Sunday, April 3, 2011

Introduction to Hindi Parallel Cinema

Including mini-reviews of 
BHEJA FRY (2007) and MIXED DOUBLES (2006)


When thinking of Hindi films, your thoughts immediately turn to the films that could be classified as mainstream Bollywood, even though many of them are good films. Mainstream is not a bad label, it is nothing the more intellectual viewer should be afraid of watching or "being caught" watching.
But one should always be aware of the parallel and independent cinema, which also exists as a part of the Hindi film industry, as in every other film industry I'm familiar with. The difference between mainstream and independent Hindi cinema is actually very small; basically, the independent cinema films have a very small budget, and you can sense that they're made for a special audience. Off course, most directors and producers would like to earn money with their films, mainstream or not, but the the mainstream cinema tries to appeal to the biggest audience possible. Meanwhile, independent films know they have a rather narrow amount of viewers, but for them, the most important thing is just a few people liking and thinking about their films.

The Hindi independent cinema has its roots way back in the time of silent black and white, when the well-known director V. Shantaram released his Sawkari Pash in 1925. The film is about a poor peasant, who looses all his money and is therefore forced to try his luck in a big city. (Source). I have not seen this film, as I'm not that familiar with Indian films before the 60s, but it sounds like being worth a watch.

Guru Dutt and Satyajit Ray are remembered as pioneers of Indian independent cinema in the 50s and 60s, especially Satyajit Ray's films are also famous in the Western hemisphere. Guru Dutt's Pyaasa (1957) was featured in the TIME Magazine's 100-movie list of "All Time's Best Movies". Again, I must disappoint you by not having seen the independent works of that era, but I will live up to that as soon as possible. However, it was only in the 70s and 80s, that the Indian Parallel Cinema reached a larger amount of viewers, also in India, and some of the contributors were Gulzar (which most of you probably know as lyricist of many well-known soundtracks, for instance this year's 7 Khoon Maaf), Shyam Benegal (still making critically acclaimed films today) and Mahesh Bhatt, who especially made some famous thrillers like Jism, and is the co-owner of production house Vishesh films.
This was also a time for many new talents to be discovered in Parallel Cinema, like Naseeruddin Shah, Shabana Azmi and Om Puri. Rekha and Hema Malini also took a chance to work in some Independent films, which had been rather unusual for popular actresses before. Today, it is a more commonly seen phenomena. 
Meanwhile, the movement (at that point called "Indian New Wave") dispread to various regional film centers, such as the Tamil and Telugu film industries, and the Malayalam film industry even experienced a so called "Golden Age" with its contribution to the Indian New Wave. As I've only watched three regional Indian films, this is obviously not my field of expertise, but my plan is to investigate this era and movement further.

Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak (1989)
After those years of joy and exhilaration for Art-house, Independent and Parallel Cinema, came the 90s. If you've ever seen a Bollywood 90s film (honestly, who hasn't, except for some of my non-BW-bloggers or readers maybe), you know that this was a time far from experimentation or cinematic independence. The romantic comedy Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak, released in 1989, was a guideline the largest part of films released in that decade. It was a blockbuster, and the two main actors Aamir Khan and Juhi Chawla became famous over night. The story line was based on stories like Romeo and Juliet, but however, it still brought some fresh air into the mainstream Hindi films. But because of its giant success, film makers orientated themselves by this film, producing thousands of cheesy, overlong, incredibly colourful and fashionably horrible films that overshadowed the independent productions. Off course, this is generalizing, and there were also good and unusual films in the 90s. While Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge is not what I'd call Art-house, it's a great film that I could watch over and over again, just like Darr or Baazigar were entertaining thrillers (Darr was a tad better). Speaking about those films, you made have noticed they're all starring Shahrukh - the 90s were the times of his big breakthrough, and he starred in a lot of crappy nonsense, but also in some of my favorite films. One of them was actually what comes very near to Independent Cinema, personally I consider it to be so, and one of my all-time favorites: Dil Se, which if you haven't seen yet, you must see immediately.
Vikram Bhatt's Ghulam, released 1998 and produced by Mukesh Bhatt, is also known for focusing on social aspects and problems, and I would also recommend it - if you can stand the seas of blood, and the fact that Rani's loved, smoky voice was dubbed, for whatever reason. Deepa Mehta also directed to famous pieces of Independent cinema in the 90s, which I have already written about here - the boundary-breaking film about two lesbian sisters-in-law, Fire, and the Indian-independence-investigating acclaimed Earth.
Another reason for the lack of Parallel Cinema in the 90s, was the big influence the Indian mafia had on Bollywood at that time. It was hard to find sponsors for controversial films, because the mafia basically was the sponsor of Bollywood back then.

