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Western audiences have mainly experienced Indian cinema through what is known popularly as Bollywood. Films structured round song and dance, and full of extravagant action and melodrama. Thus, while popular Indian films follow different narrative and stylistic conventions, they do share the star and genre centred approach of western mainstream film.

Since the mid-1970s, India has led the world in annual film production. Although slightly decreased in recent years, the total number of domestic feature films made in 1997 still reached 697. Besides the quantity, Indian cinema is also marked by its great diversity in language and culture. While there are as many as 16 official languages, the majority of films are in Telugu, Hindi, Tamil, and Malayalam.

A rather different film experience, usually screened in ‘art film’ venues is the ‘New Indian Cinema’. A movement inspired by Italian neo-realism and at odds with orthodox Indian Cinema emerged in the films of Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen. Satyajit Ray is well-known in the west as a classic director and as an auteur*, [a filmmaker offering a distinctive style and themes]. However, he is not especially thought of as a political filmmaker and indeed he made caustic comments regarding younger filmmakers who were. However, he established the possibility of filming outside the commercial centres of mainstream film.

His fellow Bengali Ritwik Ghatak also scripted and directed films in the same period. He has not achieved the international reputation of Ray. But his political and educational work in film has had an important influence on subsequent film-makers.

In the 1960s younger directors like Mrinal Sen tackled explicitly political subjects and developed new and unconventional forms for such films. During this period such film production was partly dependent on state funding, including work commissioned or screened by the State Television network Doordarshan. There was also a predominantly urban network of independent exhibitors screening both foreign art films and independently made Indian films. Since the 1980s both these sectors have suffered under the impact of commercial satellite broadcasting. This has reduced the opportunities for independent film. There is a growth in international co-productions, but these tend to be for the international art film market.

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A chronology of Indian Cinema



At the start of the 1950s, Calcutta became a centre of art cinema with the emergence of the film society movement. Satyajit Ray’s Panther Panchali/Song of the Road, produced with West Bengal state government support in 1955, was an example of a new type of Indian film. Post-independence, despite a relatively sympathetic government enquiry in 1951, the commercial industry was the object of considerable moral scrutiny and criticism, and was subject to severe taxation. A covert consensus emerged between proponents of art cinema and the state, all focusing on the imperative to create a “better” cinema. The Film and Television Institution of India was established at Pune in 1960 to develop technical skills for an industry seen to be lacking in this field. However, active support for parallel cinema, as it came to be called, only really took off at the end of the 1960s, under the aegis of the government’s Film Finance Corporation, set up to support new film-makers.

Ironically, this pressure and vocal criticism occurred at a time when arguably some of the most interesting work in popular cinema was being produced. Radical cultural organisations, loosely associated with the Indian Communist Party, had organised themselves as the All India Progressive Writers Association and the Indian Peoples’ Theatre Association (IPTA). The latter had produced 'Dharti ke Lal' / 'Sons of the Soil' [KA Abbas; 1943], and its impact on the industry can be seen in the work of radical directors such as Bimal Roy and Zia Sarhady.

In the 1950s the influence from Europe on Indian cinema was noticeable. The First International Film Festival, held in Bombay in 1951, showed Italian works for the first time in India. The influence of neo-realism can be seen in films such as 'Do Bigha Zamin' / 'Two Measures of Land' (Bimal Roy; 1953), a portrait of father and son eking out a living in Calcutta that strongly echoes the narrative of Vittorio de Sica’s 'Bicycle Thieves' [Italy, 1948].

India’s emergent art cinema, led by the Bengali directors Satyajit Ray, Ritwik Ghatak and Mrinal Sen reacted against studio spectacles. Satyajit Ray’s world-famous debut, 'Panther Panchali', is based on many of the themes that engaged contemporary popular film-makers of the time, such as loss of social status, economic injustices, uprootment, but sets them within a naturalistic, realist frame which put a special value on the Bengali countryside.

In contrast to Ray, his contemporaries Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak set out to expose the dark underside. of India’s lower middle-class and unemployed. Sen, after a phase of didactic political cinema at the height of the Maoist-inspired Naxalite movement of the early 1970s - marked by the trilogy 'Interview' (1971), 'Calcutta 71' (1972), and 'Padatik' / 'The Guerrilla Fighter' (1973) - made two films, 'Akaler Sandhane' / 'Search of Famine' [1980] and 'Khandar' / 'Ruins' [1983], about film-making itself, exploring its inherent distance and disengagement.

Perhaps the most outstanding figure of this generation, fulfilling the potential of the radical cultural initiatives of the IPTA, was Ritwik Ghatak. Disruption, the problems of locating oneself in a new environment, and the problems entailed in trying to record “reality”, and the indignities and oppression of common people are the recurrent themes of this poet of Partition, who lamented the division of Bengal in 1947. Disharmony and discontinuity could be said to be the hallmark of 'Nagarik' / 'Citizen' [1952] and 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' / 'Cloud-capped Star' [1960], where studio sets of street corners mingle uneasily with live-action shots of Calcutta. There is something deliberately jarring about the rhythms of editing, the use of sound, and the compositions, as if the director refuses to allow us to settle into a comfortable, familiar frame of viewing. In 'Ajantrik' / 'Man and Machine' [1958] and 'Subarnarekha' [1952, released 1965] he juxtaposes the displaced and transient urban figure with tribes peoples; placing the human figure at the edge of the frame, dwarfed by majestic nature.

