The new Indian cinema
A cinema in a
nonrevolutionary society

by Udayan Gupta

from Jump Cut, no. 8, 1975, pp. 15-19
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004


Ever since its independence in July 1947, India has been labeled the largest democracy in the world. After labeling it in this fashion, many have failed to explore what really has happened in India. Others have suggested that it is a socialist country following the Soviet economic approach: total economic planning by the state, complete control of all sectors of the economy. Even this fails to answer what is happening. Has India really emerged from the classic colonial framework into a socialist state? What has been the nature of social and political change?

Today, in 1975, India remains in an enigmatic and confusing stage of development. Overall economic growth has been sluggish and much of the gains have been rapidly absorbed by the high rate of population increase. At the same time the structure has not been able to redistribute economic gains with any measure of efficiency. When economic power passed from the British, most of it passed to those Indian entrepreneurs who had collaborated with the British in their exploitation process. Naturally then, the present economic structure is also exploitative and economic power is concentrated in the hands of a few. The establishment of a public industrial sector to dilute private holdings and capital seems only to have passed on the inefficiencies of the private entrepreneur to the nation at large. This has resulted in even higher profits for the private sector.

In the rural sector, the inequalities are even more noticeable. Land redistribution has been poorly implemented and, consequently, quite ineffective. The much heralded Green Revolution has resulted in a further consolidation of vested land interests. Thousands of landless laborers and sharecroppers have had to migrate to the cities to be exploited there as migrant laborers.

Political development has been disappointing and there have been no signs of a real democratic structure. The ruling Congress Party inherited a political vacuum with the departure of the British and, despite a great degree of internal contradictions, is very much the party in power. They have skillfully worked within the Constitution and the judicial process to entrench themselves and inhibit the growth of any viable opposition.

The only real opposition, and that too only in a couple of states, has come from the Communists, but they have been severely hampered by their own weaknesses. An initial ideological split reduced their effectiveness and strength and continued to plague them in crucial issues. Exacerbating this has been their own lack of understanding of the role of Communist parties in the parliamentary structure. Where they have gained power, in Kerala in 1957 and again later in West Bengal in 1967, they have had to cope with their own structural weaknesses and with the Congress-controlled Center. On each occasion they have failed. Finally it was in 1967 that an extremist wing of the Communist Party broke away from the main wing and declared the time ripe for an agrarian revolution. The movement began with successful land acquisition and consolidation in Naxalbari in West Bengal and continued to have a great degree of initial success in West Bengal, Andhra and Bihar, the states with the greatest imbalance in rural land structure.

But the government came down strongly with its military and para-military forces and suppression was inevitable. However, it is an indication of the strength of the movement that complete suppression took nearly three years. Thousands were jailed without benefit of trial and are still scattered in jails all over the country. There is no accurate estimate of the number killed. Using this movement as a pretext, the government has now managed to extend its control by police to all parts of the country. The media is strictly controlled, and all public meetings have to obtain official sanction. The uncontrolled use of MISA (Maintenance of Internal Security Act) has now become the most visible sign of the repression that India faces today.

Today’s India remains a strangely undeveloped Third World country. Little has happened to national unity. More and more divisions have been taking place on ethnic and linguistic lines. Also, more and more minority groups are demanding statehood. Only 30 percent of the population is literate and there is no indication that this figure is going to improve very significantly with time. Employment figures are vague, but it is no secret that efforts to assimilate the uneducated millions into the work force have been unsuccessful. Unemployment is high both in the rural and urban sector. There has been some expansion of public health facilities, but proper health care is still beyond the reach of the masses. Perhaps the greatest problem is with food and other necessities. The government has not been able to develop any efficient distribution system. Despite the claim of self-sufficiency, a majority of the population has to buy from non-government sources. Most of the urban and rural poor cannot even afford to buy food and live on the most meager diet possible. Despite vehement official denial, deaths from malnutrition and starvation are quite common.

