bhattacharya uses naturalistic sound, unexpected freeze frames, and a self-consciously Brechtian approach to acting. Tanuja rises above the pitfalls of that device with a wonderful monologue that may remind you of Ingmar Bergman.
Also: Maya Darpan
1972: Abid (Pramod Pati)
It’s scarcely believable that the most mind-bending cinema of the 1960s and 1970s emerged from the government’s newsreel wing. Everyone from Satyajit Ray to Gulzar directed for Films Division, but it was the triumvirate of S.N.S. Sastry, Pramod Pati and S. Sukhdev that pushed the boundaries of short film-making. Pati’s Abid, only 5 minutes long, is a pop-art explosion, with artist Abid Surti posed in a continuously rearranged painted room in a succession of outsize spectacles, caps and colourful shirts (Surti says the idea was "artist is born, he creates work and passes away, but the work remains"). Vijay Raghav Rao’s burbling electronic score matches the frenzied rush of images. (YouTube)
Also: Maya Darpan, This Bit Of That India, Koshish, Piya Ka Ghar
1973: Garm Hava (M.S. Sathyu)
Not long ago, Garm Hava was a holy grail—a decent print almost impossible to get. With a recent restoration, it’s possible now to appreciate what a monument this is, a story about Partition trauma told in an intimate key. A world of sadness is revealed in Balraj Sahni’s little gestures: a shift of the eyes, a cane tapped on the floor. When a dying old woman is carried back to her marital house, the framing and sound suggest her memories of her first trip there. Many Partition films contain or allude to gruesome violence, but Garm Hava’s violence is subtler—it is about the uncoiling of the threads holding a world together.
1974: 27 Down (Awtar Krishna Kaul)
Kaul directed one film before his untimely death—but what a singular achievement it was. M.K. Raina plays a railway employee who is drifting through life, unable to escape the shadow of his father. Working with cinematographer Apurba Kishore Bir, Kaul films Mumbai and its trains in sooty, dreamy black and white. The pinnacle is a stunning scene in which a train disgorges its passengers on to an empty platform—the everyday made magical. (Hotstar)
Also: Ankur, Rajnigandha, Avishkaar
1975: Charandas Chor (Shyam Benegal)
Benegal’s Ankur is a cornerstone of the New Wave, but it’s perplexing how neglected his second feature is. This version of Habib Tanvir’s play about a thief who speaks truth to power is one of our sharpest satires on class and religion, and a meeting between cinema and folk theatre (with contributions from Chhattisgarhi Nacha troupes). But it is also an imaginative, playful film, beautifully shot in black and white by Govind Nihalani and marked by Smita Patil’s debut.
1976: Bonga (Kundan Shah)
Studying at the Film and Television Institute of India, the serious-looking Shah discovered a talent for slapstick and made a diploma film no one expected from him—a free-association tribute to Chaplin, Godard and the American gangster film. The dialogue-less, 23-minute Bonga is about a bank robbery, but plot descriptions are irrelevant; what matters is the rhythm and exuberance, the sense of a film-maker finding his voice. Here is the palimpsest for Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro; one possible reason Satish Shah got to “relax" as a corpse in that film was because of his energetic physical performance in Bonga!
Also: Manthan, Murder At Monkey Hill, Ghashiram Kotwal
1977: Alaap (Hrishikesh Mukherjee)
An Amitabh Bachchan-Rekha starrer may seem an odd pick, but Alaap was among Bachchan’s least-seen films. This tribute to the world of classical music (with a wonderful Jaidev soundtrack) also offers a “parallel" take on tropes from Bachchan’s mainstream roles: Compare the protagonist’s clashes with his father to scenes in Shakti or Sharaabi, which are in a much higher dramatic register. In the multiplex era, this film may have found its audience; in 1977, it stood little chance.
