Bhuvan Shome: How Mrinal Sen's National Award-winning film ushered in a seismic shift in the Indian film industry

Arnav Das Sharma and Anupam Kant Verma

May 12, 2019 09:41:06 IST

In the summer of 1968, two relatively unknown Indian filmmakers – Arun Kaul and Mrinal Sen – drafted a short manifesto and published it in an Indian magazine called Close Up, which used to be quite popular in those days. Of course, a year later, Mrinal Sen went on to make his debut film – Bhuvan Shome in 1969 – thereby ushering in a new phase, hithertofore unseen, in Indian cinema. Bhuvan Shome gave rise to what we now popularly call the Parallel Cinema movement, a movement that would leave an indelible footprint onto the landscape of Indian cinema, thereby changing the latter forever. Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sen’s masterpiece, and it is imperative that we excavate that forgotten era of Indian film history, even if it is to witness the quiet undercurrents that led to the birth of a new kind of cinematic sensibility in India.

The year Sen and Kaul published their manifesto was a rather interesting juncture in contemporary Indian history. Just a few months before, the Beatles were traversing barefoot in Rishikesh, learning and imbibing Indian spiritualism. But if the Beatles were traversing the Indian topography, searching for their soul, India in itself was being pulled in a thousand directions. Just a year ago, in 1967, in a meeting held in the village of Naxalbari in West Bengal, a young Communist named Charu Mazumdar and his comrades decided to follow the path of armed insurgency against the Indian State, in order to uphold the rights of workers and peasants. Two years later – in 1969 – the ruling party, Indian National Congress itself would bifurcate over the question of leadership, with the old guard of the Congress, led by party president S Nijalingappa, would expel prime minister Indira Gandhi, accusing her of fostering a personality cult. With her expulsion, the party essentially split into two factions, Congress (R) and Congress (O), with the former comprising of supporters and Mrs Gandhi loyalists. Sen and Kaul’s manifesto captured the essence of India’s political climate and expressed the Indian youth’s yearning for change, a yearning which was almost about to reach a crescendo.

Bhuvan Shome: How Mrinal Sens National Award-winning film ushered in a seismic shift in the Indian film industry

A still from Bhuvan Shome

Sen and Kaul opened their manifesto, titled Manifesto of The New Cinema Movement, by arguing that Indian cinema – especially Hindi cinema – was at its lowest point. They go on to argue that Indian cinema was plagued by “spiralling costs of production, rocketing star prices, exorbitant rates of interest charged by financiers and widespread acceptance of “black money” transactions in all sectors of the film industry.” In fact, according to the manifesto, the situation was made worse with lack of creativity and “incredible dearth of ideas” which have together made a mess of the Indian film industry. “Most of the film-makers — directors, writers and all — seem to have stopped thinking. Almost to everybody, making a film seems to be just a mechanical business of putting together popular stars, gaudy sets, glossy colour and a large number of irrelevant musical sequences and other standard meretricious ingredients. Hardly anyone conceives of a film in terms of aesthetic experience and creative expression,” they wrote. The manifesto goes on to prescribe that the situation in India was rife for the evolution of a new kind of cinematic grammar, a cinematic language “with a signature.” In other words, following the establishment of the French New Wave in the 1950s and early 60s by Jean-Luc Godard, Francois Truffaut and others, and its American counterpart in the rise of New Hollywood, what Mrinal Sen was seeking was the rise of the filmmaker as an auteur.

What’s ‘Parallel’ about Indian Cinema?

Of course, it would be naïve to assume that Indian cinema was homogeneous and only changed after the Sen-Kaul manifesto. In fact, even the term ‘parallel cinema’ to denote the kind of movies this manifesto ostensibly gave rise to is also misleading. To begin with, since the very beginning, Indian cinema had various contradictory strains within it. Within Hindi commercial cinema itself, as early as the 1950s, it was possible to identify a certain auteurist streak. The best example that comes to one’s mind is Guru Dutt-Abrar Alvi’s Pyassa, which came out in 1957. Moreover, one also needed to understand that ‘auteur theory’ as a form of filmmaking really emerged from the pages of Cahier du Cinema, the journal for which Truffaut, Godard, Andre Bazin and others would write for, and which later on, culminated in the rise of the French New Wave. In that regard itself, the idea was more Western, and cannot be said to fully illustrate the range available within Indian cinema whose aesthetics has always been its own, ranging from emulating oral and folk traditions, to liberally borrowing from Hollywood and transforming that material into a specific Indian context. Perhaps, the best example of a popular Hollywood character mongrelised successfully into India is that of the Tramp, from the hands of Charlie Chaplin to its transformation in India in the movies of Raj Kapoor.

But if there is one common element in the movies that roughly come under the rubric of Parallel Cinema, especially after the release of Bhuvan Shome, is that most of these movies, made on a tight budget with unknown actors, mainly drawn from the world of theatre, were also ferociously political. And there are several reasons for that. Most of the personalities that drove the movement forward had linkages to Indian People’s Theatre Association (IPTA). One of the main members of IPTA was Ritwik Ghatak, who took up a faculty position at the newly established Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), and ended up teaching filmmakers like Mani Kaul whose film Uski Roti was one of the other movies that came out in the same year as Bhuvan Shome. A few years later an IPTA member MS Sathyu, would go on to make the famous Garam Hawa, with Balraj Sahani and a young Farooq Sheikh in the lead, a movie that was about the Partition, yet without any depiction of violence which had come to mark any movie dealing with that period.

