10 great Indian arthouse films of the 1970s

As the restoration of Govindan Aravindan’s luminous The Circus Tent arrives on Blu-ray, we offer a 10-film primer on an extraordinarily fertile decade for Indian film.

The Circus Tent (1978)

Indian arthouse cinema came of age in the 1970s, reigniting the hope of a sustainable alternative cinema. In the late 1960s the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), originally established by the state under Nehru to help independent filmmakers, funded a series of low-budget films that demonstrated new aesthetic and thematic possibilities. Including Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (1969), Basu Chatterjee’s Sara Akash (1969) and Mani Kaul’s Our Daily Bread (1970), these films met critical and commercial success, leading to the birth of ‘Parallel Cinema’.

The late 1960s and early 70s also witnessed the first group of film graduates from the prestigious FTII (Film and Television Institute of India) in Pune, including Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. What made Parallel Cinema – a term often misused to refer to any non-commercial Indian cinema, from Satyajit Ray onwards – altogether more radical and oppositional than Indian cinema of the past was both the explicitly leftist socio-political agenda and the distinctly regional contributions, with many of the best films coming from the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Bengal. 

Over three decades, Parallel Cinema produced in excess of 200 films and brought forth countless new filmmakers, each with rich, imaginative and innovative oeuvres. Conversely, the failure to create an adequate distribution and exhibition infrastructure, such as a chain of art cinemas, undermined the filmmakers’ attempts to reach a broader audience, something which was only really achieved with the popularisation of television in the 1980s.

At its height in the 1970s, however, Parallel Cinema contributed to a new modernism in India, merging the indigenous with the international to conjure something vividly syncretic, postcolonial and disruptive.

Duvidha (1973)

Director: Mani Kaul

Duvidha (1973)

Jodhpur-born filmmaker Mani Kaul was a key figure in the Parallel Cinema movement. His early work demonstrates some of the most creative and original experimentation with form – expressly time and space – that Indian cinema has ever seen. Duvidha is a richly imagined supernatural story rooted in village folklore. The central premise revolves around a ghost that assumes the appearance of a husband who has left the village in search of work. The wife is unaware of the ghost’s identity and believes that her husband has returned. 

Kaul’s characteristically rigorous framing portrays the rustic Rajasthani spaces with a haunting elliptical quality in which fantasy and reality become increasingly blurred. Moreover, the use of traditional Rajasthani music imbues the film with a specifically regional musicality. The constant references to indigenous traditions of Indian art and culture were a defining theme of Kaul’s work.

Garm Hava (1973)

Director: M.S. Sathyu

Garm Hava (1973)

Supported by the Film Finance Corporation (FFC), the formally experimental, thematically unconventional Garm Hava is one of the crowning achievements of Parallel Cinema’s most creative years (1968 to 1974). Set in a post-Partition era, M.S. Sathyu’s film represented a major break from the past in detailing the lives of a middle-class Muslim family in Agra. Up to this point, no Indian film had explicitly dealt with the experience of Partition on Muslims in India. 

In one of his final roles, the famed actor Balraj Sahni – who’d broken through in Bimal Roy’s 1953 classic Do Bigha Zamin – delivers a tour de force as Salim Mirza, the aging patriarch grappling with a wrenching loss of belonging, crumbling identity and the exodus of family members to Pakistan. Half a century on, Garm Hava is a lasting document of Muslim experience.

27 Down (1974)

Director: Awtar Krishna Kaul

27 Down (1974)

27 Down is one of the most moving of all Parallel Cinema films. The narrative focuses on Sanjay (M.K. Raina), a train conductor. Structured as a series of flashbacks during Sanjay’s journey on the Bombay-Varanasi Express, the narrative explores loneliness, regret and existentialism. With naturalistic production design by Bansi Chandragupta and hypnotic black-and-white cinematography by Apurba Kishore Bir (earning him a National Award), the film’s train setting amplifies Sanjay’s transient state, while providing a sense of refuge too.

27 Down also explores the unexpected romance between Sanjay and Shalini (Rakhee), which is subjected to the restraints of tradition. Sanjay doesn’t know what he wants from life. He keeps asking the same questions, and only at the end does he come to accept that his life is stuck in a cycle of sorrow from which he can’t escape.

Kodiyettam (1977)

Director: Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Kodiyettam (1977)

Keralan filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan is often compared with Satyajit Ray, not least for the immaculate control he maintained over all facets of his filmmaking. A graduate of the FTII, he helped establish Chithralekha, the first film society in Kerala. His second film, Kodiyettam, centres on Sankarankutty (a remarkable performance by Gopi), a simple villager who resists the pressures of adulthood and the responsibilities it entails.

The film is a showcase of Gopalakrishnan’s exceptional command of film language, with a controlled yet observant camera style and intricate, multifaceted use of sound. The precise editing creates a very specific rhythm, which mirrors Sankarankutty’s childlike behaviour and the unhurried pace of village life. As Sankarankutty continues to digress even after he is married, Kodiyettam becomes a philosophical exploration of masculinity, identity and defeat.

Bhumika (1977)

Director: Shyam Benegal

Bhumika (1977)

No list of Indian films of the 1970s would be complete without director Shyam Benegal or star Smita Patil. The latter is the quintessential icon of Parallel Cinema who reinvented contemporary stardom, emerging as one of the leading feminist figures of Indian cinema. 