Also: Shatranj Ke Khiladi, Gharaonda, Bhumika
1978: Arvind Desai Ki Ajeeb Dastaan (Saeed Mirza)
Mirza’s debut begins and ends with images of poor carpet-makers, but its protagonist is a privileged young man. The handsome, callow-looking Dilip Dhawan is Arvind, a businessman’s son aware of the unfairness of the world, but incapable of action. With its unusual sound design—overlapping dialogue, murmurs, an explosive percussive score for the finale—the film draws us into Arvind’s inner world. (Hotstar)
Also: Gaman, An Encounter With Faces
1979: Cinema Cinema (Krishna Shah)
A film with cameos by Dharmendra and Hema Malini on an alt cinema list? In our defence, Cinema Cinema also has excellent Parallel Cinema pedigree: cinematographer K.K. Mahajan, composer Vijay Raghav Rao, and research by B.D. Garga and P.K. Nair. This charming history lesson, presented as a faux movie screening, looks at Hindi cinema from the silents to the 1970s. It’s lovingly assembled by Shah, whose impossibly eclectic career saw him direct everything from Shalimar to Hard Rock Zombies. (YouTube)
Also: Griha Pravesh
1980: Sparsh (Sai Paranjpye)
Paranjpye’s most popular films are the warm, whimsical Chashme Buddoor and Katha, but before them came this sombre story about a blind principal and a widowed singer. This sensitively performed film was notable for her workshop methods—shot at a blind school, with unsighted children—and her emphasis on authenticity, especially in Naseeruddin Shah’s performance, which underlines unexpected aspects of his character’s personality, notably his masochism. Here’s an “angry young man" to rival Naseer’s Albert Pinto.
Also: Aakrosh, Albert Pinto Ko Gussa Kyoon Aata Hai
1981: Sadgati (Satyajit Ray)
Om Puri, Mohan Agashe and Smita Patil in a grim 1980s film about caste oppression sounds like Govind Nihalani or Shyam Benegal terrain, but the made-for-TV Sadgati is Ray’s other Hindi venture, a few years after Shatranj Ke Khilari. Based on a Munshi Premchand story and centring on a Brahmin priest’s mistreatment of a low-caste shoemaker, it’s full of simmering anger and builds towards an apt, poetic resolution. It is the closest Ray came to working in the Hindi Parallel movement, and it should be seen alongside the 1982 documentary Satyajit Ray, Filmmaker—directed by Benegal, shot by Nihalani, and featuring a scene where the Bengali master supervises a bashful Puri and Patil as they dub for Sadgati!
Also: Chashme Buddoor
1982: Namkeen (Gulzar)
Perhaps even more than the other Middle Cinema directors, Gulzar adeptly toed the line between mainstream and arthouse, never more so than in this beautifully observed film which brought together a fine cast of star-actors—Waheeda Rehman, Sharmila Tagore, Shabana Azmi, Sanjeev Kumar—in a story about a household of village women struggling against immense odds. Though too downbeat in the end for many tastes, Namkeen works as a fine double bill with a Gulzar comedy released that year, Angoor. (Hotstar)
Also: Arth, Vijeta
1983: Arohan (Shyam Benegal)
It isn’t often acknowledged how self-reflexive Benegal’s cinema is—how aware of the innate artifice in even well-intentioned storytelling. His 1999 Samar offers lacerating evidence, but much earlier came Arohan, which opens with a remarkable sequence. Om Puri, introducing himself as Om Puri, tells us about the story we are going to watch—about the exploitation of land tillers in 1960s Bengal, influenced by Naxalbari. He introduces the other cast and crew members—standing around on location, chatting, smoking—and then they slip into their roles. The film is showing us its hand: Look, we will do our best, but there are things we can’t possibly know.
Also: Ardh Satya, Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro, Katha, Trikon Ka Chautha Kon
1984: Party (Govind Nihalani)
Imagine a room full of Arvind Desais, but pretentious pseudo-intellectuals. In this brilliantly structured and performed film about a high-society party, the conversation converges on a poet who has removed himself from this milieu to fight for tribals. Adapted from Mahesh Elkunchwar’s play, Party is a self-denouncement made by people who know they too are armchair activists. (Hotstar)
Also: Holi, Khandhar, Mohan Joshi Hazir Ho!
