The Indian ‘New Wave’ for the Millennialby Prof. Surender Chawdhary December 23 2021, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 13 mins, 48 secs
Even though I use a lot of close ups, “Once upon a time, long, long ago…” should be the tone and tenor of this account from about 50 years ago, writes Prof. Surender Chawdhary.
Warning: This is not an exercise in praising our famous men.
Critics and commentators gave it fancy names such as the ‘New Wave’, ‘New Cinema’, ‘Parallel Cinema’, ‘Alternate Cinema’ and the rest, but looking back it was nothing sexier than a ‘sarkari program’ to promote Indian films, which sadly failed. The Indian New Wave would never qualify in the history of cinema for a higher grade than also ran.
Satyajit Ray dawned upon the Indian scene within years of Independence and soon the world wanted to know what else Indian cinema had to offer. But we had only our star-driven song and dance dramas. Clearly, running away from home wasn’t the best way to join the p rofession and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru’s socialist government of his days decided to act.
Over the early 1960s started a number of government initiatives: a film school in Pune (then Poona) called Film Institute of India (today’s FTII), its adjunct next door by way of a film library, National Film Archive of India (NFAI), International Film Festival of India (IFFI) and its non-competitive variant Filmotsav, as our windows to the world and a scheme of National Film Awards to single out our own artists and technicians. In 1965 came the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), today’s NFDC, to break the monopoly of shady moneylenders and grant easy loans to promising new filmmakers.
Mrinal Sen had made films before but his FFC financed Bhuvan Shome (1969) is considered as the first film of the Indian New Wave. Check out this beauty on your laptops. And while there, check also Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Aakash, Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan, Shyam Benegal’s Ankur and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Swayamvaram.
All these films are supposed to be classics. Those that had been tone deaf to the basics of the medium argued they were experimenting - so no accountability - while others struggling with regular narrations produced nothing but bumpy rides. Most of them were adaptations but that had nothing to do with the makers’ love for literature. The nudge had come from FFC, the bureaucrats of which anticipated auditors’ objections to giving away government funds to nobodies had come up with this jugalbandhi idea. If a certain Kumar Shahani had failed, so had the Hindi literature’s stalwart Nirmal Verma on whose story the young man had banked.
With similar foresight the government had appointed Filmfare editor BK Karanjia as head of the FFC. For along with Karanjia came the goodwill of the vast empire of Times of India, whose critics - and in time those of other magazines too - made it a mission of their otherwise staid careers to promote what promised to be an alternative feed to Bollywood. The same critics later flew to European festivals and sent back glorious accounts of how those festivals had begun to spin around Indian films and delegations - all intended, again, for the government files and eventually the auditors. Foreign critics, on their part, saw the Indian government’s backing to the campaign and became regulars to our own annual IFFIs and Filmotsavs.
In early 1980s, Indira Gandhi got NFDC to co-produce Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi and for the first time the agency made money. But they had no solution for our own deadlocked situation where loan applications had kept piling alongside hundreds of unreleased cans. Let’s have Art House theaters dedicated to parallel cinema, screamed the young masters. Instead, let’s have stars, the NFDC began to ‘suggest’ to the new applicants - surely chocolate ones are not the only ones there are, are there? Let’s have songs and dances, they said - Indians don’t just brood but also have fun in real life, don’t they? The prodding resulted in some middle-of-the-road films but nothing of lasting value. The loans were eventually written off by playing the films at late night slots on Doordarshan.
The agony came to an end unexpectedly - stole in some brilliant Iranian cinema and took away the international limelight. Unlike our labored produce, the Iranian films rang like a bell and the world heard in awe and respect. “Sir, have you seen the Iranian packet?” - gradually began to be asked by our old boys entering or exiting festival theaters invoking the Institute’s Film Appreciation culture. “No, I am looking at your films!” - would be my seething response, aloud or muttered. The Iranian Wave left our apologists with no listeners; we had simply been outclassed.
For the record, Arun Khopkar’s Katha Don Ganpatraonchi (1995) has to be counted as the last film of the ‘Wave’ after which nobody applied for the honors. Combining the worst of Hindi cinema and Marathi theater - you may like to go back to your laptops - the film had everything that Khopkar had cocked a snook at all through his 30 years in the medium, first acting in a Mani Kaul film, then training and then lecturing in FTII and elsewhere.
Runaways from home would have done a better job.
