Defiantly Different: How India’s New Indies are Kindling an Indian Cinema Revolution

Anubrata Basu and Joyraj Bhattacharjee in 2010 Bengali film "Gandu."
Anubrata Basu and Joyraj Bhattacharjee in 2010 Bengali film “Gandu.”

Behind the curtain of Bollywood’s bedazzling cavalcade, a storm is silently brewing. A confidently ascendant breed of new independent Indian films is transforming the canvas of Indian cinema. For the longest time, Bollywood has bestridden the Indian filmmaking firmament like a stubborn and undisputed cultural colossus. This looks all set to change, with the rising popularity of India’s new brand of alternative Indies currently kindling an Indian cinematic revolution.

Rather surprisingly, the new indies have not received the level of attention they deserve in the global mainstream media and amongst film critics. India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid – the world’s first book on the phenomenon of the rising Indies, seeks to redress this shortfall. Published in Routledge’s cutting-edge Advances in Film Studies Series, this title offers a kaleidoscopic, ringside view of India’s new cinematic agents of change. The book is based on meticulous fieldwork research in Mumbai, Delhi and Bangalore, and features the voices of acclaimed independent actors and filmmakers including Rahul Bose, Kiran Rao, Anusha Rizvi, Onir, Aamir Bashir, Bejoy Nambiar, Kamal Swaroop, Arundhati Nag, Pawan Kumar and Q, amongst others.

Arguing that the Indies should be granted status as a bona fide cinema form distinct from Bollywood, the book traces the historiographical and genealogical evolution of these new films. In this regard, I position the Indies as ‘hybrid mutants’, formed from a synthesis of the genetic DNA of multiple cinematic parents – the grand traditions of the various Cinemas of India: postcolonial arthouse, Middle and Parallel Cinema, 1990s urban Hinglish (Hindi with English) films, and also Bollywood.

With their hard-hitting, experimental, socially-conscious and politically-disputatious storylines, India’s new Indies are definitely here to stay. An ever increasing number of these films show you the multi-dimensional sides of India you don’t get to see in Bollywood. The sheer diversity of the Indies is characterised by their engagement with a cornucopia of current affairs – topical themes and issues Bollywood wouldn’t touch with a bargepole. The Indies package these pressing concerns into quirky, entertaining and engaging storylines. As a refreshing antidote to Bollywood’s predictable push-button glitz and glamour, the new Indies appeal to both the heart and mind.

Take for example, the hilarious political satire of seminal Indie Peepli Live, with its raucous send-up of the Indian government’s ‘turn a blind-eye’ policy towards the nation’s pandemic of farmer suicides. The film was a smash hit and India’s entry to the foreign language category of the Oscars in 2010. More recent examples of Indian Indies include director Anand Gandhi’s philosophical tour de force, Ship of Theseus; an unmistakeably monumental watershed in modern Indian cinema. The Critics Circle UK, declared Ship of Theseus ‘one of 15 all-time life-changing films’. Considering the critics’ shortlist included canonical masterpieces of Hollywood and World Cinema, such as The 400 Blows, The Battle of Algiers, Annie Hall and Raging Bull, gives you a measure of how important, yet how understated, the emergence of new Indian Indie cinema is. Another coruscating example is the endearingly offbeat epistolary romance, The Lunchbox; a film that won hearts and minds the world over, triumphed at the box-office, and was nominated for a BAFTA award in 2015. All these accolades and accomplishments would have previously been considered inconceivable for small-budget Indian indies.

So why do we not hear much about these new firebrands of Indian cinema? This could be largely because the new Indies suffer at the hands of a Bollywood bias, both in India and overseas. With the spotlight unwaveringly trained on Bollywood, the Indies are often overlooked by Indian distributors and exhibitors, whose focus is to cash-in on lucrative mainstream Bollywood blockbusters. This means you are more likely to access the latest Bollywood hit at your local Cineworld, but may struggle to flesh out a cult indie hit like controversial rap musical Gandu or politically trenchant Papilio Buddha about the brutalisation of India’s marginalised Dalit community, and Unfreedom, about a lesbian relationship under the miasma of rising religious fundamentalism.

The book also features an original, self-referential diagram charting the new wave Indies’ emergence from what I call the ‘Ship of Indian Cinemas’; a nod to both Anand Gandhi’s magnum opus, Ship of Theseus, and ancient Greek historian Plutarch’s homonymous conundrum, on which Gandhi’s film is based. In my diagram of the Ship of Indian Cinemas, I debunk the western myth that all Indian Cinema is Bollywood, revealing the multiple cinematic parts that actually make up the Ship of Indian Cinemas, ever since it embarked on its independent postcolonial odyssey in 1947.

