Om Puri may be no more, but Indian New Wave cinema will always be relevant

The formative years of at least two generations of Indians were shaped by the non-mainstream cinema of the 1970s and ’80s.

I met Om Puri in my professional capacity at the 2012 edition of the International Film Festival of India in Goa. He had been kind enough to accept our invitation to attend the screening of Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s documentary Celluloid Man as the opening title of the Indian Panorama section. When I thanked him for attending, Om Puri joked in his typical Punjabi accent, “Hum toh vele hain, jab chahe bula lo, hum haazir ho jayenge” (I am jobless, call me whenever you want and I will attend).

What Puri was hinting at was that outside of the gathering of 200-odd film lovers who had gathered for the occasion, there were perhaps not many Indians who really cared about the Indian New Wave cinema of which he had been such an essential part.

Om Puri’s fears were misplaced. His films, and the films of his friends and contemporaries, will always be relevant. The formative years of at least two generations of Indians were shaped in no mean part by the films of Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani and other Indian New Wave directors. The 1970s stands out in the history of Hindi cinema as a period of renaissance, and India’s Generation X was fortunate enough to have been exposed to it.

Generation Xers, born between 1961 and 1981, are usually characterised as slackers and cynical and disaffected. In India, this meant that as film viewers, we were an unhappy and difficult-to-please lot. It was not enough for Hindi cinema to sell us dreams for three hours every Friday. Having been exposed to cinema and theatre outside Bollywood, we were ready and willing to accept change. We knew all about the National School of Drama and the Film and Television Institute of India and the formidable talent that emerged from these venerable institutions.

Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.
Om Puri and Naseeruddin Shah at the Film and Television Institute of India in the 1970s. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.

In the early ’70s, the sun was about to set on Rajesh Khanna’s reign and Amitabh Bachchan was looming on the horizon. The cinema of this decade had been influenced by events in the previous years. In the ’50s and ’60s, Bengali imports to Mumbai such as Bimal Roy and later, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Basu Bhattacharya and Basu Chatterjee, made films about ordinary Indians, with a significant socialist tilt. These filmmakers were enthused by Nehruvian socialism, and their films reflected a new India trying to stand on its own feet.

By the ’70s, however, Nehru had passed on, and corruption had seeped into public life. The common man was beginning to get squeezed by inflation, unemployment and corruption. Constitutional values were under threat. The stage was set for a new kind of cinema.

Shyam Benegal rode onto this stage at full gallop, astonishing us with his new vocabulary, idiom and stories. These were real stories about ordinary Indians crying out against oppression. Benegal’s formidable team of actors, including Shabana Azmi, Smita Patil, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Anant Nag, Amrish Puri and Kulbhushan Kharbanda, captured the imagination of Indians who were beginning to tire of the same old masala in every film. And with Benegal, could Govind Nihalani, the cinematographer of his major films, be far behind?

Film music buffs who grew up in the ’80s will also remember the decade as a time when melody in Hindi films had started dying a slow death. Video cassette recorders made it easier to access (mostly pirated) films at home. Quality gave way to quantity – typified by the remakes from Southern potboilers, and there was a general drop in filmmaking standards across all departments of commercial filmmaking.

In 1983, the year Bachchan’s Coolie, Rajesh Khanna’s comeback Avtaar, the Telugu remake in Hindi Himmatwala, and Jackie Shroff’s debut Hero were released, we sat up and said “Wow!” when Om Puri strode on the screen as Sub Inspector Anant Velankar in Govind Nihalani’s Ardh Satya. About an honest cop fighting the system, Ardh Satya also starred Sadashiv Amrapurkar as Rama Shetty, who demolished our foolish notions of what evil looked like.

Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya.
Sadashiv Amrapurkar in Ardh Satya.

The differences between Zanjeer (1973) and Ardh Satya (1983) are telling. While Zanjeer was written by Salim Javed to showcase a young police inspector who fearlessly takes on a clearly identifiable enemy, Ardh Satya, based on Vijay Tendulkar’s screenplay, is far more nuanced. It reveals, layer by layer, the complexities and challenges that a policeman’s job entails. The nexus between politics and crime is a formidable one; there is a fine line between foolishness and bravery; only the valiant Abhimanyu from Mahabharata can go into battle fearlessly, knowing that death is certain. Ardh Satya is aptly described as one of the most realistic cop films made in India.

India’s educated Generation Xers had begun to question commercial Hindi films. They were beginning to appreciate the worlds created by Indian New Wave directors, even if these films were available only on VCDs or on Doordarshan. If Zeenat Aman in Dostana had her share of gawkers, there were some of us who had bitter fights over who was better, Shabana Azmi or Smita Patil. If we enjoyed Amitabh Bachchan’s comic act in Do Aur Do Paanch (1980), we also laughed uproariously at Ahuja (Om Puri) and Tarneja (Pankaj Kapoor) in Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983). And we continue to laugh and cry with these pioneers of Indian New Wave cinema, every time we watch a television repeat of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (in which Om Puri throws a chapatti at the fasting Gandhi, exhorting him to eat it) or Nihalani’s Tamas.

Om Puri in Gandhi. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.
Om Puri in Gandhi. Courtesy Om Puri, Roli Books.