1985: Khamosh (Vidhu Vinod Chopra)
Coming in the middle of a decade where ensemble casts of “parallel stars" had Serious conversations about Meaningful things (see the last two entries), Khamosh is one of the most fun films made by the non-mainstream regulars. Chopra had a grand time overseeing this murder mystery set during a location shoot, where Shabana Azmi and Amol Palekar play the actors “Shabana Azmi" and “Amol Palekar", and Naseeruddin Shah shows up as a suave investigator. This is classic meta-film terrain, but it has genuinely scary moments —including the climactic revelation—if you watch it alone in a dark room.
Also: Trikal, Massey Sahib
1986: New Delhi Times (Ramesh Sharma)
New Delhi Times is a rare Hindi film with the moral murkiness of Z and All The President’s Men. Shashi Kapoor plays a crusading newspaper editor in this low-budget film about political corruption and media compliance that’s utterly relevant today. The unavailability of Sharma’s film has only added to its reputation as a paranoid political thriller.
Also: Chameli Ki Shaadi
1987: Mirch Masala (Ketan Mehta)
On one level, Mirch Masala—about village women in 1940s’ India taking on a lascivious subedaar—is an obvious allegory, full of symbolism: not least in its final moments, where a makeshift “fort" is besieged and underdogs rise against their oppressors with the only weapon they have, something they use every day. But there is also a sense here for the keenly observed small moment: the subedaar listening to a gramophone while getting a shave, the conversations and changing equations between the women as they move towards solidarity. An intriguing companion piece from the same year is N. Chandra’s Pratighaat, another feminist work, but located in a contemporary urban setting. (Hotstar)
Also: Ijaazat, Pestonjee, The Eight Column Affair
1988: Om Dar-B-Dar (Kamal Swaroop)
Surreal, silly, anarchic, hallucinatory and a dozen other things at once. Swaroop’s experimentation—unlike the quiet films of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani—is unrestrained, with a boisterous soundtrack, rich colour and chewy dialogue. This magic realist film was unavailable for years but a small, vociferous fan base kept arguing its brilliance, leading to a small theatrical release in 2014. (Hotstar)
Also: Pushpak, Tamas, Salaam Bombay!
1989: In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones (Pradip Krishen)
The title hasn’t aged well but everything else has. Pradip Krishen’s film, from a script by Arundhati Roy about a bunch of architecture students, captures the rhythms of hostel life like few Indian films. Roshan Seth, the one pro in a cast of unknowns, turns his rote authority figure into something conflicted. Roy is wincingly idealistic in the classroom and at her most alluring when combining saris with hats. It’s all bare-bones charm, from the hand-drawn credits to lo-fi Beatles covers. And yes, there’s Shah Rukh Khan in his first film appearance, arm in a cast, centre-parted hair, holding a cup like Miss Marple.
Also: Raakh, Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro, Siddeshwari
1990: Figures Of Thought (Arun Khopkar)
This warm 39-minute film by the experimental film-maker is an inquiry into the working philosophies of artists Nalini Malani, Bhupen Khakhar and Vivan Sundaram. It elegantly combines interviews with sound collages and images of art, nature and everyday life. As a grace note, animation brings the paintings to life in the closing minutes. (YouTube)
Also: Thodasa Roomani Ho Jaayen, Ek Doctor Ki Maut
1991: Raman Raghav (Sriram Raghavan)
Like its titular character, Raghavan’s first film is a phantom. It barely exists: There was no theatrical or TV release when it was made in 1991, no festival showing, just a few one-off screenings and the word of film industry insiders. Raghavan told Lounge he was aiming for “a mixture of documentary and extreme stylization" in telling the story of the real-life Mumbai serial killer, played with chilling matter-of-factness by Raghubir Yadav. This raw, cine-literate film, only 68 minutes long, became a calling card of sorts for Raghavan.
