An Art Of Subversion: The Legacy Of Indian Avant-Garde & Experimental Cinema

An Art Of Subversion: The Legacy Of Indian Avant-Garde & Experimental  Cinema

I started watching movies because I was an only child with two working parents and after school it was the only thing I could do home alone. Star Movies and HBO were my saviours. I was instantly enchanted by Hollywood's charm; whether it was romcoms, action movies or thrillers; I loved it all. I think we all start loving cinema like that charmed by the twists and turns of a good story. As we go deeper into the rabbit hole the narrative styles start to feel familiar. Like a drug addict you develop a tolerance and crave for something that hits just a little harder; something that moves you deeper - at least, that's how I see it. That's when you begin to start looking at movies outside the proverbial 'box'.

Emma Stone winning the the best actress award for Yorgos Lanthimos' 'Poor Things' has been a culmination of a movement that started decades ago. From pretty early on, filmmakers realized the scope of shock value and even discomfort as a storytelling device. By replicating human emotions of anxiety, anticipation, disgust, fear, and isolation - alternative or avant-grade cinema operates based on the trust that, if portrayed truthfully, our negative emotions can be as insightful and addictive as their counterparts.

Initially known as the 'connoisseur of madness', Pramod Pati took us into the artist's psyche in his 1972 film, 'Abid'. Inspired by painter Abid Surti's desire to live within a painting, Pati created a film that mirrored this concept. Made with various animators, the film used a unique technique called pixelation, where objects were photographed frame by frame and then edited to appear in motion. This resulted in a jerky, almost frenetic movement that was very unlike what you'd see in more conventional films.

Building on the psychedelic style of his other works, Abid showed the artist emerging from the ground and transforming a white room with continuous painting. Walls, ceiling, and floor became his canvas; creating a sense of a live painting that slowly unfolded. With its eclectic soundtrack and ever-changing environment, the film actualized an externalization of the artist's inner world. Pati's unique style blended pop art aesthetics with trance-like qualities of offering a glimpse into Abid Surti's creative but disoriented mind.

Kumar Shahani juxtaposed the complexities of female sexuality and the stifling constraints of a feudal social order. This innovative approach, coupled with a unique visual style that defied traditional storytelling techniques, made his film, 'Maya Darpan', a landmark film during the Indian Parallel Cinema movement.

At the heart of the film's radical nature was its exploration of female subjectivity. Unlike the passive heroines often depicted in mainstream cinema, Shahani's protagonist, Taran, was an active agent in her own story. Chafing under the restrictions imposed by her class and societal expectations, she sought liberation and a chance to define her own future. This focus on female desire and agency stood in stark contrast to the typical portrayals of women in mainstream cinema at the time.

Shahani further underscored the film's unconventional nature through his groundbreaking narrative style. He abandoned the linear, cause-and-effect plot structure and let the film unfold in a more fragmented, dreamlike manner, employing techniques like mirrored shots, repetitive actions, redundant compositions, and minimalist dialogue. These elements created a sense of disorientation that reflected the protagonist's internal struggle against societal norms. The film's visual style also played a crucial role in its subversion of mainstream conventions. Shahani eschewed the lavish sets and dramatic lighting often associated with commercial cinema. Instead, he employs a stark, minimalist aesthetic while drawing the viewer's attention to the emotional landscape of the characters and the social commentary embedded within the narrative.

The influence of European art cinema was also evident in Shahani's approach. One can see echoes of Robert Bresson's minimalist style in the use of non-professional actors delivering their lines in a monotone fashion. However, Shahani went beyond mere imitation, incorporating elements of surrealism and symbolism to create a unique visual language that was distinctly his own.

In 'Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro', director Saeed Akhtar Mirza focused on the gritty, realistic portrayal of a young Muslim hoodlum from Mumbai’s Dongri neighborhood, that diverged sharply from the ideological false consciousness prevalent in many films of the era. His direction, instead of a typical glamorization, opted for a raw, documentary-like approach that highlighted the systemic marginalization of Muslims and the socio-economic factors driving them into crime.

The film’s visuals, such as the overexposed shot of Marine Drive - resembling an endless sky, conveyed a sense of isolation and existential dread that transformed Mumbai into an open-air prison. Mirza’s screenplay and the cinematography by Virendra Saini emphasized the real, congested textures of Dongri, using actual locations to enhance the film’s authenticity. This meticulous attention to the urban landscape and the lived experiences of its inhabitants offered a striking contrast to the sanitized, studio-bound settings of mainstream Indian cinema, making Salim Langde Pe Mat Ro a pioneering work, with its thematic depth and visual style.

In 'Tasher Desh', director Q (Kaushik Mukherjee) forged a distinctive narrative style that stood out as avant-garde and refreshing against the mainstream cinema of its time. This adaptation of Rabindranath Tagore’s dance drama was transformed into what Q described as, “Tagore on an acid trip,” and emphasized visual and musical elements over traditional narrative structure. Shot in 25 days across the beaches of Sri Lanka and ruins in Bengal, the film utilized bold colours, atmospheric black-and-white, staccato editing, and split-screen shots to create a series of striking visuals that resemble art installations. The use of hand-held cameras and rapid editing add to the film's kinetic energy, making it feel like a continuous flow of captivating images rather than a conventional drama. The narrative, focusing on a prince's journey from a prison palace to becoming a revolutionary leader in the Land of Cards, unfolds with minimal dialogue and more through symbolic imagery and a dynamic soundtrack. This stylistic approach not only set Tasher Desh apart from mainstream cinema but also highlighted Q’s unique vision, cementing his reputation as a maverick filmmaker.

The cinematic elements that we have come to love with movies like 'The Lobster', 'Beau is Afraid', 'Mother & The Lighthouse', have existed long before, in the periphery of Indian cinema. The homegrown films we discussed might've struggled to find their footing when they first came out but when you trace the evolution of the avant-garde movement across the world, these were trailblazers in their own right.