Thought Box



by Sharad Raj April 19 2024, 12:00 am Estimated Reading Time: 5 mins, 40 secs

A comprehensive understanding of mainstream and alternative movements enrich discussions about the strengths and weaknesses of each. Sharad Raj explores the complexities of cinematic expression.

The discussion surrounding mainstream cinema versus alternative cinema is complex, encompassing a multitude of perspectives. Critics often engage in debates that either trivialize mainstream cinema as mere entertainment or patronize alternative cinema as intellectually superior. However, such dichotomies fail to capture the challenges inherent in both cinematic worlds.

Mainstream cinema, with its wide outreach and popularity, possesses undeniable strengths. It has the ability to reach a vast audience, entertaining viewers on a mass scale. Its emphasis on spectacle, star power, and formulaic storytelling often guarantees financial success, making it an attractive option for investors. Additionally, mainstream cinema can serve as a reflection of societal values and aspirations, providing catharsis to audiences.

But, mainstream cinema’s reliance on commercial formulas can also result in clichéd narratives, superficial characters, and an overemphasis on profit over artistic merit. Critics argue that it perpetuates stereotypes, reinforces hegemonic ideologies, and stifles creativity in favour of marketability. Moreover, the dominance of mainstream cinema in the industry can marginalize alternative narratives, limiting representation on screen.

On the other hand, alternative cinema, often associated with the "New Wave" movement, offers a different cinematic experience. It prioritizes artistic experimentation, innovative storytelling techniques, and thematic depth over commercial appeal. Alternative cinema challenges conventions, pushing boundaries and provoking critical engagement with human experiences.

Alternative cinema's strengths lie in its ability to inspire dialogue and introspection, and subvert dominant narratives. It provides a platform for marginalized voices, offering stories often overlooked by the mainstream. Alternative filmmakers seek recognition on international platforms, drawing inspiration from diverse cinematic traditions and challenging the homogenizing influence of globalization.

However, alternative cinema also faces challenges. Its limited reach and niche appeal can hinder its accessibility to wider audiences and financial viability. Securing funding for alternative projects is arduous, as investors prioritize profit over artistic vision. Moreover, alternative cinema is often perceived as elitist to mainstream audiences, further marginalizing its impact in the industry.

The New Wave filmmakers, while their aesthetic choices may invite scrutiny, should not be summarily dismissed as mere purveyors of self-aggrandizing art. They have grappled with numerous obstacles to bring their creative visions to fruition, often lacking significant state support. While some may have aligned themselves with established institutions, figures like Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, and Saeed Mirza remained steadfast in their commitment to artistic integrity.

Actors like Naseeruddin Shah, who have voiced valid criticisms of the art film movement, will surely acknowledge the pivotal role played by individuals such as Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani, as well as the broader New Wave movement, in shaping their careers. Without the influence, they might have been relegated to stereotypical roles devoid of the depth and diversity that defined their careers.

Shah's remarks on the star-centric culture prevalent in Hindi cinema, where rehearsal is often eschewed in favour of spontaneity, raise pertinent questions about the industry's dynamics. His cautionary words to aspiring filmmakers about the insecurities of mainstream stars find resonance in his own experiences, particularly in recent underwhelming performances in OTT productions. This prompts reflection on whether celebrated actors like Shah would have flourished in mainstream cinema, or whether actresses like Smita Patil would have been relegated to superficial roles due to industry norms.

Such considerations highlight the complexities inherent in navigating the dichotomy between mainstream and alternative cinema, and underscore the need for nuanced discussions. By elevating popularity as the sole yardstick of success, we risk losing sight of the diverse perspectives that enrich Indian cinema. Ultimately, the goal of any artist, whether associated with the New Wave or mainstream cinema, is to connect with audiences, a pursuit that should be celebrated rather than criticized.  

Interestingly, the New Wave movement refrains from mocking mainstream cinema when it demonstrates genuine quality. Filmmakers like Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani held deep respect for icons of mainstream cinema such as Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor, despite occasional lampooning from figures like Manmohan Desai. This dynamic of mutual respect and occasional derision existed on both sides of the cinematic divide, as evidenced by the mainstream's tendency to distance themselves from institutions like FTII and offbeat filmmakers.  

Satyajit Ray's acknowledgment of learning what not to do from Hindi and Bengali cinema highlights the importance of recognizing both strengths and weaknesses within the industry. The commercial success of films like "Animal" and "Gadar 2" may align with popular taste, but it raises questions about their artistic merit and whether they truly represent cinematic achievement.

A significant factor contributing to the success of mainstream films is their substantial marketing budgets, a point conveniently overlooked by commentators. This capital not only fuels the promotion of blockbusters but also secures prime slots in theatres, perpetuating the monopolization of exhibition spaces by big-banner films featuring A-list stars.  

From the transition from single screens to multiplexes to the current dominance of OTT platforms, mainstream productions continue to dictate the landscape of Indian cinema. The lack of visibility for art and regional films is a direct consequence of this financial hegemony. The Maharashtra government's intervention to ensure prime-time slots for Marathi films underscores the systemic biases in distribution and exhibition practices.  

Despite the undeniable influence of financial backing, the success of a film should not be solely attributed to its budget. Quality alone cannot guarantee success, yet alternative cinema often struggles to compete on an uneven playing field devoid of the resources enjoyed by mainstream counterparts.

The derision directed at alternative filmmakers celebrating their work at international festivals is indicative of a larger issue within the industry. Mainstream Bollywood's newfound interest in film festivals, previously disregarded, reflects a desire to access global audiences and legitimize their artistic endeavours on an international stage.

The homogenization of Indian cinema under the mainstream Bollywood umbrella is a concerning trend, as diverse voices risk being overshadowed by commercial interests. The post-liberalization era has seen mainstream films encroach upon previously untapped arenas, driven by corporate interests and the pursuit of global recognition.

Instead of disparaging the New Wave movement, a more nuanced perspective would acknowledge the influences and inspirations that shape the work of filmmakers across all genres. For instance, luminaries like Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, and Basu Chatterjee drew inspiration from a diverse array of cinematic traditions, ranging from the meticulous cinematography of Greg Toland to the realism of Italian neorealism and the innovative storytelling of Francois Truffaut.  

Ultimately, a nuanced understanding of the Hindi film industry requires acknowledging the complexities inherent in both mainstream and alternative cinema. Rather than dismissing one in favour of the other, critics and audiences alike should engage in constructive dialogue that appreciates the diversity of cinematic expression and recognizes the efforts of filmmakers across all spectrums.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The writers are solely responsible for any claims arising out of the contents of this article.