Among her number of collaborations with the Hyderabad-born Benegal, Bhumika is a deftly structured biopic based on the life of Marathi actress Hansa Wadkar. Along with Jabbar Patel’s Umbartha (1982) and Ketan Mehta’s Mirch Masala (1987), it forms part of a trio of revisionist, progressive feminist films featuring Patil in the lead role. As Usha, she conveys steely resilience and empowerment, but also the unhappiness of an actress working in a male-dominated industry that sought to exploit her.

Donkey in a Brahmin Village (1977)

Director: John Abraham

Donkey in a Brahmin Village (1977)

1970s Parallel Cinema is littered with rebels and mavericks. Keralan-born John Abraham was one of the most rebellious, deconstructing the hypocrisies of social disparities, including caste, class and feudalism, through a predominately satirical lens. When a Brahmin professor (M.B. Sreenivasan) decides to adopt and raise an orphaned donkey, he’s subjected to ridicule in the village expressly because his actions disturb the Brahminical status quo. 

Inspired by Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), Abraham’s allegorical approach is both funny and tragic, contributing to a growing cycle of films that decade which critiqued caste. Abraham may have trained under Mani Kaul, but the Marxist strain that ran through his work was more reminiscent of the work of Bengali director Ritwik Ghatak (The Cloud-Capped Star, 1960). Sadly, Abraham’s films have rarely been screened outside of India.

Ghatashraddha (1977)

Director: Girish Kasaravalli

Ghatashraddha (1977)

Parallel Cinema was a disruptive force, constantly tearing down the edifices of orthodoxy, be it social or religious. Released in 1977, and coming at the peak of the movement, Girish Kasaravalli’s seminal debut joined other Kannada language films, such as U.R. Ananthamurthy’s Samskara (1970), in critiquing the double standards of Brahminism, offering a cinematic equivalent of the literary modernist Navya movement in 1970s Karnataka. Ghatashraddha is about Yamuna (Meena Kuttappa), a young widow who lives in a Vedic enclave and is excommunicated for transgressing Brahmin traditions when she becomes pregnant. 

Kasaravalli was deeply influenced by Italian neorealism, which is reflected in the use of natural lighting, documentary aesthetics and location shooting. His film documents Yamuna’s obliteration at the hands of the Brahmin community, traumatised by a patriarchal system of religious hypocrisy.

The Circus Tent (1978)

Director: Govindan Aravindan

The Circus Tent (1978)

Keralan-born filmmaker Govindan Aravindan was one of the most outstanding visual poets of his generation. His films are defined by his intuitive pictorial sensibilities and their intimate portraits of his home state’s nature and landscapes. 

Many of Aravindan’s films are plotless, and The Circus Tent – arguably his masterpiece – is probably the closest he came to making a documentary, focusing on the arrival of a travelling circus at a local village. Aravindan’s observational style captures the fleeting delight the circus brings to the local area, conjuring a melancholic portrait of a magical occurrence. The masterly black-and-white cinematography by Aravindan’s regular DP – the distinguished Shaji N. Karun – both augments the film’s neorealist style and gives the film a timeless Zen-like quality. The Circus Tent was restored by the Film Heritage Foundation and premiered at Cannes in 2022.

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The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai (1978)

Director: Saeed Akhtar Mirza

The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai (1978)

Arvind Desai (Dilip Dhawan) is dissatisfied with his life. He feels trapped in a comfortable middle-class world seemingly controlled by his rich parents. The premise for Saeed Mirza’s whimsical debut feature has the vibe of a New Hollywood film like The Graduate (1967), offering an existential portrait of a young man lost in the urban class dilemmas of 1970s Bombay. 

Arvind earns a living dealing in esoteric handicraft goods, and the fraudulent nature of this work is satirised in the film’s opening sequence. Mirza traces the journey of luxury carpets created in a village by skilled artists to a shop in Bombay – a capitalist system of exploitation that Arvind is in the bind of perpetuating. His friends have their own idiosyncrasies, including his Marxist colleague played brilliantly by Om Puri. As Arvind’s contempt increases, so does his desire to escape. But to where exactly remains uncertain.

Neem Annapurna (1979)

Director: Buddhadev Dasgupta

Neem Annapurna (1980)

Before embarking on a career in filmmaking, Buddhadev Dasgupta worked as a university teacher specialising in economics. Neem Annapurna (Bitter Morsel) adopts a semi-neorealist approach, drawing inspiration from filmmakers including Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen and Ritwik Ghatak. It portrays the journey of a family from a village to the city of Calcutta, driven by the hope for a better life. But the family is soon confronted with the stark realities of urban deprivation. 

Shot in a raw pseudo-documentary style, Dasgupta’s film lays bare the miseries of the family without a jot of sentimentality. The narrative revolves around waiting; the family eagerly anticipating the father’s return with the promise of food. Dasgupta captures their agonising despair with socio-political clarity, reflected in a series of haunting sequences, including the mother’s desperate attempt to steal rice. Neem Annapurna stands shoulder to shoulder with Indian neorealist gems like Do Bigha Zamin and Pather Panchali (1955).

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