With the millennium change though, Hindi Parallel Cinema slowly regained its strength and is again recognized as an important part of Bollywood, and I think the future looks bright for these films.
There are various labels for these films nowadays, as the border between Mainstream and Parallel Cinema is also beginning to smudge. Yuva, Omkara, Bas Ek Pal, Dev.D and also last year's Tere Bin Laden are examples for films that had success and are often described as "Off-Beat Films". Within the 2000's, another new label/ genre has evolved in Bollywood: Mumbai Noir. The term has already been used in the late 1990's, known as films that revolve around the Indian mafia based in the underworld of Mumbai. Pioneer of this genre is known to be Raj Kapoor, who already in the 50s made films concerning this particular subject. Nowadays, it is Ram Gopal Verma who seems be a leader in this genre, though some of his newer films turned out to be more or less disasters. However, his latest project, Rakht Charitra, which has been filmed in two parts, has gained much success and also good critical response. I've seen the first part only, and I think that RGV is back in his best shape, which is delighting. But Mumbai Noir is today also used as a label for urban-set films that deal with social problems in the city of Mumbai, such as this year's Dhobi Ghat - Mumbai Diaries by Kiran Rao, which I'm dying to see. Another trend inside Hindi Parallel Cinema is films spoken in Indian English, which might be useful for attracting an international audience. Deepa Mehta was one of the first ones to take advantage from this, in 1996's Fire. Also, like in various Independent cinemas all over the world, Hindi parallel cinema is often based on literature, western or Indian. Omkara, for instance, was based on Shakespeare's Othello. 

Independent and critical Coming-of-Age films are also up-and-coming, last year's Udaan being a good example. It was even nominated, and won, several Indian awards, which is actually uncommon, as the awards tend to focus on Blockbusters and big names (not what awards are supposed to be about, I think).

I'd like to finish this article off with my mini-reviews of two often discussed Independent Cinema films, which by the way can be viewed free and legally on - though I'm sad to tell you, that only Bheja Fry has English subtitles. Bigflix seems to offer various films of Hindi Parallel Cinema, which is something I really appreciate, and will definitely take advantage of in the future. 

BHEJA FRY (2007) Sagar Ballary
Plot: Rich music producer Ranjeet and his friends meet every friday for a special dinner, where everyone has to bring at least one "idiot", which they all find quite amusing. For one of those dinners, Ranjeet plans on bringing Bharat Bhushan, a tax-office-worker, who thinks he's the best singer in the world. When Ranjeet invites Bharat to come to his house before the dinner, the madness begins...

According to Wikipedia, "Bheja Fry"-director Sagar Ballary is planning to produce a sequel of the film this year, this time with a larger budget and an international setting (Malaysia). Therefore, it was high time for me, to watch the original film. 
You immediately notice, that "Bheja Fry" is a low-budget-production, but in a positive way. The makers wanted to produce an independent and unusual film (even though it's based on the French "Le Diner de Cons"). Especially the 1,5 hours of play time are almost revolutionary (even though there are films as short as this one, it's still not very common). If you're used to films with at least 2 hours of play time (normal is 2,5), this shortness can be quite refreshing. I don't mean to say, that long films are bad, but a equation of longer and shorter films would be desirable. With shorter films, however, the danger of being amusing only, is very big, and "Bheja Fry" does suffer from this at times. It's also a little disappointing, that even though one smiles almost end-to-end, there's no way we're talking about real hysterics or grand joviality. For that, the jokes are just to foreseeable and half-baked, though in a charming kind of way. Rajat Kapoor is an actor, from whom I haven't heard or seen to much until now, but also nothing negative yet. He plays the role of the rich anti-hero very well, though maybe a little bit too understated. Vinay Pathak, who's supposed to portray the "idiot", seems very familiar to me, and one gaze at his filmography tells me why, but funnily, I cannot remember a single one of his roles. In this film, however, he delivers a brilliant performance and masters the difficult tightrope walk between slapstick and good humour. 