The book demonstrates how the new Indies are glocal – exhibiting a World Cinema global aesthetic in terms of form and style, but firmly rooted in local stories and content. In other words, it is possible to spot in the Indies, a fissiparous pan-global assortment of filmmaking styles, codes, tropes and grammar. These range in influence from Jean-Luc Godard, Satyajit Ray, Takashi Miike, Wong-Kar-wai, Gaspar Noé, and Mohsen Makhmalbaf to Ken Loach and Alfred Hitchcock. However, the beating heart of these films pumps with themes and issues which are unequivocally Indian. The book explores these diverse and topical contemporary Indian discourses as espoused by several Indies. These themes include farmer suicides, the neoliberal multinational corporate machine and government apathy in Peepli Live, marginal individuals set adrift in the modern Mumbai mainstream in Dhobi Ghat, anarchistic teenage urban angst played out in transgressive postmodern rap musical Gandu, and modern India’s tempestuous see-sawing between spiritualism and materialism in Ship of Theseus.

Because of their ‘tell it like it is’, warts and all candour, several Indie films bear the brunt of India’s antiquated censorship regime, under the custodianship of the speciously titled Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC). Several young Indian filmmakers will testify from first-hand experience that the CBFC’s infamously snipping scissors decisively conveys the message that Indian cinema is presided over by censorship not certification. India’s current religious nationalist BJP-led government has significantly influenced the composition of the current CBFC board. Under the quixotic leadership of CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani (who gained notoriety for shortening kissing scenes from the James Bond blockbuster – Spectre); film censorship is often a thinly-veiled excuse to impose orthodox and puritanical attitudes on free cinematic expression. This increasingly restrictive environment of moral and cultural policing directly impacts outspoken independent Indian films. The book mentions multifarious scenarios where films such as Gandu, Kaum De Heere (Diamonds of the Community), Papilio Buddha and Unfreedom, to name a few, have fallen under the censors’ blade.

This is where film festivals provide a lifeline of expressive liberty for the new Indies. Bespoke and specialised international film events, such as the annual London Asian Film Festival (LAFF) – Europe’s longest-running Asian Cinema showcase, are a sine qua non for the brightest and best of young independent Indian filmmaking talent from the non-Bollywood cinema space. The first-ever Edinburgh Asian Film Festival (EAFF 2016) held at the iconic Filmhouse in June, was curated with the raison d’être of championing new independent films with strong socio-political themes, not only from India, but also from Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Yemen. A section in the book reveals the blossoming of film festivals within India that are specifically oriented towards spotlighting new Indian Indie content. Burgeoning events in remote Himalayan regions, such as the Dharamshala International Film Festival (DIFF), the Ladakh International Film Festival (LIFF), and the quirkily titled BYOFF (Bring Your Own Film Festival) in the seaside town of Puri, demonstrate the pulling power of the new Indies.

The festival circuit also embraced the compelling and acclaimed Indian Indie, Aligarh, a film based on true incidents involving the social ostracism of gay professor, Ramchandra Siras, at the Aligarh Muslim University. Siras was framed in a media sting operation and filmed having sex with a cycle-rickshaw puller. After being sacked by the university and hounded by society, Siras, similar to British WWII code-breaker boffin, Alan Turing (played by Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game), died in unexplained circumstances. Aligarh reveals how the university faculty members, complicit in orchestrating the tawdry sting operation, were never held accountable, following a laissez-faire police investigation, or lack thereof.

In terms of film representation, Bollywood can be guilty of often banalising and belittling women, relegating them to sex-objects in song and dance set-pieces called ‘item numbers’. By contrast, as I mention in the book, the Indies are a bastion for strong female roles both behind and in front of the camera. Recent film celebrations of female empowerment include Leena Yadav’s boisterously irreverent Parched and India’s first all-female ‘buddy’ road movie – Angry Indian Goddesses. These offbeat films also signpost the overarching phenomenon of rising women directors in new Indian indie cinema, from Anusha Rizvi (Peepli Live), Kiran Rao (Dhobi Ghat), Geethu Mohandas (Liar’s Dice) and Anjali Menon (Bangalore Days) to Ruchika Oberoi (Island City).

Expanding on glocal aspects of the indies, the book takes on a bird’s eye view of world cinema, revealing the mechanisms by which Bollywood exerts its dominance over the other forms of Indian cinema. It explains a self-devised concept called a global cinema ‘meta-hegemony’; where Hollywood dominates global cinema and where Bollywood, although a leading competitor, is largely seen as secondary to Hollywood. However, Bollywood exerts its own internal hegemony or dominance over the multiple other cinemas of India including the new indies. In this Bollywood-centric Indian milieu, it is interesting to observe how the indies are trying to carve out their own space, using inventive and unorthodox modes of funding, distribution and exhibition, in the lack of an autonomous Indie distribution structure.

