Song, Music and Dance in "Parallel Cinema"

in 6th Mumbai International Film Festival

by Till Brockmann

High pitch singing, colourful saris and lavish dances to the rhythms of Indian music: that is what made and still makes commercial Indian cinema so popular at home and recently also far abroad of native shores. A glittering world that seems quite at the opposite of the portrayal of social reality and the hardship of every day life in much of the Indian art film, the so called “parallel cinema” that still represents the country predominantly at international film festivals.

Yet as the Indian competition of the 6th International Film Festival Mumbai has shown there is much more space for music and dance even in a cinema of social concern as we would expect. For one thing one has to admit that music has always been much more present in the Indian parallel cinema than in comparable (neo)realist filmmaking of western origin, where a broad use of musical scores seems incompatible with a lean and sober storytelling. In a traditional parallel cinema film as “Mouni” (B.S. Lingadevaru, 2003), the tale of an impoverished Brahmin who loses everything because of his stubbornness, there are several dashes of sumptuous music spread into the story which fade out as abruptly as they faded in. Much more than a subtle underscoring of emotions they just act as a kind of marker that highlights key moments of the plot.

But they are many tendencies that go far beyond that conventional use of music: Sumitra Bhave and Sunil Sukthankar’s low budget film “Dahavi F” (2002) is a realistic portrayal of a school class that is discriminated because of the lower social status of its pupils. In an outburst of rage and as a sign of protest they destroy the chemistry laboratory of their school. What follows is a Bollywood-kind of musical number shot on location, thus the whole confrontation between the enraged but still idealistic chemistry teacher and the pupils takes place through dance and lyrics. First anger on both sides is expressed via a dynamic choreography, followed by a moralising appeal of the teacher, and the song ends with the softer tones of mutual understanding. This long song and dance sequence – which is not the only one in the film – acts as the turning point of the narrative and like in the best examples of the Indian commercial cinema it fulfils many duties at the same time. It develops the plot a big step further, it allows us an insight into to the rational and psychological world of the characters, it works as kind of commentary of the filmmaker on the situation itself and of course it delivers visual and aural pleasure too.

Predictably there will be an even broader and intense utilisation of music, song and dance in the future since a former conservative separation between commercial and parallel cinema slowly melts away. With new directors coming from music clip filmmaking or advertising appearing on the scene – as it is the case for “Freaky Chakra” (V.K. Prakash, 2002) – things will become more and more fluid. A Hindi comedy like “Raghu Romeo” (Rajat Kapoor, 2003) playfully integrates several (mostly ironic) song and dance scenes into its narrative. Holding all the emotional richness and visual colourfulness of much Bollywood-cinema it still operates as an intelligent reflection of human condition making even shrewd allusions to global media issues. A perfect hybrid of entertainment and social concern which could be the harbinger of a new trend.