It is in this environment that the Indian cinema exists.


Last year the Indian film industry produced more than 450 movies—the largest number of feature films produced anywhere in the world. Of these nearly 300 (66 percent of all Indian movies produced) were in one language—Hindi. With no more than 20 to 25 percent of India’s 600 million people using Hindi as their natural language, this is an unusually high proportion of Hindi films. What has led to the dominance of Hindi films in the Indian cinema?

Although Hindi is spoken by only a minority of the Indian population, it claims more than twice as many speakers as any other Indian language and has the greatest single language penetration. Also, the ruling Congress Party (dominated by the Hindi-speaking North) has always favored Hindi as the official language. The Congress Party finally had Hindi adopted as the national language in 1965, in the face of extreme opposition from many states of the Union. In practical terms, the adoption of Hindi as the official language meant preferential treatment for the users of Hindi: Hindi films thus had easier access to raw film stock, imported equipment and export assistance.

Initially, however, the proportion of Hindi films produced to other regional language films was not very high. The audience could choose from a large number of regional language and foreign language films (which were allowed to be imported then). For some time now, there has been a virtual ban on most foreign language films. The number of regional language films has also dropped considerably.(1) A sizeable portion of this audience has gone over to the only alternative available—Hindi films—and increased the size of the Hindi audience considerably.

Today, the Hindi film dominates Indian cinema. The Hindi filmmaker has access to all that is vital and important to the industry—imported color stock, new equipment, and most important of all, investment capital. Naturally, the producer of Hindi films also controls distribution outlets and monopolizes the exhibition of films.

Given the choice, nearly 90 percent of all theaters would exhibit Hindi films—a remarkable comment on the stability and the market ability of the Hindi cinema today. But of course, since the stakes are high, the risks are also great. No producer would like to be the one producer whose films don't return their investment and as a consequence, each one plays safe. The result is the formula film.

The formula film tries to anticipate the needs of a really diverse Indian audience (14 major languages, 600 million people) and find a story that will satisfy the largest cross-section of the audience. The formula has to be as simple as possible, with variations wherever needed. A sample plot of the social drama would go like this.

A boy meets a girl but the meeting is beset with problems. The girl and boy are from extremely different social and economic backgrounds. The boy is usually poor, with perhaps a questionable ancestry. The girl is rich but terribly spoiled. What is important, however, is that they are in love. Despite this very important fact, the parents of both are opposed to the match. They are aware of their respective social positions and also understand that it is better to stay where they are. This is particularly true of the poorer family. Other problems may now begin. The girl’s father, trying to stave off the impending doom, tries to pair his daughter off with someone else. Lecherous villains might appear. Gangsters intending to hold the girl for ransom are also visible. Then there is a period of heartbreaking separation until, in a pulsating finish, all the problems are solved. The boy has made good, and his wealth proves to the girl’s parents that he is fit to be her husband. His mysterious ancestry is suddenly revealed. He is after all of noble blood. Nothing can divide them now. All’s well that ends well.

Despite the simplistic nature of the plot, certain fundamental points put forward by the movie should not be ignored. Economic mobility is upwards not downwards. The goal of all poor is to become rich so that the squalor and anguish of poverty can be forgotten. There is never any attempt to describe poverty as a product of exploitation but merely a tragic human condition that befalls some unfortunate people. As a result there is also little attempt to analyze the causes of poverty, only a concerted effort to leave poverty behind. At the end, wealth, goodness and justice come together as the holy trinity—all the same.

