The Essential Mystery – Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema

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Item Code: NAC724
Author: John W Hood
Publisher: Orient Blackswan Pvt. Ltd.
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788125037750
Pages: 640
Cover: Paperback
Other Details 8.5 Inch X 5.5 Inch
Weight 670 gm
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Book Description
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A comprehensive overview of Indian art cinema, this substantially revised and updated edition takes a critical look at the major filmmakers of the genre. The film directors who form the corpus of this new edition now include among others Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Govindan Aravindan, Aparna Sen, Girish Kasaravalli, Govind Nihalani, Ritwik Ghatak and Buddhadeb Dasgupta. A final chapter critically examines the works of filmmakers not as prolific as those mentioned earlier—Mani Kaul, Kumar Shahani, Goutam Chose, Ketan Mehta, Manmohan Mahapatra, Nirad Mahapatra and Shaji Karun. Nevertheless they have in their oeuvre, films marked by their excellence. The detailed filmography at the end of the book is a valuable addition for students and scholars of cinema and film aficionados.

John Hood’s critical analysis of each filmmaker’s work is lucid and meticulous. The amazing availability of the films under study on DVD, have made this vast treasury of films accessible to the reader. The objective of this book is not to decode each film or provide the right answers—only sensitive responses—and to promote an enhanced appreciation of Indian art cinema.

John W Hood was born in Melbourne in 1944. He studied at the University of Melbourne majoring in Philosophy and Indian Studies. His PhD thesis on Bengali vernacular historiography, focussed on the work of the late Professor Niharranjan Ray. He has written extensively on Indian cinema, his published books include Chasing the Truth: The Films of Mrinal Sen (1993), The Films of Das gupta (2005) and Beyond the World of The Films of Sotyajit Ray. (2008).

He is also a well-known translator of Bengali literature, having translated the poetry of Buddhadeb Dasgupta and the novels and short stories of Buddhadev Guha and Prafulla Roy. John Hood divides his time between Melbourne and kolkata.


Cinema is a constantly developing art. More filmmakers are taking it on, more and more films are being made, and ideas, values and techniques are continually being reassessed. As the lifetime of this relatively new art extends, a feeling of history running through it becomes more pronounced, and issues of comparison are drawn between the films of one decade and those being made now. The art cinema, in particular, is faced with challenges of survival impinging on its philosophies and aesthetics, and many independent filmmakers are sometimes seen to be deferring to the influence of their financially more comfortable counterparts in commercial cinema.

To write what can only be an attempt at a representative, comprehensive and reasonably substantial work on the Indian art cinema, one has to grapple with such vicissitudes. When I wrote the first edition of this book, one of my biggest problems lay in containing the available material in a form manageable by the reader. My aim was to offer something substantial though by no means encyclopaedic; consequently I faced a problem similar to one of the basic problems of the historian— the problem of what to leave out. That problem, for me, at least, has only got bigger. Since the first edition was published in 2000, all the surviving filmmakers discussed in it have gone on making films, some with remarkable fecundity. Moreover, some filmmakers not included in the first edition, have since produced a body of work significant in and impressive in quality [warrant inclusion] in a revised and enlarged edition.

A number of things distinguish this edition from its predecessor. II14’re are two new chapters, one on the films of Girish Kasaravalli and one on the films of Aparna Sen; some of the films in the ‘Miscellany’ chapter have been replaced and the scope of that chapter has been widened; the chapters on living film directors have in many cases been updated; and some of the chapters on deceased filmmakers have been added to. (Indeed, one of the most pleasing developments in India in recent years has been the burgeoning of the DVD industry, making so many of India’s vast film treasury readily available.) Moreover, a number of corrections, both core and cosmetic, have been made to the original text.

In the interest of simplicity and consistency, the contemporary names of Indian cities have been preferred; hence Calcutta has been change to Kolkata, Bombay to Mumbai, etc.


