“The June 1975 declaration by Indira Gandhi’s government of a ‘grave emergency [whereby] the security of India…threatened by external disturbances’ justified the state’s suspension of normal political processes in favour of extraordinary powers to the executive, and the arrest of her political opponents and detention of political prisoners under MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act), was a cataclysmic event in Indian history. While the event continues to be a subject of intense debate among historians, the foundational significance of the cinema’s implication in it has been less discussed. “1

Ashish Rajadhyaksha’s fairly recent book-length study attempts at an understanding of this ‘foundational significance’ in its own way. The sole instance of its kind since the disciplinary incarnation of cinema studies in India2, Rajadhyaksha makes a very provocative argument concerning the Indian New Wave. Raising questions concerning the theoretical debates within film studies (the third cinema/cinema of hunger/ imperfect cinema question, its association with and reaction against the Latin American undemocratic governments, and its challenge towards the dominant theoretical paradigms, namely screen theory and apparatus theory), he acknowledged in no unclear terms how the emergence of film theory in India owes to the advent of the New Cinemas in the 1970s. The term that he coins to describe the birth of the new avant-garde is ‘European detour’. Rajadyaksha argues that cinema itself fabricated a nation that existed at its transnational edge, a nation which he wishes to name as ‘Europe’, however controversial that might sound. Rajadhyaksha’s ‘Europe’ is “not a geographically defined” one but a ‘narratively signified’ continent. It is, seemingly, a European detour undertaken by non-Western vanguard practices in cinema, an “interior detour smaller, sub-national or regional constructs within.”3 Rajadhyaksha’s formulations seem to challenge the “ethical basis of the territorial nation”4 and national cinema, he attempts a comparison between various New Waves across the globe and their similarities in terms of being primarily state-funded movements. 

Not so surprisingly though, Rajadhyaksha falls into the trope that has always been the familiar logic in Indian cinema studies5, as his interest in cinema’s response to the nation-state seems to obscure the transnational dimension with which his work begins, “the relationship between such cinemas and the home states that founded them was always a troubled one, and the European detour was typically necessitated by local rather than transnational circumstances.”6

Indian New Wave, itself a much elusive and ambiguous term, needs proper explanation here. Sometimes termed as the New Indian cinemas of the 70s, this heterogeneous film movement took shape in the trouble 70s, the politically turbulent decade in India characterized by radical youth upsurge, student unrest, emergence of radical left insurgency, a national emergency and the notion of state repression in its most brutal form. In the international cinematic scenario, the happenings of May 1968 in France unleashed a succession of events all over the world.  In France, May’68 began with the protest of French filmmakers against Ministry of culture’s undemocratic decision of removing Henri Langlois from his position in Cinematheque Francaise. Godard, Truffaut and all the other exponents of the Nouvelle Vague formed a collective demanding the reinstatement of Langlois, a movement that culminated in the youth upsurge in May. Godard and Gorin abandoned the industrial production system and continued to make politically subversive avant-garde films for a few years. This interim period between the prophetic La Chinoise (1967) and Godard’s comeback film Tout Va Bien (1972) has been marked as the phase of alternative filmmaking in Godard’s career. Various film movements took place in various parts of the world, among them the notable ones being Cinema Nova in Brazil, New Cinema movements in Chile and Argentina, and a similar movement in Senegal. The interface between Europe and these postcolonial nation-states, in the realm of cinema, was quite evident at that time, as various instances of collaborative works and other references are available7

In India, the Indira Gandhi government took the initiative of producing a state-sponsored cinema as the ‘Film Finance Corporation’ (FFC) was rechristened as the ‘National Film Development Corporation’ (NFDC). It was under the ministry of finance earlier, later it became associated with the ministry of information and culture. The national film institute was set up, along with a national film archive8. Both these institutions played a significant part in shaping the minds of a whole cohort of young directors, cinematographers and actors who went on forming collectives9

The statist initiative generated much speculation within the industry and rumour concerning the impending nationalization of it spread widely, as Rajadhyaksha has shown. The industry responded to the turbulent time and to the initiative taken by the Soviet-backed state infamously nationalizing many industries through its own means. One was the reorganization of the contemporary popular film form, the other being an appropriation of the statist initiative by realizing a ‘middle cinema’, a cinema situated arguably in the in-between space of the popular and the arthouse. The popular film form underwent a major textual reorganization with the emergence of a new star, namely Amitabh Bacchan. The most common form of popular cinema in India, known as ‘studio social’,10 was transformed into revenge narrative where the subaltern hero assumes the role of an angry young man mobilizing the masses against the enemies of the people. The Bacchan character often becomes an emblematic outcast and a likeable criminal fighting a corrupt and ruthless state. 