Also: Dharavi, Diksha, Kasba
1992: Ram Ke Naam (Anand Patwardhan)
Patwardhan’s documentary, which tracks the build-up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid, remains painfully relevant. We see kar sevaks in the film shout “Mandir wahin banayenge", a phrase which now trends on Twitter. “Those who dream of Babur, we’ll wipe out their aspirations," sing a van-full of them on the way to Ayodhya. It’s not difficult to imagine a similar scene in a contemporary film—or on the news (last month, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Yogi Adityanath referred to a rival Muslim candidate as a “son of Babur"). (YouTube)
Also: Suraj Ka Satvan Ghoda
1993: Rudaali (Kalpana Lajmi)
Along with Sai Paranjpye, Kalpana Lajmi was a rare female directorial voice in the Parallel movement. Though her Rudaali is as socially driven as anything by Shyam Benegal (whom she assisted on several films), it’s a heady sensory experience as well, with Gulzar’s salty writing and lyrics, Bhupen Hazarika’s music, and Santosh Sivan and Dharam Gulati’s vivid cinematography. Dimple Kapadia won a National Award as the Dalit widow who befriends a rudaali—women hired to weep at funerals—but can’t cry herself, though an even sadder sight is Amjad Khan as the overweight dying thakur. The actor died before the film released.
Also: In Custody, The Boy In The Branch, Maya Memsaab
1994: Bandit Queen (Shekhar Kapur)
Bandit Queen opened the doors to a more spoken idea of film language and a new kind of realism in Hindi cinema. Its shadow can be spotted in films as different as Satya and Lagaan and the recent Sonchiriya. Whether Kapur’s film did right by the real Phoolan Devi is a question that keeps resurfacing—and ought to, if its legacy as a vital work, and not an object of unthinking veneration, is to endure. (Sony Liv)
Also: English, August, Mammo, Drohkaal
1995: Naseem (Saeed Mirza)
Cinematographer Virendra Saini is an unsung hero of the Hindi New Wave. He brought his eye for meticulous frames to Mani Kaul’s Dhrupad and Sai Paranjpye’s Katha, but his greatest partnership was with Mirza. Naseem was the fourth time they worked together, and though one can sense the budget was paltry even by Parallel Cinema standards, Saini’s eye for colour and his placement of bodies within a scene is as impeccable as ever. The film, made two years after the 1993 Mumbai riots, is both an elegy and a reminder, with poet and lyricist Kaifi Azmi remarkable in his only screen role as the ageing patriarch of a Muslim family in the days leading up to the destruction of the Babri Masjid. (Hotstar)
Also: Father, Son, And Holy War
1996: Iss Raat Ki Subah Nahi (Sudhir Mishra)
Two years before Satya, a gangster film of comparable quality sank without a trace. It’s easier now to see it for the indie gem it was—a darkly funny mix of class satire and noir and gangster cinema. Ashish Vidyarthi is electric as the don in pursuit of an old friend and a philandering adman over one night. Mishra’s Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi is justly celebrated; this is the one that got away. (Prime)
Also: Fire, Daayraa, Jaya Ganga, Halo
1997: Private Detective: Two Plus Two Plus One (Rajat Kapoor)
In his unreleased debut film, Kapoor shows flashes of the dark humour which suffuses later efforts like Mithya and Ankhon Dekhi. His debut, about a cynical gumshoe (Naseeruddin Shah) entangled in a web of betrayal and murder, is best viewed as a crazy experiment: an attempt to pack the artiness of Kumar Shahani and pulpy private-eye tropes into the same frame. Kapoor, cinematographer Rafey Mehmood and a cameoing Irrfan Khan are clearly ready for bigger things.
Also: Char Adhyay
1998: Such A Long Journey (Sturla Gunnarsson)
We may have stretched the rules a bit with this one: The director and producers are from Canada, and the film is mostly in English (albeit a distinctly Indian spoken English). But in a year with several films that tried to come to terms with violent history—1947 Earth, Train To Pakistan, Zakhm—this was arguably the finest. A superb ensemble—Soni Razdan, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Vrajesh Hirjee—supports Roshan Seth’s heartbreaking lead turn as the hapless Gustad Noble, whose familial fractures mirror the larger historical schisms he’s forced to confront. (YouTube)
Also: 1947 Earth, Hyderabad Blues, Hazaar Chaurasi Ki Maa
1999: Kaun? (Ram Gopal Varma)
The two- or three-person chamber film is hard to pull off, more so in a whodunit. Varma had already infused adrenalin into 1990s’ Hindi cinema when he made this modest-seeming thriller, shot in 15 days. Even while introducing dabs of melodrama into noir staples—the imperiled woman, the sinister stranger—Kaun? keeps its suspense taut, aided by a Manoj Bajpayee performance that has the viewer off balance. You almost expect him to channel Satya’s Bhiku Mhatre and holler “Iss film ka psycho Kaun?"
