The Apu Trilogy, made up of the films Pather Panchali, Aparajito and Apur Sansar, instantly placed Satyajit Ray and Indian cinema on the world map in the late 1950s. Between them, the three films won seven awards at the Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals. This, ingenuously, spurred the ‘Parallel Cinema’ movement towards being firmly established in Indian cinema. In 1992, Satyajit Ray received an honorary Oscar – the Lifetime Achievement Award.
During his career, Mrinal Sen’s films have received awards from almost all major film festivals, including Cannes, Berlin, Venice, Moscow, Karlovy Vary, Montreal, Chicago, and Cairo. Retrospectives of his films have been shown in almost all major cities of the world. Mrinal Sen was also elected as the president of the International Federation of the Film Societies.
Mani Kaul’s Satah Se Uthata Aadmi was the first Indian film to find a place in Un Certain Regard category of Cannes in 1981. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam followed suit in 1982 and Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar in 1984. This was the first instance an Indian film was in competition at the festival.
Bengali director, Ritwik Ghatak, directed just 8 films in his life but is generally regarded as one of the few truly original Indian talents in cinema by Ray himself and international critics such as Derek Malcolm. His films, along with a number of Indian films from different regions, from this era repeatedly feature in the Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll for all-time greatest films.
As Indian Cinema completes 100 years, I am coaxed to wonder, have the stalwarts of regional cinema out-shined Bollywood filmmakers in terms of attaining global recognition and honor? What really defines the international face of Indian Cinema in the last 100 years? This question poised here is not stemming from a anti-nationalistic sentiment about regional cinema but more from a genuine intrigue.
India is the largest producer of films in the world, producing over 1000 feature films across a vast set of languages each year. At the end of 100 years of its existence, Indian cinema is projected to have a net worth of around USD 3 billion or more in 2013. Hindi may be the most common language of dialogue but we successfully make a large number of films in Tamil, Bengali, Malayalam, Telugu and Punjabi too. According to various studies, regional cinema accounts for upto 65-70% film revenues in India. Hence, if any regional film attains international recognition, I would still call it a feather in the hat of the Indian Film Industry. But it is interesting to note the magnanimous contributions of regional cinema in shaping the course of Indian cinema globally.
Indian Film history can roughly be split into the experimental 20s and 30s, the golden 40s and 50s, the commercial 60s and 70s, the despicable 80s, the struggling 90s and 2000s leading upto a point where we seem to be somewhat headed in the right direction today. If we go for a less hackneyed view, we discover that although it may appear that regional films have brought back more recognition for India from around the world than Bollywood has, yet all these successes seem to be oddly juxtaposed with various achievements of Bollywood films releasing around them too. Indian films have gone through good and bad phases, and pretty much, films in all languages have been good in the good phase and bad in the bad phase, more often than not.
While the Bengali parallel cinema was rising, Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar was awarded best film at the first Cannes Film Festival in 1946. When Ray was earning accolades for The Apu Trilogy, Mehboob Khan’s epic film Mother India became India’s first nomination at the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Language Film in 1958. At the 1959 Golden Globe Awards, the Samuel Goldwyn Award for Do Aankhen Barah Haath was won by V Shantaram, a mainstream Hindi film director.
For the likes of Ray, Ghatak and Adoor, Bollywood boasted of the incredibly tall order consisting of Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy and Hrishikesh Mukherjee. Guru Dutt’s Pyaasa (1957) and Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959) are now included among the greatest films of all time, both by Time magazine’s “All-TIME” 100 best movies and by the Sight & Sound critics’ and directors’ poll, where Dutt himself is included among the greatest film directors of all time, alongside the Apu Trilogy (1955–1959) by Ray. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin (1953) pioneered the neo-realist cinema movement in India popularizing what was called the Indian New Wave. It was the first Indian film to win the International Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Raj Kapoor’s Awaara (1951) was included amongst the 20 new entries added to TIME’s All-Time 100 greatest films in 2012.
From the 1970s, mainstream Bollywood had become increasingly commercial catering to the masses and often compromising on the quality of scripts to adhere to populist pressures. This trend continued over 80s and 90s with very few Hindi films making a splash in the waters abroad, apart from some works by Shyam Benegal and his likes. Regional cinema, however, continued to flourish in the 70s and 80s until it suffered a resurgence in the late 80s and 90s carrying over to the 2000s with few shining spots here and there. The trajectory of the regional cinema, thus, has been fairly similar to the one of Bollywood.
In 1988, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! won the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival and was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. In 1989, Malayam director Shaji N.Kaun joined the club with his film Piravi being featured under Un Certain Regard and winning the Camera d’Or. During the 90s and most of 2000s, most of the regional cinema became predominantly commercial, save for Bengali cinema which never fell short of its aim with new directors like Rituparno Ghosh, Aparna Sen etc. After Shaji Karun’s Swaham in 1994 which was in competition at Cannes the only other Indian films that got selected in competition at Cannes were Shaji Karun’s Vanaprastham and Murali Nair’s Marana Simhasanam (which also won the Camera d’Or) both in 1999. Post then, we didn’t manage to catch the fancy of Cannes selectors for competition until Udaan (2010) and Miss Lovely (2012).
I do not think we can single out the achievements of regional cinema and pit them against Bollywood or vice versa, as it becomes increasingly hard to assimilate the grandiose set of achievements of Indian cinema in the past 100 years. However, over the past 10-15 years, all of Indian cinema is experiencing one slow but steady change. The so-called parallel nature of cinema is slowly blending in with the mainstream wing of it, irrespective of the region or language it is made in. International recognition had taken a backseat in the recent decade as none of our cinema was able to match up to the expected standards. But we are gaining our ground back, and this approach looks more confident and reasonable than the one before, to reach out to a global audience.