Prem Ratan Dhan Payo (2015, Sooraj Barjatya)

Shree 420 (1955, Raj Kapoor))

There is a tendency to think 'Indian Cinema' and 'Bollywood' are the same thing. That's understandable - Bollywood is one of the world's great film industries and the word has come to stand in for a whole style of filmmaking - the Hindi-language, Mumbai-based 'masala' film which will often mix musical, romance, thriller and so on into a mix (a 'masala') designed to appeal to multiple audiences. They are often very successful (films like Prem Ratan Dhan Payo, on the left, can clear $50 million when overseas sales are considered.) The industry and associated style are long established (see here Shree 420, made in 1955.)

As with Hollywood films, Bollywood movies are easy to criticize for being very generic and formulaic. That's understandable; any big commercial cinema which makes films quickly, depending on established genres and narrative forms, with a recognizable stable of stars, is going to produce work which is unavoidably - deliberately, in fact - generic and somewhat repetitive. (Largely because that's what an audience of mainstreamers wants.)

However, it would be wrong to dismiss these films entirely. There is a reason why they are so popular; people like them because of high production values, powerful performances, popular soundtracks and do on. We don't dismiss popular culture for being popular!

However, it would also be a mistake to think that Bollywood is the entirety of Indian film. Indian film has gone through many of the same shifts and developments as many other cultures and it is one of the world's great, rich, film cultures. If we look at, for example, the embracing of more realist modes of narrative which we saw after World War Two in Italy and elsewhere, that also happened in India. Likewise, the subsequent tectonic shift which became known as the New Wave happened in India too. There is more going on than just Bollywood!

Sometime the terminology changes a little across cultures, though. Instead of talking about 'Indian Neorealism', we discuss 'Parallel Cinema.' India in the forties and fifties had several issues. Poverty was rife; there were famines (most obviously in Bengal in 1943 - Bengal is where this film movement started.) Just as in Italy, there was a dominant mainstream film industry which was producing films which appeared to have little relevance to actual life. Bollywwod movies offer escapism, which is fine, but these particular directors were more concerned with offering a closer reflection of life. As such, we see much of the same technique and approach as we saw with Italian Neorealism; amateur actors, external locations, ambient light and sound, less artificial conflict in the narrative and so on.

PathEr panchali

Pather Panchali was directed by Satyajit Ray in 1955. It is one of the most famous of the parallel cinema films; indeed, it's generally regarded as one of the all-time great films. (It can always be found somewhere on the Sight and Sound top 50 list which is about as good a guide to these things as anything else.) Ray himself is regarded as probably India's greatest filmmaker (as well as being a very well-regarded writer, designer and composer.) After meeting director Jean Renoir and seeing The Bicycle Thieves in 1950, he determined to act upon his idea of filming the classic Indian tale Pather Panchali. With a very low budget, a very inexperienced crew and amateur actors, and refusing funding from anyone who refused to allow him anything other than total creative freedom, it took several years to make the film. When released, it received outstanding reviews (and some truly terrible ones) from influential critics and went on to win awards at Cannes. 

The film is about the early life of a young boy called Apu. (Two more films about him would follow, making up Ray's Apu Trilogy.) The plot, in classic neorealist style, centres around relatively small but powerful events; the relationships in a family, an argument, a death.

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