India conjures up various and often contradictory preconceptions. Some think of it as a land peopled by maharajas frolicking in fabulous wealth, while others conceive of it as a land of mass poverty. Tourists go in search of the romantic India, others go there as pilgrims in quest of religious and philosophical wisdom, and there are those who are awed by its fabled mystery and inscrutability. All these preconceptions are inadequate and more than a little fanciful, but one impression of India that does not miss the mark is the widely perceived notion of a land of movie mania. Indeed, there cannot be many countries in the world where cinema is more popular than it is in India. Although cinema archaeologists will find no evidence there of the drive-in theatre, now defunct in most of those parts of the world where it provided in the fifties such a great advance in entertainment, and the new multiplex cinema centres, while growing in number, are still confined to a few major cities. Still, it is not uncommon to see at various times of the day inordinately lengthy queues outside box offices and touts offering tickets at often inflated prices amongst disappointed crowds where a much exposed and tatty ‘House Full’ sign is displayed. It is also interesting to note that Hollywood, that great cultural dictator for the rest of the world, hardly has a foot in the door here, for most of the films being seen -and by many, more than once-are home-made. India has the biggest Film industry in the world, producing more than seven hundred Films a year, most for its home market, many also for the Indian diaspora throughout the world, and some—a highly significant few—for more discerning audiences in India as well as for distribution in cinemas and television networks abroad.

The first moving pictures, from the French Lumiere brothers, were shown at Watson’s Hotel in Bombay in July 1896, after which the new phenomenon spread, through various agencies, to other major cities and towns, and in 1912 films started to be produced in India. The general history of Indian cinema from those earliest endeavours has been well documented, and patterns, divergences and developments have been studied and analysed.’ Throughout that history, in various ways and to varying degrees, India’s rich literary traditions, especially its mythological and devotional works, have provided filmmakers with an unlimited source of material and so guaranteed popular appeal for their works. Even many of the ostensibly secular films of the contemporary commercial cinema reflect allusions to literary tradition and many themes, perhaps updated, are drawn from it. The earliest movie made in India was the legendary Dada Saheb Phalke’s Raja Harishchandra, first seen in 1913, the first of a long list of highly successful mythologicals’, the most prominent genre of’ the silent era. The first sound film made in India, Alam Am (1931), was a clear sign of things to come, for not only did it talk but it offered songs and dance as well.

The ‘mythologicals’ survived well into the sound era as did devotional films about great religious leaders, such as Debaki Bose’s Chandidas (1932) and Vidyapati (1937). While Chandidas is a devotional film in the sense that it focuses on the great Vaishnava poet and priest, it was also a pioneer of the growing number of films that would bring ideas of social reform to the screen,—Chandidas having been notable, among other things, for his unconventional love for a low-caste woman. While social criticism was able to be reflected to some extent in the mythologicals and devotionals, it also found a ready context in the more contemporary romances, adventures and other films based on favourite literary works, perhaps the most famous of which was Pramotesh Barua’s Devdas (1935), based on the novel of the popular and highly regarded Saratchandra Chatterjee. Despite the rather rigid censorship laws of the British government in India, it was possible for nationalism to peep through in almost anything. By the end of the forties it was clear that the most popular films had at least six songs (and sometimes many more), along with well-choreographed dance sequences. The foremost directors of the forties and fifties—Guru Dutt, Bimal Roy, Raj Kapoor, Mehboob and the like—were making films that might be identified as forerunners to both the art cinema of India and the Hindi commercial cinema, in that they were films that rejoiced in the obligatory musical element and so appealed to popular tastes and values, yet at the same time were intelligent in substance and representation—despite the obvious melodrama— and were marked by a notable degree of artistic sophistication.

