Written by Ashvin I Devasundaram.
Socio-political states of flux and volatile national zeitgeists are often engines for inventive and interrogative cinematic forms. I view India’s ascendant new wave of independent Indies as a self-reflexive, distinctly glocal cohort of contemporary Indian cinema – global in aesthetic attributes but locked-in on local thematic content. The Indies’ focus on ordinary everyday micro-level stories often opens a window for these films to place India’s secular and democratic credentials in an interrogative spotlight.
A large proportion of new Indies offer a ground-level insight into India’s tumultuous dyadic dance between spiritualism and materialism, tradition and modernity. With topical, often politically incisive storylines and alternative narratives, the Indies act as disruptive dissenters and conscientious interjectors in Bollywood’s dominant one-sided narration of the nation.
This is a pivotal time when the etiolated liberal sphere in India’s democracy is trying to make sense of the rising tide of populist religious nationalism and the univocal thrust towards Hindu rashtra (nation) accelerated by majoritarian Hindu nativist interests – at the behest of the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) and its extreme right-wing affiliates.
It is justifiable to perceive the new Indies as the future torchbearers of Indian cinema; particularly with their propensity to artistically infiltrate, reinterpret, distort and even sabotage the mythologised grand narrative of India as a majoritarian, mono-lingual, mono-religious and patriarchal nation.
The stories that the Indies espouse are as multifaceted as they are polemical – thematic content includes the en masse disappearance of young Kashmiri men by Indian armed forces in Harud (2010) and Haider (2014), Unfreedom (2015) – pilloried by censorship authorities for its open portrayal of a lesbian relationship, Aligarh – about the true-life ostracism and oppression of a gay Aligarh University professor, women challenging entrenched patriarchy in Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016), and the representation of endemic corruption in a judicial system stacked against subaltern Dalits in Court (2014). Independent film voices from South India are exemplified by Visaaranai (Interrogation, 2015) – a visceral film à clef about the forced confinement and police torture of lower-caste Tamil migrant workers in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh.
These ‘state of the nation’ Indie narratives are inextricably intertwined with the state of entropy, volatility and vacillation that surrounds India’s democracy. Probably the most exigent political paradox of modern Indian democracy is the ruling BJP government’s Janus-faced policy – a double, largely duplicitous political modus operandi. On the one hand, the foreign policy narrative presents the idea of a progressive, forward-facing economically ascendant India – Narendra Modi’s mantra on his relentless global tours. On the other hand, state-sanctioned silence shrouds the spate of public lynchings, murder of minorities – particularly Muslims and Dalits, and the routinised violence that accompanies the rising brand of religious fascism within the endogenous inner contours of India’s democracy.
It is worth considering what happens to the rule of law, not to mention implications for freedom of cinematic expression, when the ruling government’s political omerta confers a tacit carte blanche to rampant ultra-fundamentalist cow protection vigilantes (gau rakshaks). These self-appointed custodians of Hinduism can then run amok, lynching and killing (Muslim dairy farmers) at will, whilst the police machinery reinforces the state’s policy of silence and looks away in an act of forgetting. Fundamental questions have been raised about whether the BJP government’s strategy – their double design, appears to be a master plan conceived to obfuscate the final erasure of the multi-religious, multi-ethnic fabric of the socialist secular republic envisioned by the architects of India’s constitution.
The independent documentary filmmaking space – often the unheralded and unsung workhorses of the Indie film sector – has consistently presented a clairvoyant if disconcerting vision of ‘future shock’ stemming from rising religious fascism, nationalist zealotry and moral policing. Anand Patwardhan’s oeuvre, Rakesh Sharma’s Final Solution (2004) about the Godhra massacre of Muslims and Ashvin Kumar’s Inshallah, Kashmir (2012) have placed a filmic mirror in front of India’s democratic constitutional cornerstones of civil liberty, human rights and the freedom of expression. Cinematic freedom is a crucial question for several Indies with their unorthodox narratives.
It is pertinent to draw focus to three independent documentary films this past year, that have effectively been banned by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) – the de facto custodian of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC) (referred to as the Censor Board). The Unbearable Being of Lightness grapples with the suicide of Dalit PhD scholar Rohith Vemula at the University of Hyderabad – an incident that triggered widespread student agitations.
In the Shade of Fallen Chinar captures Kashmiri University students’ adoption of culture and music as instruments of resistance, on the cusp of the current cycle of violence engulfing the trouble-torn valley.
March March March documents the student protests in 2016 at Jawaharlal Nehru University, following fabricated allegations of sedition against a group of students.
It is striking that the alternative narratives of these three documentary films are sutured together by the theme of student-led resistance to politico-religious ideology. The young directors at the helm of these films are a microcosm of the prolific young filmmakers emerging from the feature and documentary domains of Indian Indie filmmaking.
Also interesting is the fact that all three filmmakers have uploaded their films on YouTube and other online portals, thereby obviating an autocratic censorship regime. This begets two propositions. It underscores the sine qua non of cyberspace as an alternative online domain for young independent filmmakers and viewers to share dissenting discourses, diverging views and alternative articulations. Indeed, the raison d’etre of India’s anachronistic film censorship regime can be called into question by such discursive alternative strategies and networks of arbitration, contestation and resistance.
It is worth mentioning that films from beyond the precincts of India’s censorship/moral policing regime, such as Iranian auteur Majid Majidi’s Muhammad: The Messenger of God (2015), are often included in the Censor Board’s process of expurgation. The CBFC’s stance was mirrored by a group of Mumbai-based Muslim clerics also calling for a ban on Majidi’s ‘blasphemous’ film.
Censorship structures in current Indian cinema can also be absurd and quixotic. A moratorium was applied on Lipstick Under My Burkha (2016) – a film about four women who refused to be oppressed. This was because the incumbent CBFC chairman Pahlaj Nihalani – a vocal BJP and Modi votary, considered the film ‘too lady-oriented’. The denial of a certificate of release for An Insignificant Man (2016) – a documentary about left-leaning Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Arvind Kejriwal, gestures towards the state’s silencing by proxy of differing political perspectives.
As a coda to the contention I raised at the start of this article, the new Indies embody a ‘thrownness’ into the tempestuous world they inhabit. This entanglement distinguishes them from the apolitical apartness and the hermetically sealed off fantasies and escapism of Bollywood.
It is justifiable to perceive the new Indies as the future torchbearers of Indian cinema; particularly with their propensity to artistically infiltrate, reinterpret, distort and even sabotage the mythologised grand narrative of India as a majoritarian, mono-lingual, mono-religious and patriarchal nation. Akin to the midnight’s children in Salman Rushdie’s novel, India’s new Indies appear to be caught up in the discursive currents of contiguous change and stasis that typifies India’s parlous democracy today.
Ashvin I. Devasundaram is a 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. Image Credit: CC by Indian Indie/ Flickr