Also: Shool, Split Wide Open
2000: Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar! (Hansal Mehta)
Dil Pe Mat Le Yaar! was one of the new breed of indies that emerged in Satya’s wake, and used several of that film’s personnel: Manoj Bajpayee, Saurabh Shukla, Vishal Bhardwaj. But this story of an immigrant who drifts into crime is also reminiscent of Saeed Mirza’s keenly observed portraits of Mumbai subcultures. It made little impression when it released, but holds up well, anchored by a stellar Bajpayee showing he could do gentle despair as effectively as rage or psychosis.
Also: Kumar Talkies, Rasikpriya
2001: Monsoon Wedding (Mira Nair)
Nair’s film won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and later become a substantial hit in the US. Still, success does nothing to erase the indie-ness of this film, from the nervy hand-held camera to the brittle writing. In Hindi cinema in the 1990s, the wedding was often a dramatic focal point. By having a wedding as her film’s setting, but using it to explore issues of class, sexuality and abuse, Nair was fighting commercial cinema on its own turf. Nair wasn’t part of the local scene, but one can nevertheless see traces of Monsoon Wedding in the “Hindies" made later that decade. (DVD)
Also: My Mother India, Chandni Bar
2002: Kali Salwar (Fareeda Mehta)
For her Saadat Hasan Manto adaptation centred on the life of a sex worker in 1950s Mumbai, Mehta asked artist Bhupen Khakhar to paint the sets, a decision both stylistically sound and philosophically apt, given his preoccupation with bodies and desire. The narrative collates several Manto stories, but the moments of inspiration are pure cinema. The juxtaposition in the scene where film whirrs through a projector and light from the screen falls on two men watching enraptured, which cuts to the play of light on cloth being stitched as thread passes through a sewing machine, is alone worth the price of admission. (Hotstar)
Also: War And Peace, The Men In The Tree, Mr & Mrs Iyer
2003: Haasil (Tigmanshu Dhulia)
A year before Maqbool released in India, Dhulia gave audiences an Irrfan Khan scarcely recognizable as the understated journalist of Ek Doctor Ki Maut. As the thuggish student leader Ranvijay Singh, Khan swaggers his way through this ferocious film about college politics in Allahabad. Dhulia may not have been as stylish a director as some of his contemporaries, but he understood the preoccupations of feudal small-town north India, and, more importantly, he could write up a storm.