A source of frustration most often encountered by writers about the Indian art cinema lies in the fact that many people with even something of an interest in films made outside of Hollywood have an immediate impression of Indian movies being churned out of Mumbai at the rate of seven or eight hundred a year, all depicting an established formula for the conflict between varying degrees of good and evil and with even the most serious of them being seen, often mistakenly, as hilariously funny. In these films abstract notions have simple human representations: Good is characteristically a young man, necessarily handsome and exceptionally virile; Good’s offshoot, Vulnerable Innocence, is naturally a young woman, necessarily beautiful, preferably lacking in intelligence, and helpless; Evil is usually male, also virile and necessarily ugly hut sometimes female and, if at all glamorous, then necessarily witch-like; Evil’s offshoot, Confusion, can be either male or female and preferably ugly and obviously untrustworthy. Narrative follows a logical, if improbable, progression, taking the viewer from situations that range from the mundane to the potentially sublime, through confusion that might well border on or even descend into chaos, even to the threat of annihilation that leads to the emergence of salvation and the restoration of everlasting joy, with Good winning the prize (invariably Vulnerable Innocence, now rendered invulnerable by him) and Evil and all his agents utterly routed. The narrative structure is balanced between sequences of realistic drama, pie-in-the-face comedy, flamboyant dance, songs that will have highly profitable sales in the cassette and CD market, and some often brilliantly choreographed and utterly implausible fight scenes. The offering is spiced by some extraordinarily vulgar yet rarely erotic sexual suggestiveness as well as an abundance of gratuitous violence, much of it directed against women. And the performers, by way of their good looks, their private lives and whatever mythology the PR experts concoct for them, provide a thriving business in posters, picture postcards and a vast network of filmy magazines.

Given the virtually institutionalised formula elements generally found in Hindi commercial films, one might suggest that to see a handful of them is to see them all. Perhaps this judgement is unkind, especially as in recent years more and more commercial films have shown notable endeavours to break at least part of the established mould; nevertheless, one certainly can gain a very good idea of the genre from a minimum of texts, Of course, there will be those who will protest that the Hindi commercial cinema has produced many films of artistic and technical worth, and this no doubt is true. Indeed, champions of the commercial film industry (as if a commercialised popular culture anywhere in the world needs defenders) claim righteous justification for it on two hackneyed, simplistic grounds: it is only giving the ordinary people what they want, and it is successful at the box office. However, successful capitalist marketing thrives by creating a popular need and cultivating a belief in people that that, in fact, is what they want.

The vast publicity in the press and on television given to popular cinema ensures its prosperity. As for the success at the box office, given the monopolistic distribution system in India similar to that in other parts of the world, where Hollywood cinematic imperialism flourishes, this is hardly any surprise. Nevertheless, it must be remembered that the majority of the six hundred or so commercial films made each year actually fail at the box office. The one important point that needs to be made here is that while the Hindi commercial film industry might provide the bulk of Indian films, it does not represent the entirety of the Indian cinema or, by any means, the best of it. There is an alternative Indian cinema whose films have a much greater respect for the intelligence of an audience and whose directors have a more widely developed aesthetic sense emanating out of their own individuality as artists. and not from a boardroom table.

Also a legacy of the better films of the thirties, forties and early fifties—especially those that took up significant social issues—is this other Indian cinema, the ‘art’ cinema—or ‘parallel’ or ‘alternative’ or ‘independent’ cinema—represented by the ‘major’ filmmakers discussed in this book. But the art cinema has also drawn discernible influence from other sources, such as the leftist and nationalist Indian People’s Theatre Movement (IPTA) which prospered in the 1940s. Also of significance in the evolution of an alternative Indian cinema was the birth in the late forties of the film society movement and, in the fifties, the advent of international film festivals starting with that held in Calcutta in 1953. While the IPTA transformed ideas of political and social reform into cultural substance, the film societies and the international festivals allowed would-be filmmakers—such as the young Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, for example—to learn from what they were able to see of masters such as Eisenstein as well as the best of contemporary foreign directors, especially the Italian neo-realists, all of them heirs to a quite different tradition of cinema from that which had developed in India during the art’s first half-century.


Preface ix
1. Indian Art Cinema: An Introduction 1
2. Ritwik Ghatak 15
3. Satyajit Ray 50
4. Mrinal Sen 112
5. Adoor Gopalakrishnan 157
6. Shyam Benegal 197
7. Govindan Aravindan 255
8. Girish Kasaravalli 292
9. Buddhadeb Dasgupta 344
10. Govind Nihalani 401
11. Aparna Sen 440
12. Some Eminent Others 477
13. Some Closing Remarks 542
Filmography 554
Index 615
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