Beyond Bollywood: India's gritty independent cinema
Regional and independent cinema in India bigger than Bollywood
By Daniel Schwartz, CBC News
Posted: Jun 24, 2011 10:50 PM ET
Last Updated: Jun 26, 2011 10:15 AM ETBack to accessibility links
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IIFA Awards community coverage
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While Bollywood's glamour-driven IIFA awards are underway in Toronto, India's National Film Festival is taking place in Delhi.
The much more diverse festival showcases the winners of India's National Film Awards. The Bollywood blockbuster Dabangg opened the festival.
IIFA, the International Indian Film Academy, celebrates the Hindi-language films of Bollywood; the NFA, on the other hand, honours those in any Indian language. Their winners may come from Bollywood, or from the regional or independent cinemas.
All three are very important parts of the Indian film industry.
Regional cinema is the term Indians use for the studio systems outside Bollywood's home, Mumbai, and it produces films in local languages.
For example, Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, Son of Adam), which won the NFA award for best film and three other awards earlier this year, is a Malayalam-language film.
It tells the story of an elderly couple who are trying to fund and arrange their first Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca. There are stories in the Indian press this week that Bollywood producers are trying to acquire the rights to the film, in order to do a remake in Hindi.
The regional films are more real, better rooted and have a better understanding of their context, independent director Sashi Kumar told CBC News in a telephone interview from Chennai, India.
Kumar is also the chair of the Asian College of Journalism, which is in Chennai (formerly Madras).Sashi Kumar directed the independent film Kaya Taran. Although he acknowledges that the Indian film audience is looking for escapist entertainment, he says Bollywood reflects only a sliver of social reality. (Courtesy Span Media)
"Bollywood has to appeal to audiences across India who are culturally so disparate, and also outside of India to the diaspora.
"So they have to state what they have to say in rather universal terms, which the regional-language cinema does not have to do."
Vinay Lal, an author and professor at the University of California (UCLA), notes that India's regional cinema, which is still made up of big production houses, also has a long tradition and a substantial following.
He pointed out that films made in the four dominant languages of the south -- Malayalam, Tamil, Telugu and Kannada - together easily outnumber the films made in Hindi.
The independent cinema
India also has a thriving independent cinema, composed of producers and directors who work outside the big studio systems, and these films often challenge the stereotypes of Bollywood films.
Independent productions represent about 10 per cent of Indian film production.
The independents tackle themes that Bollywood does not, or no longer wishes to delve into with any frequency, such as communal and caste turmoil, the class divide and the rural poor.
As Bollywood reflects less of people's everyday experiences, opportunities open up for the independents.
Rural India and social realism were staples of Bollywood films in the 1970s and early 1980s, Kumar said. But now, "you hardly find any rural themes in Bollywood any more."
For Kumar, "Bollywood reflects a sliver of the social reality -- the upper-class, upper-crust metropolitan sensibility of India."
Kumar directed Kaya Taran, a films that deals with communal violence - namely, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 following the assassination of Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.
Although it was critically acclaimed, it did not come close to the average Bollywood box office.Bollywood actor Amitabh Bachchan attends the 57th National Film Awards ceremony in New Delhi on Oct. 22, 2010. Bachchan received the best actor award for the movie Paa. (B. Mathur/Reuters)
Bollywood megastar Amitabh Bachchan explained this phenomenon Edward Luce's 2006 book about India, In Spite of the Gods.
While conceding that Bollywood ignores Indian reality, Bachchan told Luce, "It's called escapist cinema.
"Why should somebody pay to see a film with poverty in it when they see poverty in their neighbourhood every day? People don't want to be reminded where they live."
Kumar agrees that the Indian audience wants escapist fare, but now they also want shorter films. Traditional Indian films used to be nearly three hours in length, in order to provide a full evening's entertainment, but now the films are about an hour shorter.
Documentaries are also a growing genre for independent filmmakers in India. Vinay Lal described it as "an absolute explosion." Even so, he said it is difficult for a documentary to get a commercial screening in India.
Shown more abroad
"One of the paradoxes of independent Indian cinema is that it is showcased more outside of India than in India, in the festival circuit," Kumar says. Of course that may apply to independent cinema in general.
The London Indian Film Festival is an important new stop on that circuit and opens its second season on June 30.
One of the other ironies is that many independent films are produced by non-resident Indians. As Kumar describes it, they are Indians who have made money abroad, often in the Gulf, and want to make a name for themselves back home.
"Even if the film collapses they are not so upset because they made a film, after all."
For filmmakers like Kumar and director Shonali Bose, there is additional irony here in that Bollywood is increasingly centring its plots around wealthy Indians living in rich countries.
Both directors raise the same criticisms of Bollywood's portrayal of non-resident Indians - NRIs - that are often voiced about its portrayal of India. "There's no reflection of the struggles they face," Bose, herself an NRI, told the U.K. newspaper The Independent last year. "It's just glamorized," she added.Author and UCLA professor Vinay Lal says independent Indian films have become more important in recent years. (UCLA)
But even as Bollywood gets all the attention - witness the weeks-long publicity as Toronto hosts the IIFA awards - Lal does not think there is much resentment from the rest of the Indian film world.
"They realize that Bollywood may not represent all of India," he says, "but in some sense it speaks for India from their point of view.
"So if the only publicity India is getting is through Bollywood, the view they would take is that it's better to get some publicity in the hope that these films will then lead audiences to come to other Indian films."
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