Also: Matrubhoomi, Waisa Bhi Hota Hai Part II, Paanch
2004: Black Friday (Anurag Kashyap)
Many consider it Anurag Kashyap’s most “disciplined" film. That word isn’t necessarily praise when discussing a restless auteur, but Black Friday—while more focused than many other Kashyap works, and respectful of its subject matter, the 1993 Mumbai blasts—has many directorial flourishes; among them, a marvellously shot chase through Dharavi, and an extended episode involving the cross-country travels of a man on the run. Though the point isn’t underlined, this poignant pan-India tour shows him—and us—the cultural variety of a country under threat (then and now) from single-agenda forces. (Hotstar)
2005: The Blue Umbrella (Vishal Bhardwaj)
Ruskin Bond and Bhardwaj are unlikely collaborators: The former’s writings are genteel, old-world; the latter’s best films are baroque, set in the contemporary Indian hinterland. But they share a penchant for dark humour, and Bhardwaj gave Bond’s short story the texture of a fairy tale, giving Pankaj Kapur one of his best roles as a Himachali shopkeeper. The Brothers Grimm come to Hindi cinema. (Netflix)
Also: Sehar, John And Jane, Being Cyrus
2006: Seven Islands And A Metro (Madhusree Dutta)
“Getting here was tough. Should I talk about that?" This statement by an immigrant seems to echo Dutta’s determination to ask difficult questions. She uses interviews, vérité photography, scenes from films, and the words of Ismat Chughtai and Saadat Hasan Manto to create a bristling, unsettled portrait of Mumbai. It’s a reminder that documentary has as many creative tools at its disposal as fiction film. (Culture Unplugged)
Also: Riding Solo To The Top Of The World
2007: Manorama Six Feet Under (Navdeep Singh)
Singh’s debut has a great establishing sequence, acquainting us with a parched small-town landscape and the daily routine of Satyaveer (Abhay Deol), an ennui-afflicted engineer and pulp writer. Asked to play detective, he finds himself in a labyrinth of deception. This part-homage to Roman Polanski’s Chinatown (with nods to Michelangelo Antonioni and David Lynch) is a reminder that noir doesn’t have to be about dark shadows; it’s about the nighttime of the soul, even when it unfolds below a blazing Rajasthani sun. (Netflix)
Also: No Smoking, Frozen
Supermen Of Malegaon (Faiza Ahmad Khan)
One of the primary themes of modern Indian documentary is cinema itself. While fiction film gets the audiences, non-fiction has made a concerted effort to understand the ways in which cinema inspires and takes over the lives of fans. Khan’s documentary begins after a no-budget local remake of Sholay has become an unlikely local hit in Malegaon, a small town in Maharashtra, and its director has set his sights on Superman. We see the cast and crew at work, freed from the mundanity of their lives for a few weeks. The film gives them a dignity their crude efforts lack. When the director, after a failed day’s shooting, says, “There will be a lot of problems, I have to face them all," he could be Francis Coppola on the sets of Apocalypse Now. (YouTube)
Also: Mithya, Little Zizou
2009: 99 (Raj Nidimoru and Krishna D.K.)
This film is as far from the cinema of Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani as possible: no redeeming social value, just smart, fleet and funny. 2009 was a great year for just-off-the-mainstream Hindi film, and 99 got lost among films like Dev.D, Wake Up Sid, Kaminey and Rocket Singh: Salesman Of The Year. It’s ripe for rediscovery: Actors Kunal Khemu, Cyrus Broacha, Boman Irani and Mahesh Manjrekar have a blast with the Hawksian dialogue, and the blithe confidence of the enterprise—crystallized in the “Aaye hain baadshah" chorus of Delhi Destiny—seems to speak for the entire indie movement at that point in time. (Netflix)
Also: Cinema City, Aadmi Ki Aurat Aur Anya Kahaniyan
2010: Videokaaran (Jagannathan Krishnan)
The protagonist of this documentary is a philosophical young man who used to run a video theatre near a Mumbai slum. The giggling Sagai Raj is a real person, but also one of the most riveting “characters" you will see—whether he is discussing the merits of Amitabh Bachchan and Rajinikanth, relating his misadventures smuggling DVDs, or holding forth on how porn helps men figure out women. Raj is a construct of the movies he loves—and by the end he forces us to reflect on the essential, nourishing link between deprivation and fantasy. (DVD)
Also: Nainsukh, Dhobi Ghat, Udaan, Love Sex Aur Dhokha
2011: Bom Aka One Day Ahead of Democracy (Amlan Datta)
“I went for an ancient democracy and the world’s best hashish...." With these apparently disparate goals, Datta set out for Malana in Himachal Pradesh. There, he found a society that has resisted India’s attempts to bring it into the democratic fold, preferring to practise its own form of governance. The area is also the source of Malana Cream, a variant familiar to stoners across the country. The characters Datta finds are all memorable, but what’s even more impressive is how a film about smoking up also serves as an inquiry into the nature of democracy. (Culture Unplugged)
Also: Jai Bhim Comrade, Partners In Crime, Kshay
2012: Miss Lovely (Ashim Ahluwalia)
To say that Miss Lovely is about two brothers making low-budget sex-and-horror movies in the 1980s barely scratches the surface. Here is an abstract anti-narrative work that builds a sense of time and place—some scenes are intensely nostalgia-inducing—while also raising questions about masculinity. What happens when an introspective, “unmanly" man (the younger brother, played by Nawazuddin Siddiqui) has to negotiate a cut-throat world like this?