In 1969, two major films released in India and these two unequivocally initiated the arthouse movement, namely the New Wave. Supported by the government, one of them was veteran auteur Mrinal Sen’s Bhuban Shome, an unusual satirical work on the life of an old bureaucrat and his transformation. The other one was the debut film of Mani Kaul, which aroused much more controversy than the other. Uski Roti (His Bread) marked the beginning of one of the most ambiguous careers in Indian cinema. Kaul, a self-proclaimed Bressonian, made the film which is about the day-long waiting of a village wife for her truck-driver husband on a dusty road and everything that happens in it seems to be the product of her imaginative mind. 

Kumar Shahani, spending a part of his life in Paris assisting Bresson, arrived with his debut film Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972). It was another state-funded project meditating on the mundane life of a girl trapped in her feudal surroundings in the arid desert of Western India. 

A handful of filmmakers appeared with their new works in Kerala—-the southernmost Indian state— among whom Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Govindan Aravindan and John Abraham found their place in the history of Indian cinema. This group depended less upon state funding and formed self-help collectives instead. 

By the term Indian New Wave, cinema historians usually consider works of these six filmmakers who worked under different conditions, had different ideas and ideologies concerning filmmaking and had distinctively different directorial styles. The heterogeneity of their works notwithstanding, they arguably seem to be part of the same movement in terms of shared history and the debates they gave rise to. 

The two major debates that Ashish Rajadhyaksha addressed in his book are that of the debate concerning the assumed wastage of public wealth in financing films that do not secure sufficient returns, and, more importantly, the debate on whether the films concerned can be considered ‘avant-garde’ at all. Addressing these debates, especially the latter one, will be the means through which a cinematic reading of history could be achieved. Moreover, both the debates are intimately associated and none of them can be dealt with in isolation. 

Contemporary newspapers and industry/trade magazines raged over the issue of wasting/squandering public wealth in the name of state-funded filmmaking. Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani hardly had their films theatrically released and the alleged unintelligibility of their cinema was the major cause of allegation. Interestingly enough, their works drew criticism from several quarters, even from filmmakers who preceded them. Satyajit Ray’s two articles represent his, and many others’, approach to their films. Ray emphatically denied the existence of an Indian New Wave or an Indian avant-garde, passed sarcastic comments on Mrinal Sen’s Bhuban Shome11, and launched a severe critique of films made by Kaul and Shahani  for their “avoidance of strong situations and full-blooded characters, …their lack of concern for social issues12 etc. Critiquing the anti-narrative tendencies of these filmmakers, Ray went on to praise some others like Mrinal Sen for the ‘wrong reasons’, for their veneer of an alternative aesthetic under which they, according to him, continued to make conventional classical narrative cinema.

The allegation concerning the “lack of concern for social issues” seems to be the most interesting one and, as I would like to argue, is the key to the avant-garde—agit-prop debate which not only characterizes the cinematic history of the period but also establishes itself as the point of convergence between the political and the cinematic histories. The ideological debates gained momentum during the period with the English translation of Marx’s The German Ideology and the publication of Althusser’s Ideology and the Ideological State Apparatuses and a restoration of Existentialism happened as the crisis inherent in the Marxist notion of ideology became apparent13. The Nietzschean nihilism and cynicism of the radical left groups compel us to find the possible explanations for the historical moment in the ideological considerations alone as most of the existing literature on the 70s seem to be essentially partisanal. As the seemingly contradictory ideals of Existentialism and Marxism came closer in France culminating in the ’68 uprising, the cinematic history of the period, as I would like to argue, betrays the symptoms of the same aesthetic debate concerning the universal principle of contemporary Marxism and the existential considerations of the subjective life.

The avant-garde—-agit-prop debate, or the definition of an avant-garde became the growing concern in the film society scene and it made its way to the cinematic scholarship of the period. Rochona Majumdar, in her research on the history of the film society movement in India, has shown how the latter developed an increasingly agit-prop character during the 70s14. Film society activism was, as Majumdar has argued, originally a movement dedicated to the screening of not-so-easily-available European modernist films and to the nourishment of the cinema culture in India. In the troubled decade of the 70s, it gradually assumed a left-leaning political character and a filmmaker’s responsibilities and commitment became a growing concern. In Kerala, some of the film societies successfully realized the mission of forming collectives to make avant-garde films which were otherwise impossible within the confines of the market15. In Kolkata, Mrinal Sen, himself a major exponent of the movement, prepared a manifesto for their own with the help of his colleagues. The manifesto demanded participation and involvement from its audience, proposed the formation of collectives and alternative exhibition outlets, asked for an active encouragement from the film society activists, and, most importantly, mentioned the French New Wave and the American underground cinema as their inspiration for filmmaking16.

