The Essential Mystery: The Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema by John W. Hood

The Essential Mystery: Major Filmmakers of Indian Art Cinema is a thoughtful, appreciative, analytical, and comprehensive overview of the influential filmmakers that have defined, shaped, and elevated the status of Indian art cinema. By correlating the filmmakers’ personal experiences with the common themes and individual styles presented through their respective cinema, Hood illustrates the diversity, integrity, and undiscovered artistry of Indian films.


Ritwik Ghatak

Born in Dhaka in the former region of East Bengal in 1925, Ritwik Ghatak experienced the trauma of the Partition of Bengal that occurred after gaining independence from the British in 1947. Consequently, Ghatak’s poignant and personally relevant cinema often reflect the tragedy of exile, displacement, and poverty. Hood cites Ghatak’s 1960s films as his artistic and narrative zenith: Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) portrays the travails of a displaced middle class East Bengal family in Calcutta; Komal Gandhar (E-Flat) chronicles the rivalry between two acting troupes of a once united theatrical company; Subarnarekha examines the divergent fates of two idealistic refugee teachers. Plagued by a propensity for self-indulgence and lack of discipline, as reflected in his final film, Jukti Takko Ar Gappo (Argument, Discussion, and Story), Ghatak nevertheless creates a profoundly moving portrait of the human condition and the devastation of imposed geographic, social, and political division.


Satyajit Ray

Hood prefaces his analysis by acknowledging his great respect for Satyajit Ray, and his trepidation in dissociating himself from personal bias to provide an objective evaluation of his work, especially in Ray’s penchant to drift into occasional sentimentality in his later works. Hood examines Ray’s spare and minimalist style throughout his diverse and prolific body of work: from humanist films such as the Apu Trilogy and Charulata, to insightful social commentary of films such as Devi and Jalsaghar, to repercussions of political events (the Bengal Famine of 1943 and the Naxalite movement of the 1970s, respectively) in films such as Distant Thunder (Ashani Sanket) and Jana Aranya (The Middleman). Ray’s mastery of the visual aesthetic that combines a reverence for naturalism with the concerns of social realism sufficiently validates his iconic status in Indian culture and world cinema.


Mrinal Sen

Like contemporaries Ritwik Ghatak and Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen was born in Bengal in 1923 and profoundly marked by turbulent political history, especially by the devastation of the Bengali Famine of 1943. Hood categorizes Sen’s body of work into three general phases: his early, “conventional” social realism films as illustrated by the films Akash Kusum (Up in the Clouds) and Bhuvan Shome (with the title character portrayed by Utpal Dutt); his political “agitation” films, as embodied in the three interrelated chronological stories on the effects of poverty in Calcutta 71 and Mrigaya (The Royal Hunt) that examines the effects of the Santal Rebellion of 1855-1856; his later, social studies of the middle-class, as exemplified by the intelligently crafted film, Ek Din Pratidin (One Day, Everyday) that explores the issue of a woman’s right to social autonomy, and his masterwork, Kharij (The Case Is Closed) that explores the tragic circumstances behind a young house servant’s accidental death from carbon monoxide poisoning.


Adoor Gopalakrishnan

Born in 1941 in Kerala, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s films reflect the idyllic atmosphere and gentle pace of life in the southern city, and the inevitable crisis of change. His highly accomplished and narratively minimalist films present an acute awareness of human relationships and social inequity. Generally considered to be his greatest film, Elippathayam (The Rat Trap) is a graceful, poetic, and metaphoric film that explores the vestigial effects of feudalism and class stratification on a decadent, yet increasingly irrelevant, aristocratic family. Gopalakrishnan further explores similar themes of the inconstancy of individual perception and reality in Mukhamukham (Face to Face) and Anantaram (Monologue).


Shyam Benegal

A great admirer of Satyajit Ray’s cinema, Shyam Benegal founded a film society in his native Hyderabad, before settling in Bombay where a career in advertisement eventually led to filmmaking. A popular and well-respected contemporary filmmaker, Benegal examines the hypocrisy of a patriarchal society, the conflict between tradition and modernity, and the inequity of social class. Benegal’s most memorable films, Ankur (The Seedling) and Nishant (Night’s End) chronicle the exploitative actions of cruel and abusive zamindari (feudal landowners). Benegal continues to address relevant social issues in Bhumika (The Role) and Mandi (The Marketplace) (the role and value of women) and Aarohan (The Descent) (exploitation of workers).


Govindan Aravindan

Like his contemporary Gopalakrishnan, Govindan Aravindan was born in Kerala. The son of famed humorist Govindan Nair, Aravindan’s films reflect his artistry as a painter and his acute sense of social observation as a satirist. His distinctive early films displayed his penchant for narrative economy, symbolism and inference, natural sounds, visual composition, and minimal dialogue. His first film, Uttarayanam (The Throne of Capricorn), understatedly examines the economic turmoil of a post-colonial 1970s India through a young graduate’s inability to find employment (a topic similarly explored by Ray in Jana Aranya). Hood cites Kanchana Sita (Golden Sita), a story adapted from the Indian epic, Ramayana, on the interrelationship between man and nature, and Thampu (The Circus Tent), a poignant examination of human cruelty and alienation, to be among Aravindan’s finest films. In contrast to the social realism of his early films, Aravindan’s subsequent films, Kummatty (The Bogeyman) and Esthappan (Stephen), possess elements of fable and suspension of disbelief to illustrate his familiar themes of harmony with nature and human compassion.


Buddhadeb Dasgupta

Already a renowned Bengali poet before turning to filmmaking, Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s cinema evolved from conventional narrative (developed from his earlier documentary and short films), to an imagistic and poetic style. His early humanist films, Duratwa (Distance) and Nim Annapurna (Bitter Morsel), are mature and socially relevant works that examine personal values and human relationships in the face of chaotic change (Naxalite Movement) and despair. Dasgupta subsequently explores the dilemma of compromise, survival, and artistic integrity in his highly accomplished, visually poetic, and stylistically transitional films, Phera (The Return) and Bagh Bahadur (The Tiger Man).


Govind Nihalani

Govind Nihalani was born in 1940 in Karachi (now in Pakistan), and began his career in film as the director of photography to Shyam Benegal before directing his first feature in 1982. The accessibility and popular appeal of Nihalani’s films are attributable to his narrative realism, technical maturity, and meticulous attention to mise-en-scene. Nihalani examines contemporary, socially relevant issues in films such as elitism and egoism in Party, power and corruption in Ardh Satya (Half-Truth), and the dissolution of a marriage in Drishti (The Vision). Often considered to be his best film, the five hour epic film, Tamas (The Darkness), based on the novel (and two stories, Sardarni and Zahud Baksh) by Bhisham Sahni depicts the irrational chaos, divisiveness, violence, and senseless destruction of the days leading to the Partition.

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