A chapter in the book is devoted to the dynamics of indie funding and dissemination. These include multiplexes, crowdfunding, international co-productions and the migration of young Indian audiences, particularly low-income groups and students to the cyberspace of BitTorrent peer-to-peer file-sharing downloads. This young demographic turns to the cybersphere to access Indies and World Cinema, largely because conventional access is placed out of reach due to a disproportionate multiplex pricing system, which charges the same ticket price for a Bollywood blockbuster and a low-budget independent film.

The second section of the book dives into in-depth analyses of several seminal Indies, ranging from the aforementioned Peepli Live and Gandu to The Lunchbox, Haider, I Am, Harud and Ship of Theseus. Again, these close readings of Indian Indie films are informed by a broad international, intercultural and intertextual template, drawing parallels with films such as Peter Weir’s The Truman Show, Canadian production Jesus of Montreal, Joshua Oppenheimer’s visceral documentary The Act of Killing, and Djibril Diop Mambéty’s postcolonial Senegalese cinema masterpiece Hyenas.

I also identify similarities between new wave Indian Indies that engage with traumatic national events and the effects of globalisation on ordinary folks and a radical new cohort of American indie films such as Compliance, Night Moves, Martha Marcy May Marlene and The Sacrament. The new Indian indies, with their idiosyncratic hotchpotch syncretism, can also bear traits of British 1960s social realist kitchen sink film dramas, Italian neo-realism and the French Nouvelle Vague. On occasion, they can also share cinematic camaraderie with modern film movements from the Global South, including films from Argentina and Chile. Ultimately, the cross-national looking glass applied to the book’s case studies of Indian Indies is designed as a mimesis of the indies’ own glocal sensibilities – one foot in India and one eye on the world. This transglobal approach to analysing new Indian Cinema is also conceived to mirror the interconnected global network society we all live in, where cultural products do not stand in isolation but serve to hyperlink the local, national and transnational levels.

Indeed, the aura of mystery and unpredictability enveloping the Indian Indies seems to add to their enigmatic allure – their ability to subtly transform the orthodox and conventional conceptions of Indian film. So far, the West has largely simplified Indian cinema into the convenient compartments of Bollywood or Satyajit Ray (the doyen of post-independence Indian art cinema). This tunnel vision of Indian cinema is slowly being dismantled, with the Indies being unleashed at film festivals worldwide and increasingly turning heads at arthouse cinemas in the UK, USA, Canada, Australia, and beyond.

In the final chapter, the book charts the future course of the Ship of Indian Cinemas. It boldly augurs that the indies are the future of Indian Cinema, exploring the possible mechanisms and modalities through which the new Indies could establish an autonomous funding, distribution and exhibition structure. Overall, the book aims to serve as a foundational bellwether for future investigations on what will be a fertile field of research. With new independent Indian cinema poised to grow and flourish in leaps and bounds in the coming years, it seems a fait accompli that local and global interest will be drawn to these modern architects of a contemporary Indian cinema renaissance.

It is a matter of time before the world wakes up to the fact that Indian cinema is not just Bollywood – and the new indies emphatically, and defiantly, announce just that.

Ashvin Devasundaram

About Ashvin Devasundaram

Dr. Ashvin I. Devasundaram is Lecturer in World Cinema at Queen Mary, University of London and author of India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid (Routledge, 2016) – the world’s first book on new Indian Indie cinema. He is Programming Adviser to the London Asian Film Festival (LAFF), Creative Director of the Edinburgh Asian Film Festival (EAFF), and a BBC Academy Expert Voice in Cultural Studies and Visual Arts. Apart from several international presentations and guest lectures, Ashvin has delivered the prestigious Annual Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial Lecture 2015 at the Indian High Commission’s Nehru Centre in London. Ashvin's research profile and contact details can be found here:

Dr. Ashvin I. Devasundaram is Lecturer in World Cinema at Queen Mary, University of London and author of India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid (Routledge, 2016) – the world’s first book on new Indian Indie cinema. He is Programming Adviser to the London Asian Film Festival (LAFF), Creative Director of the Edinburgh Asian Film Festival (EAFF), and a BBC Academy Expert Voice in Cultural Studies and Visual Arts. Apart from several international presentations and guest lectures, Ashvin has delivered the prestigious Annual Dadasaheb Phalke Memorial Lecture 2015 at the Indian High Commission’s Nehru Centre in London. Ashvin's research profile and contact details can be found here:

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