An Exploration of Independent Indian Cinema
Curated by Centre de Sciences Humaines of New Delhi.
Hosted by Alliance Française New Delhi
The Centre de Sciences Humaines in Delhi is organising a series of screenings in 2024 to showcase independent Indian cinema. This initiative is to give the spotlight on films which are not easily accessible to the general public. Punctuated by debates, these screenings will also provide an opportunity for collective discussion on independent cinema in contemporary India.
The three main objectives of the screening series are the following:
1) To ensure that lesser-known films are accessible to the broadest possible audience. Open to the general public, screenings will be held at the Alliance Française de Delhi – a venue dedicated to the arts, whose auditorium has been accredited by the CNC (the French National Film and Moving Image Center). These screenings aim to bring together a diverse audience. The CSH plans, through its network, to specifically target students from various universities of New Delhi. Beyond broad accessibility, the initiative also seeks to showcase works rarely featured in cinemas. To achieve this dual objective of accessibility and originality, the film selection will encompass both easily approachable films (in terms of cinematographic and narrative codes) and others less conformist.
2) Initiate a debate on the role of independent cinema in India. India, the world’s leading power in terms of film production volume, boasts a cinema of rare diversity. The impact of visual productions on popular culture and society is colossal. However, this diversity and dynamism is occasionally undermined by systemic barriers relating, for example, to the economic model of the film industries in India and globally, to production and distribution mechanisms, the influence of international circuits, etc. By providing audiences with a diverse sampling of Indian independent cinema – across formats, aesthetic choices, languages, subjects, and level of notoriety – and by inviting key figures from the sector, the screening series aims to open discussions on the current status and challenges of alternative artistic production in India. Each screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session in the presence of the directors, producers, or actors.
3) Building bridges between the worlds of culture and academic research. This screening cycle is part of the CSH’s efforts to direct the scientific gaze toward more sensitive universes or objects, extending beyond traditional arenas devoted to knowledge production (such as academic journals or expert conferences). As researchers, we will curate the projections and lead discussions based on the conceptual elements outlined below. The responses will come from the protagonists of the cultural world. For some sessions, researchers may be invited to discuss specific issues linked to a particular film. Ultimately, while it is conceivable that the summary of the screenings and debates will be published (for the general public or for scientific purposes), this is not the primary objective of this initiative.
The film series will focus on three key questions: (i) what is independent cinema in present-day India? (ii) What ongoing transformations are occurring? (iii) What challenges lie ahead in the coming years?
(i) What is independent cinema in India today?
In India, the term independent cinema – often referred to as “indie” -, generally denotes film productions emerging outside the established channels of production and distribution, i.e. beyond the big-budget films of the industries such as Bollywood in Bombay, Kollywood in Chennai, Tollywood in Hyderabad, and other Indian film centres. Independence, in this context, stems from a marginalized position in relation to the commercial norms of the film industry, characterized by low budgets, non-professional actors and exclusion from mainstream distribution networks.
However, focusing solely on accessibility and means of production to define independence in cinema does not always hold true. On one hand, some very low-budget films manage to secure a place on mainstream streaming platforms such as Netflix or Amazon Prime. On the other hand, films with significant commercial impact are sometimes associated with independent cinema. For example, directors such as Anurag Kashyap and Dibaker Banerjee are often presented as prominent representatives of Indian independent cinema, despite their roots in the Bombay industry, which allows them to collaborate with very popular actors. Hence, independence in terms of production is not necessarily a guarantee of artistic independence.
The question of independence from institutions is also crucial. The State, as an economic actor, can play a role in stimulating independent cinema. The central government, particularly through the Films Division of the Ministry of Information (I&B), is also in a position to establish a supportive ecosystem for filmmakers operating outside the mass industry. However, the State can also undermine the independence of auteur cinema, not only through censorship, but also by directly or indirectly imposing aesthetic standards. It is also noteworthy that, in recent years, the State has provided significant support for films with modest budgets, such as “The Kashmir Files” and “The Kerala Story”. These productions, explicitly positioning themselves as a break with Bollywood’s industrial cinema, once again raise questions about independence.