The 1970s were a productive period for such a radical cinema. However, in the 1980s the support from the State NFDC and the acess to audiences on State Television came under pressure. Whilst there had been state aid for production there was no national distribution and exhibition network for alternative film. Because of arguments about profitability and subsidy the focus shifted to funding Festivals and Awards. As Satellite television expanded it challenged the long-running State monopoly in Television. One result from such changes has been the gradual reduction of screenings for Parallel films, once a Sunday afternoon staple.

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Ritwik Ghatak was born in 1925 in Dhaka, East Bengal, the capital of present-day Bangladesh. While he was young, his family moved to Calcutta. He grew up amid the campaigns against British rule in India, the war with Japan and the terrible Bengal famine. This was followed by the communal violence accentuated by partition. By 1946 Ghatak had become a Marxist. He started writing short stories. Then became involved with the IPTA (Indian People's Theatre Association), a cultural wing of the Communist party of India, and worked within it as an actor/ playwright/director until 1954.

In the late 1940s he worked as an assistant director and actor in films. He found a cultural form that could reach greater audiences than theatre. In 1953 Ghatak won an award for his theatre work and also directed his first film, 'Nagarik', He made a further seven feature length films up until 1974.

In the 1960s, for a short period, he was Professor of Film at the Film and Television Institute of India, based in an old Film Studio. This Institute was the premier film training facility in India, and Ghatak had a marked influence on many of the students he taught; the best known of whom are John Abraham, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. A number of these were key pioneers in the New Indian or Parallel Cinema that developed in the late 1960s.

Ghatak died in 1976 at the age of fifty of alcohol abuse. He left behind almost 100 articles and reviews on different aspects of cinema, numerous plays, various film scripts, three novels and most importantly eight films. [Two of those films, 'Meghe Dhaka Tara' and 'Titash Ekti Nadir Naam' ['A River Called Titah', 1973] can be found on BFI video]. In his own lifetime Ghatak was overshadowed by the Satyajit Ray. However, Ray had little involvement or even time for the new political parallel cinema and Ghatak had a real and lasting influence amongst independent filmmakers.

One admirer offers some of the reasons for this influence.

"Ghatak tried to find a between popular melodrama and the avant-garde. He remained committed to a popular cinema, a cinema of the slums and the villages, and returned again and again to the ways in which melodrama is rooted in Indian popular culture. It should not be despised, despite Bombay talkies...

"At the same time, Ghatak believed in the need for an 'experimental cinema'. He was interested in the work of Norman MacLaren, the Surrealists, Godard. He did not see any contradiction between these two approaches. On the contrary, he seemed to think that popular art and literature were themselves full of devices which experimentalists were trying to recapture, as if 'intellectual montage' or' dream time' were implicit in folk fables and jokes. Experimentalism was both a quest for the new and a rediscovery."

[Peter Wollen, 'Meaning in the Cinema']

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Bollywood has more than held its own in the domestic Indian market in recent years. But parallel cinema has suffered a decline. There is a vibrant independent cinema, with many films arising from regional cinemas. Only a limited amount is exhibited in the west, and films with western finance usually get preference. An example of where that exercise can lead would be 'Bandit Queen' [UK/India 1994]. Made by Film Four it dramatised the story of Phoolan Devi, a lower-caste woman who suffered multiple rapes but surmounted this to become leader of a bandit gang. Arundhati Roy, a writer [now also known for political campaigns in India] published an article titled 'The Great Indian Rape-Trick', which castigated the film. She quite rightly argued that the film was longer on exploitation than it was on politics.

A similar problem can be identified in the work of Mira Nair. Her 1988 'Salaam Bombay' had definite political limitations, but it did focus primarily on the poor and exploited street children of Bombay. Her recent art house hit, 'Monsoon Wedding' [2002], focuses almost entirely on the affluent middle classes. The film, with its audience, only fleetingly visits the slums where the majority live.

At least one film has addressed the relations between the imperial west and India in a political light. This is 'Body' [2001] scripted and directed by Govind Nihalani. He has a long track record in Parallel Cinema. He worked first as a cinematographer for Shyam Benegal before he took up direction. The film explores the impact of becoming an organ-donor on a family breadwinner. The film loosely falls into a science fiction genre, offering a dystopia set in Indian slums. Nihalani commented "The essential issue explored in the film is ...where technologically advanced societies / nations dominate the economy and politics of the developing societies / nations?..."

Nihalani's earlier maestro, Shyam Benegal has continued to make films. However, a recent film seen in Britain seemed far less politically conscious than earlier films. 'Zubeidaa' [2001] recounts the life of an actual 1930s cinema heroine who gave up her career to marry a Maharajah. This instantly reminds one of Benegal's earlier film, 'Bhumika' ['The Role', 197]. However, that film included a trenchant view of both commercial cinema and of the way women are exploited in such an industry. 'Zubeidaa', by contrast, seems much more like a romantic fairy tale.

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