Ashish Rajadhyaksha proceeds further on to mention the avant-garde debate and refers mainly to Paul Willemen’s article on it, among others17. Willemen, while elaborating upon the concepts proposed by film theorists before him, found inspiration in Peter Burger’s work18. He chose to distinguish avant-garde work of art from modernist art and raised his voice against the supposed homogenisation of the two. Richard Suchenski’s recently presented work on Kaul and Shahani is no exception in this regard19, his conception of the avant-garde merges completely with Willemen’s argument which Rajadhyaksha takes for granted. 

As Willemen suggests, modernist art is associated with the “high-art institutionalism in its search for disciplinary autonomy”20 and it separates itself from the avant-garde because of the overtly left-wing political associations of the latter. So, one is characterized by its aesthetic autonomy, the other by its political vanguardism. 

An overview of the aesthetic debates prevalent in the 70s and after will add to the understanding of the ethos. As Russell A. Berman proclaims in his work on the Frankfurt school, “…the institutionalization of the aesthetic avant-garde in the fifties (as high modernism) and the repoliticization of an intellectual avant-garde during the sixties, the seventies witnessed the emergence of a widespread denunciation of the avant-garde project.”21 Here Berman means both the avant-gardes, aesthetic and political, as they went through considerable refashioning after the defeat of ’68 revolution. The most influential theorist of the ’68 revolution was Herbert Marcuse22, who participated in the uprising in person. A closer look into his aesthetic ideas and their various mutations represent the inherent tensions of the time. Marcuse’s aesthetic ideas underwent sufficient transformations and his final work before his death, namely The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1977), made arguments provocative enough to incite critical debates:

“…by virtue of its aesthetic form, art is largely autonomous vis a vis the given social relations. In its autonomy art both protests these relations, and at the same time transcends them. Thereby art subverts the dominant consciousness, the ordinary experience… the political potential of art lies only in its own aesthetic dimension…the more immediately political the work of art, the more it reduces the power of estrangement and the radical, transcendent goals of change. In this sense, there may be more subversive potential in the poetry of Baudelaire and Rimbaud than in the didactic plays of Brecht.”23

As expected, Marcuse’s separation of art from ‘reality’ and his dependence upon a Kantian aesthetic imagination at the expense of a cognitive one drew criticism24. My intention is not to take sides in this debate or not to be judgmental. What I would like to propose here is that the political avant-garde of the 70s and the cultural forms it generated had inherent aesthetic tensions which are not evident in the partisanal historical writings. Only a systematic reading of the cinemas of the period offers new perspectives as most of the commentators are silent concerning the ideological debates on the restoration of Existentialism/Existential Marxism and the revival of subjectivity. In the Indian New Wave, Mrinal Sen’s and John Abraham’s radical political films with their obvious Brechtian overtones co-exist with Kumar Shahani’s Maya Darpan (Mirror of Illusion, 1972), a film in which the protagonist’s existential crisis within the trappings of a feudal past and her coming in terms with modernity is articulated through the awakening of her sexuality and where a workers’ strike ravaging in the outside world of her palace goes by unnoticed, the news of which reaches her only though the rumours spread by the young servant boy. Indian New Wave is a contested terrain, as much as the political scenario in which it found itself, and it resists homogenisation eternally.

—-Parichay Patra

(This is just a working paper and is a part of a much larger research project. I am indebted to many people including my supervisor Belinda Smaill for their help and cooperation).

References :