After the confused ’90s and the shaky 2000s, Hindi cinema is once again getting back on its feet. Actors such as Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Irrfan Khan have as large and dedicated a following as Ranbir Kapoor and Ranveer Singh. Many films reflect real people with real issues, such as Talvar, Neerja, Nil Battey Sannata and Pink. Let Bollywood makes its films about perfect young men and women seeking love in distant foreign lands, spouting Urdu poetry without understanding the drift. As long as there is cinema, there will be space for realistic films about ordinary Indians, with stories rooted in our soil. Long live NSD, long live FTII.

Nirupama Kotru is a civil servant. The views expressed here are her own.

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As India turns 70, London School of Economics asks some provocative questions

Is India ready to become a global superpower?

Meaningful changes have always been driven by the right, but inconvenient questions. As India completes 70 years of its sovereign journey, we could do two things – celebrate, pay our token tributes and move on, or take the time to reflect and assess if our course needs correction. The ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, the annual flagship summit of the LSE (London School of Economics) South Asia Centre, is posing some fundamental but complex questions that define our future direction as a nation. Through an honest debate – built on new research, applied knowledge and ground realities – with an eclectic mix of thought leaders and industry stalwarts, this summit hopes to create a thought-provoking discourse.

From how relevant (or irrelevant) is our constitutional framework, to how we can beat the global one-upmanship games, from how sincere are business houses in their social responsibility endeavours to why water is so crucial to our very existence as a strong nation, these are some crucial questions that the event will throw up and face head-on, even as it commemorates the 70th anniversary of India’s independence.

Is it time to re-look at constitution and citizenship in India?

The Constitution of India is fundamental to the country’s identity as a democratic power. But notwithstanding its historical authority, is it perhaps time to examine its relevance? The Constitution was drafted at a time when independent India was still a young entity. So granting overwhelming powers to the government may have helped during the early years. But in the current times, they may prove to be more discriminatory than egalitarian. Our constitution borrowed laws from other countries and continues to retain them, while the origin countries have updated them since then. So, do we need a complete overhaul of the constitution? An expert panel led by Dr Mukulika Banerjee of LSE, including political and economic commentator S Gurumurthy, Madhav Khosla of Columbia University, Niraja Gopal Jayal of JNU, Chintan Chandrachud the author of the book Balanced Constitutionalism and sociologist, legal researcher and Director of Council for Social Development Kalpana Kannabiran will seek answers to this.

Is CSR simply forced philanthropy?

While India pioneered the mandatory minimum CSR spend, has it succeeded in driving impact? Corporate social responsibility has many dynamics at play. Are CSR initiatives mere tokenism for compliance? Despite government guidelines and directives, are CSR activities well-thought out initiatives, which are monitored and measured for impact? The CSR stipulations have also spawned the proliferation of ambiguous NGOs. The session, ‘Does forced philanthropy work – CSR in India?” will raise these questions of intent, ethics and integrity. It will be moderated by Professor Harry Barkema and have industry veterans such as Mukund Rajan (Chairman, Tata Council for Community Initiatives), Onkar S Kanwar (Chairman and CEO, Apollo Tyres), Anu Aga (former Chairman, Thermax) and Rahul Bajaj (Chairman, Bajaj Group) on the panel.

Can India punch above its weight to be considered on par with other super-powers?

At 70, can India mobilize its strengths and galvanize into the role of a serious power player on the global stage? The question is related to the whole new perception of India as a dominant power in South Asia rather than as a Third World country, enabled by our foreign policies, defense strategies and a buoyant economy. The country’s status abroad is key in its emergence as a heavyweight but the foreign service officers’ cadre no longer draws top talent. Is India equipped right for its aspirations? The ‘India Abroad: From Third World to Regional Power’ panel will explore India’s foreign policy with Ashley Tellis, Meera Shankar (Former Foreign Secretary), Kanwal Sibal (Former Foreign Secretary), Jayant Prasad and Rakesh Sood.

Are we under-estimating how critical water is in India’s race ahead?

At no other time has water as a natural resource assumed such a big significance. Studies estimate that by 2025 the country will become ‘water–stressed’. While water has been the bone of contention between states and controlling access to water, a source for political power, has water security received the due attention in economic policies and development plans? Relevant to the central issue of water security is also the issue of ‘virtual water’. Virtual water corresponds to the water content (used) in goods and services, bulk of which is in food grains. Through food grain exports, India is a large virtual net exporter of water. In 2014-15, just through export of rice, India exported 10 trillion litres of virtual water. With India’s water security looking grim, are we making the right economic choices? Acclaimed author and academic from the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi, Amita Bavisar will moderate the session ‘Does India need virtual water?’

Delve into this rich confluence of ideas and more at the ‘India @ 70: LSE India Summit’, presented by Apollo Tyres in association with the British Council and organized by Teamworks Arts during March 29-31, 2017 at the India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. To catch ‘India @ 70’ live online, register here.

At the venue, you could also visit the Partition Museum. Dedicated to the memory of one of the most conflict-ridden chapters in our country’s history, the museum will exhibit a unique archive of rare photographs, letters, press reports and audio recordings from The Partition Museum, Amritsar.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Teamwork Arts and not by the Scroll editorial team.