Meet the filmmakers who have shattered the myth that art movies can’t have mass appeal.
For most Indians, watching commercial movies is a religious experience. Many won’t hesitate to pay premium for a darshan of their favourite stars on a larger-than-life screen. Film fanatics will even dig into their life savings for daily doses of this divine experience. Guardians of several theatrical sanctuaries across the country also fulfill their duties as priests of modern entertainment by running hits such as the Shahrukh-Kajol starrer Dilwale Dulhaniye Le Jayenge for days on end!
Although this setting may sound like every filmmaker’s dream come true, generating out-of-the world blockbusters to satisfy the appetite of millions of star-struck devotees also boils down to pure religion.
In other words, filmmakers have complete freedom to explore their creativity as long as they follow the rules of creating ‘magical’ movie experiences. In India’s billion-dollar film industry, these rules are sacred formulas that guarantee a return on investment and make for good business.
As a result, few Indian filmmakers dare to deviate from the usual star-studded, song-and-dance-laden romantic potboiler plots. Among these new wavers, are artistic daredevils who have not only managed to challenge the status quo, but also gain a huge fan following in the process!
Here are five present-day, radical directors who’ve made movies with high commercial value without sacrificing their originality at the altar of commercialism:
A college dropout at the age of 18, Mumbai-based Anand Gandhi is the internationally acclaimed writer and director of Ship of Theseus (2013), one of the most successful arthouse films in India. Through the film’s unique philosophical plot and artistic expression, Gandhi unapologetically demonstrates how filmmakers don’t have to lose their individuality in the pursuit of creating box office hits. Gandhi began his career in 2002 as the dialogue writer for Ekta Kapoor’s hit Indian television show Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahu Thi. Since then, he has written and directed several award-winning plays and films in English, Hindi, and Gujarati. Besides the national award for the best feature film, Ship of Theseus also won the Best Film Award at the Transilvania International Film Festival and the SIGNIS award at the Hong Kong International Film Festival.
Focusing on the concerns of the ‘common man’, each of Assamese filmmaker Jahnu Barua’s movies is a unique work of art. Although Barua is popularly known for his Hindi film Maine Gandhi Ko Nahin Mara (among even commercial movie watchers in India), his National award-winning Assamese films including Aparupa (1982), Hkhagoroloi Bohu Door (1995), Konikar Ramdhenu (2003), and Baandhon (2012) have earned him praises from cinema enthusiasts across the globe. Hailed as one of the pioneers of Assamese art cinema, the 65-year-old is set to direct Unread Pages – a Hollywood production – under the recently announced Assam Film Tourism Policy.
In 2003, Punjabi filmmaker Gurvinder Singh made his directorial debut with Pala, a 65-minute, fascinating documentary—sponsored by India Foundation for the Arts—on Punjabi folk balladeers. Since then, the FTII alumnus, who has a penchant for casting underrated local talent in breakthrough roles, has made several offbeat but artistically spellbinding documentaries and films in Punjabi, Malayalam, and English. Among these, he is best known for his first Punjabi feature film Anhe Ghore Da Dhaan or Alms for a Blind Horse (2011)—which portrays the problems and plight of farmers in Punjab. The film won him three National awards, the Special Jury Award at Abu Dhabi Film Festival, and the ‘Golden Peacock’ for Best Film at the International Film Festival of India, Goa. Singh is also internationally recognised for his gripping second Punjabi feature film Chauthi Koot or The Fourth Direction (2015), which is based on Indian author Waryam Singh Sandhu’s short stories on the Sikh separatist movement of the 1980s.
Daughter of filmmaker and co-founder of Calcutta Film Society Chidananda Das Gupta and cousin of Bengali poet Jibanananda Das, Aparna Sen is another screenwriter and director that has not been afraid to reinvent the rules of filmmaking. As an actress in India’s male-dominated film industry, Sen initially faced many critics for even harbouring dreams of directing films. However, right from her emotive directorial debut 36 Chowringhee Lane in 1981, this talent powerhouse has let her work do the talking for her. So far, the 72-year-old has won 9 National Film Award and 9 international film awards for film direction. Her other work as a parallel cinema director include Paroma (1985), Sati (1989), Yugant (1995), Paromitar Ek Din (2000), Mr. and Mrs. Iyer (2002), 15 Park Avenue (2005), The Japanese Wife (2010), Iti Mrinalini (2011), and Goynar (2013). Sen won her second National Film Award for Mr and Mrs Iyer, a film that also gained her daughter Konkona Sen—who starred as the female lead—global recognition.
Another prominent name in the world of parallel cinema is that of 67-year-old Kannada film director Girish Kasarvalli. In his career spanning 40 years, this National award-winning auteur has wowed audiences with 14 visually riveting productions—many of which feature strong female characters. Highlighting issues related to regressive social norms and behaviours in Indian society, Kasarvalli, a gold medalist from Film & Television Institute (FTII), has managed to captivate even mainstream audience with clever adaptations of works by celebrated Indian novelists. His innate ability to tell stories, mainly with powerful visuals, can be seen from his creations Ghatashradda (1977), Tabarane Kathe (1987), Thaayi Saheb (1997), Dweepa (2002) and Gulabi Talkies (2008), among others.