  1. Ashish Rajadhyaksha, Indian Cinema in the Time of Celluloid: From Bollywood to the Emergency, New Delhi: Tulika Books, 2009, p. 231.
  2.  Indian cinema studies, from its very inception, concerns itself with the industrial popular and the industry’s relationship with and response to the various policies undertaken by the nation-state. The film society activism as well as the arthouse cinematic practices more or less disappeared from the horizon of critical investigation and melodrama studies gained formerly unseen prominence with the acceptance of Peter Brooks’ and Thomas Elsaesser’s certain works. 
  3. Rajadhyaksha, op.cit. p. 220.
  4. Ibid.
  5. M. Madhava Prasad’s seminal work on the ideological history of Indian popular cinema started the tradition of reading cinema vis a vis its relationship with the state, at the expense of transnational considerations. See M.Madhava Prasad, Ideology of Hindi Film: A Historical Construction, New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998.
  6.  Rajadhyaksha, op.cit. p. 223.
  7. Rajadhyaksha cites several instances of films, for instance Godard’s Le Vent d’Est (1969), Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo (1982), Francisco Rosi’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold (1987) and Ghatak’s referencing of Fellini in Subarnarekha (The Golden Line, 1962).
  8. Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) and National Film Archive of India (NFAI), both situated in Pune.
  9. Adoor Gopalakrishnan, John Abraham, Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani and many others studied in FTII under the tutelage of Ritwik Ghatak, who served as the vice-principal of the institute for sometime. For the emergence of the cinematic equipments see Madhuja Mukherjee, ‘The Story of Arri: Imagined Landscapes, Emergent Technologies, and Bengali Cinema’, Journal of the Moving Image, number 10, December 2011, pp. 75-76. For an account of the emergence of the technicians and cinematographers intimately associated with the movement see Raqs media Collective project Cameraworking: Materials for the History of Cinematographic Practice in India, available at http://www.sarai.net/cinematography/camera.htm, accessed on 27.08.2012.
  10. A portmanteau term applied loosely for the popular Hindi cinema made in India after the degeneration of mythological films. Madhava Prasad used the term and defined it in his book.
  11. Satyajit Ray, ‘An Indian New Wave?’ in Our Films, Their Films, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 1976, p.99.
  12. Satyajit Ray, ‘Four and a Quarter’ in Our Films, Their Films, New Delhi: Orient Blackswan, 1976, p. 106 (emphasis mine).
  13. See Sibaji Bandyopadhyay, ‘Ray’s Memory Game’ in Moinak Biswas (ed.) Apu and After: Revisiting Ray’s Cinema, Kolkata: Seagull Books, 2006, and Mark Poster, Existential Marxism in Post-War France: From Sartre to Althusser, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975.
  14. Rochona Majumdar, ‘Debating Radical Cinema: A History of the Film Society Movement in India’, in Modern Asian Studies 46, 3 (2012), pp.731-767.
  15. Collectives like ‘Chithralekha’ and ‘Odessa’ (named after the sequence in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin) produced films, especially the latter one produced John Abraham’s Amma Ariyan (1980) solely through the means of collecting money by organizing film shows. See Rajan Kurai Krishnan, ‘John Abraham: Cinema and the Idea of the Collective’, in Journal of the Moving Image, Number 10, December 2011, pp. 40-50.
  16. See ‘New Cinema Movement’, extract from the manifesto of the New Cinema movement issued by Mrinal Sen, Chairman, and Arun Kaul, chief promoter, Close Up, no. 1, July 1968, cited in Manas Ghosh, ‘Alternative Cinema: Response of Indian Cinema Studies’, Journal of the Moving Image, Ibid., pp. 54-55.
  17. Paul Willemen, ‘An Avant-Garde for the Nineties’ , in Paul Willemen, Looks and Frictions: Essays in Cultural Studies and Film Theory, London/Bloomington: British Film Institute/Indiana University Press, 1994, pp. 141-161.
  18. Peter Burger, Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
  19. Richard Suchenski, ‘Mythic and Modern: The Aesthetics of Space in the Films of Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani’, unpublished paper presented in the conference on ‘The Avant-Garde in the Indian New Wave’, Yale Film Studies Program, February 6, 2010.
  20. Rajadhyaksha, op.cit. p. 263.
  21. Russell A. Berman, ‘Consumer Society: The Legacy of the Avant-garde and the False Sublation of Aesthetic Autonomy’ in Modern Culture and Critical Theory: Art, Politics, and the Legacy of the Frankfurt School, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press, 1989, p. 43. 
  22. For the importance of Marcuse in the events of ’68 and for Hobsbawm’s naming of Marcuse in league with Guevera in terms of influence, see John Abromeit and W. Mark Cobb, ‘Introduction’, in Abromeit and Cobb (eds.) Herbert Marcuse: A Critical Reader, New York: Routledge, 2004, p.2.
  23. Herbert Marcuse, The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics, Boston: Beacon Press, (English trans.), 1978, pp. ix-xiii. 
  24. See Gerard Raulet, ‘Marcuse’s Negative Dialectics of Imagination’, in Abromeit and Cobb (eds.) Herbert Marcuse: a Critical Reader, New York: Routledge, 2004, pp. 114-127.