Bhuvan Shome and the rise of NFDC

Apart from calling for the rise in auteurist sensibilities amongst Indian filmmakers, the manifesto also argued that given the prevalence of commercial cinema, their kind of cinema can only occupy a parallel space. And, hence, to sustain such a kind of cinema, it also needed a new kind of economics of filmmaking. In fact, the authors recognised that to keep their movement afloat, it was essential the filmmakers recover the money they would invest in their films, and hence, it was important to keep the budget as low as possible. To quote from the manifesto, “To keep the Movement afloat, it is perhaps necessary that films should be able to recover the invested capital. And since the audience from which it is hoped to get this money is a limited one — the essential minority audience of the off-beat cinema — it is obvious that the New Cinema Movement films must be made at the lowest possible cost. Shooting on actual locales, “post-dubbing” and, as far as possible, a continuous schedule of shooting will be factors which will help keep the budget low. This has been the practice over the world — on the Continent as well as among the young rebels in the USA. We in India have to take lessons from the successful exciting experience and equip ourselves accordingly.”

While the manifesto does not make this apparent, Bhuvan Shome, in many ways, marked a turning point of sorts vis-à-vis the relationship of Indian cinema with that of the Indian State. But before we talk about this, it is imperative to go back a bit further in order to understand the context better.

During the crucial period when the new republic of India was still going through her birth pangs – roughly from 1945 to 1952 – the Bombay film industry was largely self-sufficient financially and did not require any aid from the Indian State. But that does not mean that the film industry did not seek out a role for itself in the new republic, especially with the State. In 1945, five film producers from Bombay, Madras, Lahore and Calcutta went to Europe and America in order to study the film industries there. When they returned back, they penned a report – titled Report of the Indian Film Industry’s Mission to Europe and America – which was filled with praises about the efficiency of the western film industries and argued that Indian film industry, in order to thrive and compete with the West, needed the Indian State’s financial support, at least in the initial years. The report also recommended setting up a film council and a film institute. In return, the report argued, Indian cinema would prove to be an important tool at the hands of the State for mass education. But by the time Nehru became the prime minister, film industry was the last of his concerns and he made no attempt to conceal it either, often remarking that cinema wasn’t really a priority for the new nation, especially with pressing problems of poverty and rehabilitation of Partition refugees dominating the agenda. But at the same time, the Nehruvian state did also use cinema as an effective tool to put forth its socialist vision. Eventually, in 1949 the Nehru government appointed the SK Patil Film Enquiry Committee with the sole task of reporting on the status of the Indian film industry.

Much like what Sen and Kaul’s manifesto would point out, the Patil Committee too observed that the Indian film industry was witnessing a shift from studio centred finance to individual entrepreneurship, a development which brought in copious amount of black market into the film financing business and recommended that the Indian state start investing in the film industry. But nearly ten years would slide by before the government would make any move in this regard. In 1960 the government set up the Film Finance Corporation and in 1964 brought the FFC under the aegis of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, with the sole aim of providing low-interest loans to select projects. In 1969, this nascent FFC financed Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome, Mani Kaul’s Uski Roti, and Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash. In 1970, the government merged FFC with the Indian Motion Picture Export Corporation (IMPEC), and together, the new entity becomes the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC).I

In hindsight, questions of course remain. By financing the three films in 1969, with their distinctive and unconventional aesthetics, newer and more experimental narrative modes, the government did in a way start a new consciousness within the Indian film industry, bifurcating it into two, with one becoming synonymous with ‘art’, the other became known for its association with ‘commerce’. Of course, such distinction, when looked closely under a microscope, falls apart, yet it did also divide the audience into two.

Now NFDC is a pale shadow of its former self, yet these social distinctions have remained. How much Sen and Kaul’s manifesto played a part in the direct intervention of the State into the film industry is a question that cannot be conclusively answered. A point that needs to be reiterated is that while the Bombay film industry began to grow financially, managing to draw in a bigger audience and firmly imprinting its presence in the popular Indian consciousness, the Indian state’s interest in the film industry – at least with financing – was at best ad hoc. The other important question is whether the Indian government realise it was bifurcating Indian cinema into two, with the arrival of NFDC, and whether it was intentional. Though it doesn’t seem to be the case. Filmmakers of the Parallel Cinema, like Sen, Mani Kaul, Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and others, mostly required a tighter budget to produce their movies. And because the interest of the government in film financing was meagre anyway, it made no sense for it to invest heavily in the industry. While the commercial Bombay film industry’s budgets began to grow in size.

As a new dawn of filmmaking arrives in India, with digital streaming, and where the distinctions of popular and art have begun to grow ever more blurry. Looking back at Bhuvan Shome from the vantage point of the present, it seems difficult to see the real impact this movie has had on the Indian film industry at large. Yet hidden underneath these thick layers of history, it cannot be overstated that this film ushered in a seismic shift in the landscape of Indian cinema.

Arnav is an author and journalist. He lives in New Delhi.
Anupam is a writer, actor and journalist. He lives in Mumbai.

Updated Date: May 16, 2019 09:27:48 IST

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