Adoor Goplakrishnan, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Shatrughan Sinha, Gobardhan Asrani, John Abraham (Malayali art filmmaker of the ‘70s and ‘80s, not the Bollywood actor) and KK Mahajan were my seniors and could have ragged me when I joined in 1968. Nirad Mohapatra, KG George and Vinay Shukla (as indeed Jaya Bhaduri and Dengzongpa among actors) were classmates and roommates, as well as partners in crime if ever we needed to commit one. Girish KG, Karun Shaji, Jahnu Barua, Ketan Mehta, Kundan Shah and even the elderly Saeed Mirza (along with Shabana Azami, Mithun Chakraborthy, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Suresh Oberoi, Zarina Wahab and many others) came when Nirad and I were already teaching. We were of course dealing with only the Direction students.
Mrinal Sen, Basu Chatterjee, Basu Bhattacharya (Teesri Kasam), Hrishikesh Mukherjee, and Abrahim Alkazi as successive heads of the National School of Drama (NSD) visited the Institute as governing body members or members of this or that panel. Even Karuna Bannerjee I’ve seen feature in some old photographs of the official meetings. Shyam Benegal was already an established ad filmmaker of Bombay before he broke into the ‘New Wave’ but Govind Nihalani apprenticed with him as cameraman before he took to directing a series of socially significant films. Jabbar Patel led his Theatre Academy troupe to filmmaking on the strength of their stunning production of Vijay Tendulkar’s - no relation of Sachin Tendulkar, again - Ghashiram Kotwal - the original Marathi production of the play may well be the Pather Panchali of Indian theater.
I don’t think Aravindan ever came to the Institute. He was just too quiet for either workshops or councils. Our ex-students had pointed him out to me one night sitting at the end of a crowded table at a toddy shop in Trivandrum as a talented cartoonist who was planning to make a “filim”.
Satyajit Ray came to the Institute only twice. Once before the Wave in 1968 and a second time in 1974 when Girish Karnad invited him to address the convocation. A couple of years before he had written a long analysis piece in Filmfare titled ‘An Indian New Wave?’, spelling out genuine experimentation, which had been widely debated and criticized in Bombay. Eager to prove themselves more faithful than their absent kings, students saw the ‘74 visit as a godsend. The historic Classroom Theater was the venue and Professor Satish Bahadur in charge. Half an hour into the session the students began to jeer and heckle. And over the next hour or so a very surprised Ray just about managed to maintain his famous cool without yielding space - or indeed sense of humor.
I can still see him sitting large and solo, patiently answering cheeky questions - “Sir, have you seen the film Gupt Gyan?”, while taking an occasional drag at his long Rothmans, which many of us secretly wished were dangling from our lips. He knew of the crude ‘sex education’ film but said he hadn’t seen it. “Have you seen it?” he returned the question after a pause, drawing a burst of laughter. “Has it been an enlightening experience?” he chuckled - more laughter and cheering.
Next day he inaugurated the new TV studios, recorded an inaugural interview with Professor Bahadur and sat answering through two more sessions with the spent out students. But clearly we had been ticked off from any further visits. Two years later, he concluded the India section of his book ‘Our Films, Their Films’ with an article ‘Four And A Quarter’ lambasting Mani and Kumar films that the students had dragged him to discuss and was done with both FTII and the Wave for good.
In his later years Professor Bahadur would often burst out at the ‘wastrels’. “All that Satyajit has to do to make them happy,” he would suddenly raise his voice in bitter sarcasm, “is fail! But the man simply refuses to oblige!” He was spot on. If you have to pull down a maker of 10 classics of world cinema (the count at the time) in order to make yourself look good, you can’t have very far to go.
Bollywood remained an insulated ecosystem called ‘Planet Bollywood?’ all through the ‘New Wave’ years. The annual IFFI giving away Golden and Silver Peacocks in Delhi alternated with its non-competitive variant called Filmotsav held in Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, Hyderabad, Bangalore and Trivandrum on rotation. But a section called the ‘Indian Panorama’ was common to both versions in which new crop of the ‘New Wave’ films were shown. That Bollywood should have no representation in what called itself panorama was first noticed and pointed out by foreign delegates but by that time the Wave itself was waning.
