In 2016, “Aligarh,” a Hindi film about a gay university professor in a small town, was released across theaters in India. By then it had already wowed festival audiences and received critical acclaim for its sensitive portrayal of the professor and his fight for privacy in a country where same-sex acts are legally punishable.
“Aligarh” had no big stars or choreographed numbers; its strengths lay in tender performances and a portrait of quiet dignity.
“I have been trying to make independent-spirited films and to tackle themes that reflect social reality and speak of social justice,” says Hansal Mehta, the film’s director. “How can you make such stories according to the mainstream obsession with the larger than life representation of things? Very rarely do those films depict socio-economic realities.”
India produces more than 1,000 films a year, but is best known for its Hindi film industry — popularly referred to as Bollywood — where over-the-top, melodramatic films dominate. With lavish action sequences punctuated by periodic songs in picturesque locales, the Hindi film has traditionally been known for eschewing reality.
When Mehta first started infusing his films with his un-Bollywood cinematic signature in the late 1990s, the time simply wasn’t right. One film never got released, another tanked.
“It was an uphill task,” he says. “I gave up on that kind of film. Neither producers nor distributors were ready to put their money on such films.”
But slowly that has been changing. In the past decade a new generation of filmmakers has been pushing the envelope with starkly realistic, character-driven features whose tone and treatment are a world apart.
Mehta in 2013 made the much-acclaimed “Shahid,” which told the story of an activist Muslim lawyer who was assassinated. He dated the turning point for the smaller, quieter film to “Khosla ka Ghosla” (2006), a darkly comic Delhi-set movie featuring a middle-class family fighting a land grab. It’s hard to identify the precise moment when the small film became possible — and those in the industry draw up different landmarks, whether it was “Khosla” or 2008’s “Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!” or 2009’s “Dev D.”
But suddenly the trickle became a steady stream in the early part of this decade. 2010’s “Udaan,” about a father-son relationship set in a small town, played in Cannes Un Certain Regard, won a slew of awards and had a commercial release. “Love Sex aur Dhokha,” that same year, deployed unconventional camerawork and quickly gained a cult following. Several others have since followed: including “Miss Lovely” (2012); “Masaan” (2015), which won the Fipresci and Promising Future prizes at Cannes after unspooling in Un Certain Regard; “Margarita, With a Straw” (2015); and “Titli” (2015).
“These films tend to be more real in terms of their treatment,” says Alankrita Shrivastava, whose “Lipstick Under My Burkha” explores the lives of four women and will bow this year after being held up by the Indian film censor board. “There is more texture, the world is more authentic. They aren’t headlined by big stars, they use music differently and the unnecessary heightening of emotion isn’t there.”
As audiences have been increasingly exposed to a variety of films from abroad, both film viewers and filmmakers have had a chance to refine their tastes.
“When I arrived in 2007, it already felt like the scene was changing,” says Kanu Behl, who assisted in “Love Sex aur Dhokha” and directed “Titli.” “Perhaps it was the cumulative effect of a generation of filmmakers growing up with a new aesthetic with the boom of the internet; exposure had grown.”
Behl, for instance, lists among his influences Stanley Kubrick, Abbas Kiarostami and Steve McQueen. Ruchika Oberoi, who made “Island City” (2015), a dark comedy set in Mumbai, links the spirit of that film to the Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismaki.
The multiplex boom at the turn of the century has also had a part to play in reshaping the film-going experience and cultivating new audiences for new kinds of cinema. Industry estimates say multiplexes account for a fourth of all theaters, a remarkable jump in the past decade.
Filmmakers including Behl and Oberoi got support from the National Film Development Corp., a central government body; Behl participated in its scripts lab, Oberoi received a production grant.
However, independent-spirited films continue to be just a fraction of the Hindi films made annually and the process is still a challenge.
“You can’t compete with the juggernaut of the average Hindi film,” says Vikramaditya Motwane, who directed “Udaan” and the new survival drama “Trapped.”
He set up Phantom Films with like-minded directors to back different films. “And it’s difficult when you are competing at the same ticket prices. … So even though my film finds its audience that’s what you are dealing with. I don’t know if there is an alternative, I don’t know what might happen, we will only know in the next few years.”
Streaming services such as Netflix and Amazon are recent entrants in India and it remains to be seen if they have any effect on the niche films being made.
“We need more producers to understand the different kinds of content filmmakers are making,” Oberoi says. “We need funding in innovative ways. How will films like ours find finances? I don’t know what the answer is.”