In fact, beyond commercial considerations, the designation of “independent cinema” is typically bestowed upon filmmakers who infuse artistic innovation into their work – whether through an original use of the camera, audacious casting choices, the use of underrepresented dialects, or a non-conformist treatment of certain themes. A central characteristic of this cinema lies in its ability to break with aesthetic conventions in order to assert its artistic autonomy. From this perspective, independent cinema is more of an impulse, a gesture, than a fixed category. However, in the case of India (as well as in other countries in the global South), this artistic autonomy is worth questioning: the increasing prominence of film festivals worldwide, particularly in Europe and North America, can contribute to a certain standardisation of aesthetics, as films are now engaged in intense competition to attract an international audience. Artistic autonomy, which is still partly rooted in the heritage of Indian cinema history, seems compromised.
Independent cinema is also characterised by its ability to reflect the social and cultural transformations occurring in society. Given the freedom of tone they are supposed to enjoy, independent filmmakers are theoretically equipped to address societal issues, positioning themselves at the forefront of intellectual debates. This transgressive potential is a fundamental hallmark of independent cinema. However, in an era where social networks amplify public criticism and political manipulation, the pressures on the film industry are only increasing. In this challenging environment, the filmmakers’ ability to emancipate themselves from a sometimes toxic political context is becoming increasingly uncertain.
Rather than solely questioning how a film qualifies as independent, it might be more appropriate to explore who and what independence is built around. The CSH screening series does not aim to define Indian independent cinema as a whole, but rather to examine its diversity, history and mutations.
(ii) Recent developments in independent cinema
So-called independent cinema has a long-history in India, which boasts one of the oldest film industries in the world. Referred to as parallel cinema in the 1940s and 1950s, and as the new wave in the 1960s and 1970s, independent cinema in India experienced a period of decline in the 1990s. On one hand, liberalisation at that time overpowered and made omnipresent major production studios, thereby overshadowing less commercial productions and transforming the film market into an entertainment industry. Additionally, the State, which had previously played a pivotal role in the sector, underwent a relatively abrupt withdrawal. This not only resulted in drying up certain funding sources, but also raised questions about the very existence of independent cinema. Consequently, the State no longer constitutes an economic counterweight to the market. Although independent filmmakers defended the autonomy of their creations by rejecting the aesthetic and moral standards imposed by the State, they could find within the State the means to assert their autonomy against it.
However, since the 2010s, independent cinema has undergone a revival, driven by various factors. Firstly, the commercial success of so-called alternative films – low-budget and subversive in tone – has ignited an artistic momentum favouring a film genre with a more realistic narrative, rougher aesthetics, and themes more in tune with societal issues. For instance, following the success of “Gangs of Wasseypur” I and II (Anurag Kashyap, 2012), Hindi-language filmmakers have started exploring new geographies (such as small towns) and language (with the use of crude language, dialects, etc.). Similarly, films like Masaan (Neeraj Ghaywan, 2015) have exposed Hindi-speaking audiences to a more explicit treatment of caste.
At the same time, the advent of on-demand streaming platforms (Netflix began operating in India in January 2016) has been a significant accelerator for certain types of film that were previously difficult to access. Unlike Europe, India has very few cinemas showcasing films with modest commercial potential. Against this backdrop, the digitisation of film distribution has provided a lifeline for a type of cinema that was previously quite intimate. Netflix, Prime, SonyLiv and other Indian equivalents (Hotstar, Zee5, Hoichoi, etc.) have allowed films that were never screened in cinemas to bypass, or even short-circuit, traditional distribution networks and reach an ever-widening audience.
The early 2020s also witnessed the Bollywood machine losing steam, marked by a series of commercial failures, recurring political controversies and, above all, the rise of so-called regional cinema (a somewhat contemptuous euphemism for films in languages other than Hindi). Streaming platforms have facilitated access to films in Malayalam, Assamese, Marathi and Maithili across India, contributing to the growth and diversification of Indian independent cinema.
With a growing audience, an increasingly varied offer and accessibility, the CSH screening series takes place in this stimulating context of rapid and profound changes in Indian cinema and, correlatively, the upheavals affecting independent cinema.
(iii) Questioning the present and future of independent cinema in India
To sum up, the screening series aims to address the following questions:
- What recent innovations exists in financing independent cinema?
