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The dynamics of Indian cult films

Last updated on September 2, 2010 at 1600 hrs IST
RANJITA GANESAN________________________

There is much contention surrounding the existence of an underground film scene in India. Though not in the form of a focused movement, underground filmmakers do operate here. The dynamics of Indian cult films are murkier than those of the west – not in terms of quality but because of the multi-layered conditions that govern them.

Since they cannot proliferate in a society possessed by well-produced formula films backed by hefty promotion, some filmmakers in India lie low by choice. For an audience uninitiated in the art of film appreciation, hard-hitting cinema that transmits macabre truths is never more desirable than mainstream flicks, where even sorrow shines prettily. Big banners are unwilling to touch alternate subjects which seem either too drab or dark for mainstream consumption- ‘Ek Cup Chya’, a film about the Right to Information (RTI), is a case in point. On the rare occasion when producers oblige, the director’s freedom is contorted.

Disconcerted by the tyranny of commercial forces, an organisation called Little Fish Eat Big Fish released a DVD set of 5 Bengali ‘no-budget’ films in 2008. They write in their blog, “We view the producer as an unwanted intervention of the consumerist culture to control and, thereby, subjugate the auteur.” They stick to independent film-making, and invite film-lovers “to come and see what kind of quality a no budget film can deliver.” Short film clubs like Shamiana too are promising initiatives. Student film-makers with low resources form a big chunk of the unknown underground. The Magic Lantern Foundation has been lending support to small socio-political film projects since 1989.

Modern documentary makers try to keep up the political underground film-making tradition of post-emergency India. Since anti-establishment films are confrontational, they become a censor’s delight. So filmmakers have to shoot, edit and produce their work from the sidelines. Anand Patwardhan‘s ‘social action’ films have screened more times in court than in cinema halls, but he still attempts to pitch his films among the masses. The ban on ‘War and Peace’ (2002) (see video) was revoked but not without 21 cuts. After a long struggle, the Bombay High Court finally cleared the entire film for multiplex screening in 2005. Yet it remains relatively unknown.

Little or no money can be spared for publicity. Piracy, therefore, is an approved form of distribution in the underground. Owing to the audacity of Pradip Krishen’s ‘In Which Annie Gives It Those Ones’, it was aired just one night on Doordarshan. Only recently the forgotten work was revived by propagation online. Paanch, Anurag Kashyap’s controversial debut film, was distributed through file sharing websites with the director’s sanction.

Popular recognition eludes independent films here but they are received well abroad. Also, within India, curiosity about regional films is limited. So they live and die in film festivals. Murali Nair’s Malayalam film ‘Marana Simhasanam’ won the Camera d’Or, but it is barely known within Kerala, let alone outside it.  Few have heard of Partho Sengupta but his first feature film ‘Hava Aney Dey’ was selected for Global Lens 2008 and his next venture is being funded by Hubert Bals. Self proclaimed underground auteur Quashik Mukherjee’s ‘Bishh’ (Bengali) which released statewide with 2 cuts was watched by few and thrashed generously by mainstream critics. But he finds a growing fanbase among Bengalis in parts of the US. His documentary ‘Le Pocha’ is a big hit with alternate music lovers (see video).

It is interesting how blue films (underground porn) find a meticulous distribution through dedicated networks. Independent auteurs too must start a strong underground movement and use means like the internet or open public screenings to create a stir in the Indian mainstream.