Also: Shahid, Celluloid Man, Ship Of Theseus
2013: Katiyabaaz (Deepti Kakkar and Fahad Mustafa)
There’s an unexpectedly violent rant in Kakkar and Mustafa’s documentary when a katiyabaaz (electricity thief) starts cursing the electric company, saying he would like to hang them from their necks from high-voltage cables. It isn’t meant to be taken entirely seriously, but it does tell you something about the stakes of this witty documentary about the oft-interrupted supply of electricity in Kanpur and its theft by unapologetic experts. The film charts the battle of wills between officials at the Kanpur Electricity Supply Co. and cutters like Loha Singh. Katiyabaaz wears its research lightly, unfolding as a blackly comic look at official corruption and individual enterprise.
2014: Labour Of Love (Aditya Vikram Sengupta)
Sengupta’s debut feature is wordless and wondrous. A man who works in a Kolkata printing press at night spends time apart from his wife, who works in a factory during the day. That’s all there is, really, but the film—hypnotically shot by Sengupta and Mahendra Shetty—finds poetry in the transitory, whether it’s a couple managing a few stolen moments together or water bubbling on the surface of a hot pan for a couple of seconds before evaporating. (Prime)
Also: Titli, Ankhon Dekhi, Placebo
2015: Cities Of Sleep (Shaunak Sen)
Only a handful of people are likely to have seen Sen’s documentary on the night shelters of Delhi. One can only hope that access to it becomes easier, for it’s a mesmerizing film: half investigative documentary, half philosophical exercise. Wanderer Shakeel is the most intriguing character, a man so driven by a desire to bed down for the night that he keeps altering his life story to suit the situation. But there’s also the proprietor of a tented video house that doubles as a shelter, whose pronouncements lend the film a startling poetry. He ends one of his sermons with “Raat ko hum nigalte hain (we ingest the night)"—something this film does as well.
Also: Island City, Waiting, Masaan
2016: The Cinema Travellers (Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya)
Abraham and Madheshiya’s documentary hasn’t had a theatrical or streaming release yet, though its long run on the festival circuit (kicked off at Cannes) is testament to its organic, vivid storytelling. The duo tracked the makeshift travelling cinemas that roam India’s interiors, maintaining a tradition that has existed since before independence, and is now endangered. If there was ever a snapshot of the Indian film fan’s determination to locate the magic of cinema in the most modest of circumstances, this is it.
Also: Mukti Bhawan, Phobia, Autohead, Tu Hai Mera Sunday, Kadvi Hawa
2017: Gurgaon (Shanker Raman)
This is one of a few recent indie films (another obvious title being Kanu Behl’s 2014 Titli) that present the Family as a nasty, self-cannibalizing beast. Equally notable is how it achieves its effects, through a series of crepuscular vignettes rather than expository dialogue—so that what at first seems to be a plot-driven film (about a brother-sister conflict in a nouveau-riche family of builders) soon becomes languid and dream-like, as if parts had been shot underwater. People do terrible things here, yet Gurgaon has little interest in passing judgements; it observes, like we might watch fish in an aquarium. (Netflix)
Also: Anaarkali Of Aarah, Newton, Gali Guleiyan
2018: Soni (Ivan Ayr)
The neologism “Madam Sir"—often used for a senior policewoman in India—implies that respect is being offered not to the woman in the high position but to the position itself, traditionally occupied by men. Soni, about the daily frustrations of two policewomen—and what it means for such a person to lose her temper—is very aware of this. It is a riposte to the macho swagger of films like Simmba; a line like “Dil kar raha tha goli se maar doon sab ko"—spoken by a 13-year-old girl—contains more anger and pain than fight scenes in such blockbusters. (Netflix)
Also: Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota, Pari, Tumbbad