I don't know anything about the director, Sagar Ballary, except for my little pearl "Mixed Doubles", in which he was Associate Director. But I'm excited for a sequel, even though a little skeptical because of the increased budget and "international setting". 

Rating: 6.7

MIXED DOUBLES (2006) Rajat Kapoor
Plot: To heaten up his 10 year old marriage, shy office-worker Ranvir asks his wife Malti to take part in a thing called "wife-swapping", where they'd swap their partners for one night. After a couple of discussions and fights, Malti finally agrees, without being really sure about this decision...

The name of my latest obsession is: Rajat Kapoor. After seeing "Bheja Fry", I discovered his work as a director in "Mixed Doubles", which I had only heard about in an interview with Konkona Sen Sharma, and a couple of reviews.
The film is a low-budget and independent-production, just like "Bheja Fry", but in contrary to last one, it was not at all successful at the box-office ("Bheja Fry" turned out as a surprise-hit). All the same, I find "Mixed Doubles" a lot better than the hit, because it's not only more recondite, but de facto even funnier. It is that subtile humour, which is not only caused by Rajat Kapoor, but also the rest of the cast (except for Koel Purie, she was good, but not that funny).
The second actor that I had already noticed in "Bheja Fry" (negatively), is Ranvir Shorey. He truly demonstrates talent in his portrayal of the shy, but at the same time nagging and somehow sweet husband. Most of you might know, that I admire Konkona Sen Sharma. She's not only one of the best actresses of India, but of the entire current film world (and I'm not overdrawing). By the way, I was very disappointed by her 3-minute role in 7 Khoon Maaf. She deserves so much better.
What I especially liked about the first half was, that everything seemed so incredibly realistic: the interplay between the young, but long-married couple, the small apartment, that every-day-life, which seems so familiar, even though it's actually unknown (I hope you know what I mean). 
Perhaps this was also due to the fact that there were no parents-in-law living in the apartment, which is otherwise very common even for Indian middle class and rich families.
The second half is slightly different, as most of it takes place in the apartment of that other couple and also in a situation, that most of us are not familiar with (especially not teens like me). 
But still, one can relate to the characters, and the second half is really fun.
Actually, I could imagine what was going to happen at the end, but it was still nice to see my thought confirmed.
With its 1,5 hours play time like "Bheja Fry", "Mixed Doubles" serves airy and entertaining reflectiveness off the beaten track, and all that without side-effects.

Rating: 8.0


I don't yet know, if I'm going to have internet or even time to write during my internship, so this might be the last post for the next two weeks. I hope you enjoyed reading, at least I had writing, and please wish me luck (and maybe watch some Hindi Parallel Cinema while I'm gone). 

Thank you for reading,
Mette M. K.


  1. Gaja, having recently watched Bheja Fry, I'd have to agree with you about the running time. It was quite refreshing to see a 90 minute Bollywood film (makes it easy for me to review!). Vinay Pathak seems to have begun slapstick idiot routine in this film (having done very much the same in Chalo Dilli).

    I liked the small-scale feel of it, again quite refreshing. Rajat Kapoor's performance is quite understated, but perfectly complimented Vinay Pathak's character. I also loved whenever Anant (Milind Soman) would find something funny.

    Check out my review of it! (it's my most recent post)

    By the way, can you change my blog to 'Bolly Hoo Ha' from 'The Bolly Hood' in your blogroll?

  2. The Bolly Hood - I can't believe you found this post, haha... I remember writing and being so disappointed when nobody ever commented.

    Yes, I can do that.


Let the discussion begin!