It was in 1995 when for the first time an industry-walla like Mahesh Bhatt was appointed as FTII chairman. Given that he had made offbeat films like Saaransh and Arth (and could argue equally well with passion and conviction), he would easily qualify as an ex-FTII except that he happened to be courting Parveen Babi at the time. But seeing him enter the conference room for his first meeting with the faculty was an experience that’s worthy of recount. Accompanied by the Institute officials and going past the waiting us as he traversed the long conference table to sit at its head, I could hear his knees knocking. Audio-visually so! Such was the awe that the ‘New Wave’ and its Mecca FTII had managed to generate in the film industry.
That after an hour he left the room a roaring lion should be another story for another occasion.
Film prints in those early days traveled rough care of Indian Railways but ‘New Wave’ films came to us riding the iconic Bombay-Pune-Bombay taxis as prized pets with their makers. Projectionist Kokje would collect the metal trunk in front of the Main Theater and announce the screening in flowery color chalks for 5.30pm.
As excited students surrounded the filmmaker under the Wisdom Tree, his suitcase would be reached to one of the Guest Rooms above the row of production offices lining the large Studio 1. These in the days of the Prabhat Studio used to be stars’ makeup rooms and were now a status symbol of sorts to stay in. Their large flawless imported Belgian mirrors were still in place so that ten of us sitting in the room after the film, eating and drinking with the filmmaker, would look twenty by the time we left doddering in the early hours of the morning.
This was the atmosphere in which our ‘Main Theatre’ screen saw pretty much everything that the Wave came to offer. But on the same screen we had been seeing examples from world cinema and I can’t remember a single Wave film that ever came close. Within minutes you began to see glaring mistakes. Why was the shot still going when it had nothing more to offer? Why were they all morose, dull and dejected on the screen? Why was everybody speaking ‘literature’? And why were they speaking in a grazing-your-ear perspective when the characters were at a distance, indeed often in the long shot? What were those gulping sounds and grainy grunts in aid of? After all, the scene wasn’t about the sensitivity of the recording equipment?
That’s where meeting filmmakers afterwards was an even more crowded affair. And that is where Mani Kaul scored higher than anybody else. He carried a large bamboo flute in those days, spoke of a certain guru and a gharana and let it be known that he had also been painting in Akbar Padamsee’s studio.
Even acting course students, otherwise immune to the goings on outside of their department, wanted to see the man who had dared you to leave the hall if you didn’t like his Uski Roti. His wit, charm and humor, delivered with consistently high degree of arrogance sent you walking out in impotent rage. Even when you discovered he was more into a preacher’s personality than talking about the film at hand, it made no difference. For indeed you were there for the man, not the film.
Kumar Shahani was all curled up by comparison. For one, he was always in protesting mode. As though in firm conviction that great cinema has to be extracted out of the system rather than just gone ahead and made. He wanted to experiment in color when FFC was in the ‘black and white’ phase, and put forth impossible conditions to resume after his second film remained stuck in production for years.
When named in the early ‘80s as a member of the governing council under Shyam Benegal, he went into a sulk; he would neither accept, nor refuse the nomination. His sessions, soft-spoken and delivered with French leaning scholarly airs, were laced with Marxist references that had nothing to do with his films but were stinging curt like poisonous darts. Even so he had cultivated a band of diehard followers who would advance his cause, and he theirs, in outrageous ways. His 2-page entry in the British Film Institute published Encyclopedia of Indian Cinema counts it as one of his achievements that NFDC “failed to grant him a second loan” for such and such number of years.
Ever seen two god-men in the same frame? Not Mani and Kumar either. Although batch-mates from the Institute, both took care not to be seen together in public as an unspoken strategy. I don’t know how they managed it but I’m prepared to wager a month’s pension to whoever can show me a picture of the two together.
The lesser mortals of the Wave would quickly take to either narrating production gossip or name-dropping film equipment in their ‘viva voce’ with the students. Shyam Benegal and Adoor Gopalakrishnan wore benevolent smiles as though in kind concession for the still-learning students. Mrinal Sen could ramble on for hours in his trademark stiff-starched kurta-pajama and mischievous smiles from behind those thick frames. MS Sathyu on the other hand was so self-effacing that I don’t even remember him around after seeing his Garm Hawa. Basu Chatterjee of course couldn’t hold the pretense of discussion for longer than a minute and fizzled out into mumbles and giggles at the earliest. In any case, his films needed no defending.
That should serve as a profile of the pioneers of the Wave. Some coming later, it has to be said, made much more accomplished films but they were always in awe of their larger than life seniors. However, all were one film wonders and none ever repeated their miracles.