- How do the various sources of funding influence filmmakers’ artistic choices?
- What is the role of the State (both central and regional) in financing independent cinema?
- While individual production is strongly encouraged in the artistic world (with the fetishism of the author’s name), what role do film collectives (of directors, actors or producers) play today?
- Can a film produced/directed by investors/filmmakers/actors from the traditional industries (such as Bollywood, Kollywood, etc.) be considered independent? If so, under what conditions?
- In the current political context, is it more challenging to make independent films, or does this type of cinema still represent a timely escape route for filmmakers seeking artistic freedom?
- Do traditional cinemas still play a role in the development of independent cinema in India today?
- Are streaming platforms really beneficial for independent cinema?
- How do different types of digital platforms – international (Netflix, Amazon, etc.), Indian (Zee5, Hoichoi, etc.), and specialised (Mubi) – influence the development of independent cinema?
c. Challenges and opportunities specific to India:
- If, as mentioned, the expectations and tastes of Indian audiences are evolving towards a stronger demand for “subversive production”, is independent cinema, partly characterised by a refusal to conform to market expectations, at risk of losing its specificity and soul?
- Regional diversity: why does independent cinema seem to be more popular/dynamic in some regions than others (e.g. Kerala)?
- What positive and negative roles do international festivals play in the distribution and formatting of independent productions in India?
- What is the future of international co-productions?
The screenings will take place at the Alliance Française in Delhi at 6.30pm. Tea will be served from 5:30 pm until 6:00 pm. Each screening will begin with a brief introduction by a CSH member (5-10 minutes). This introduction aims to explain (i) the objective of this screening series and (ii) the reasons leading us to select the film of the day.
Each screening will be followed by a question-and-answer session lasting approximately half an hour, in presence of one or more members of the film team, and possibly researchers whose work is closely related to the theme of the day. Questions will be open to the public. The CSH team will nevertheless have a list of questions – derived directly from this concept note – to guide the session and, if necessary, steer the debate back on course.
We plan to organise at least one screening per month between January and June 2024, totalling a minimum of six screenings. The plan is to schedule the screenings on the last Wednesday of each month, depending on the availability of the Alliance française screening room. Additional screenings could be organised if the final selection includes more than six films.
- Quality: we have chosen films for which we have had a real artistic crush. We hope that these films will be captivating for a general audience, without compromising our objective of promoting cinematographic works with an unusual aesthetic and/or tone.
- Low Theatrical Circulation: films never released in Delhi theatres, or with a very low diffusion.
- Recent films: made since what we identify as a revival of independent cinema, i.e. the early 2010s.
- Linguistic diversity: five different languages are represented in the shortlisted films (Hindi, Malayalam, Bangla, Garo, Tamil), including Indo-European, Dravidian and Tibeto-Burman languages.
- Formats diversity: including documentaries (5) and long-featured fiction films (7); professional and amateur actors; dramas and comedies; more or less conventional narrative framework; more or less transgressive aesthetic choices, etc.
- Thematic diversity: different societal issues will be tackled by each of the films selected.
- The presence of women in the film teams was an important criterion in deciding between films of equivalent quality. Five films on the list have at least one female director or producer.
- Nandini Ramnath, 2015. Meet the Films Division head bureaucrat whom documentary makers actually love. Scroll.com
- Haq Saima, 2016. Independent Cinema in India: An Emerging Cinematic Form. Südasien-Chronik – South Asia Chronicle 6/2016. Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin
- Luke Robinson, “Sundance, CNEX, and the Cultural Politics of Story”, World Records, volume 5, article 10, 8 June 2021.
- Lim Edna & Lilian Chee, 2015. Asian Cinema and the Use of Space: Interdisciplinary Perspectives. New York: Routledge
- Ahmed Omar, 2015. Studying Indian Cinema. Liverpool University Press.
- Sakti Sengupta, 2015. Discovering Indian Independent Cinema: the Films of Girish Kasaravalli. Createspace Independent Pub
- Ashwin Immanuel Devasundaram, 2016. India’s New Independent Cinema: Rise of the Hybrid. New York: Routledge
- Anupama Varma, 2019. Bollywood goes Mofussil: Decentring Mumbai in Contemporary Hindi Cinema. In The Criterion, 10(3)