The other major formula theme mixes adventure and violence, and the plots are nearly always plagiarized. It is a fascinating exercise to go to a Hindi film and try to figure out how many foreign films have contributed to the plot of this particular film. Usually the plot is pirated from a foreign film that has been commercially successful, in India and elsewhere, and, which, the producers hope, will be successful in an Indian setting and in an Indian language, such as Hindi. (For all practical purposes the copyright convention, especially with respect to films and film plots, is not valid in India.) Thus, two successful films, GODFATHER and Frankenheimer’s HORSEMEN, have been combined to make one violent epic in an Indian setting, DHARMATMA. DIRTY HARRY was remade with Indian actors and settings and released as KHOON KHOON. This trend is a normal one and has proven a bonanza for Hindi producers. It has also done away with the cost of unnecessary “original” scripts. (2)

There are other scattered themes—religious and historical—but the social drama and the adventure/violence theme form the bread and butter of today’s cinema. It is a cinema that is totally commercial, with little redeeming value. It’s a cinema that churns out pulp for a naive and illiterate audience. In so doing, it plays a very important role in maintaining the economic and class superiority of the present elite. The cinema in India can create an awareness of the poverty and exploitation that is predominant in our society, can become an instrument of change. Instead, it soothes, pacifies, and misleads, creating an even better climate for exploitation. What has happened?

To understand this situation better, it is important to try to understand the mechanics of the Indian cinema and Hindi cinema. For a long time, until World War II, the cinema in India was a neglected medium. The audience was there but the investor was not. The industry limped along. Then the war ended, and suddenly there was the emergence of a new kind of businessman, a breed that had made its money off the war. The money made could not be put back into legitimate business because it would have to be accounted for. Where could the money be used? Why not in cinema where all the capital inputs could be doctored and the output legalized?

The new group of film investors emerged. These were people who were corrupt, ruthless and determined, a group that was ready to control cinema and run it as an extra-legal but highly efficient business. A cinema based on this kind of ethos can hardly be oriented towards radical social and political change. It is, by its very composition, anti-revolutionary and an instrument of stability and order. Its aim is to suppress popular awakening and create an even better climate for the exploitation of the poor. Its aim is to make wealth desirable, a reward for suffering poverty, and it works towards reinforcing the capitalist ethic.

Maybe the suggestion of such a motive imputes too much intelligence on the part of the commercial film establishment. Nevertheless, the indications are that this motive does influence the film establishment. Of course, they are aided in this cause by the Indian Board of Film Censors. The Censors, by dint of strict adherence to the letter of the law, have managed to discourage most controversial issues. It is futile to invest a considerable sum of money into a film and have it banned by the Censors. Almost always, the Courts will rule against the film. It is safer then to deal with innocuous subjects, subjects that do not explore or analyze and are not a threat to the ruling class.

Yet despite this seemingly hopeless atmosphere, there is a new cinema in India today, and it is not the cinema of Satyajit Ray.(3) The new cinema is not financed by the big studios nor does it have the stars idolized in the pages of film pulp. The new directors are a mixture of youth and age—a group of experienced veterans and talented newcomers. They have combined to change the character of today’s Indian cinema. True, the new cinema is not what one might want the cinema of an oppressed Third World country to be. But it is an exciting effort, worth talking about and analyzing in terms of its achievements and failures. It is a determined effort to fight the traditional commercial film establishment and make Indian cinema a more credible and socially involved medium.

If one were to analyze the content of the new cinema, one could possibly break it down into four major categories: (1) tradition in rural India, (2) urban problems, (3) lingering social conflicts, and (4) films about politics.



The portrayal of rural India has always been somewhat unreal. It is hard to believe that nearly 70 percent of India lives in the rural sector and that 3 out of every 4 live below the poverty level. For Hindi cinema plot, poverty in the villages has never really existed. Instead, the backwardness of the peasant is humored and ridiculed. The mechanics of land and its ownership goes unquestioned. Yet, it is a fact that rural India is seething. Two of the major uprisings in the last five years have started in the villages: in Naxalbari (in West Bengal) and in Telengana (Andhra). Rich landlords and their cohorts there have been eliminated and crops and harvests redistributed. The fact that the present system of land ownership might be a very major factor in the rural backwardness of India goes totally unanalyzed in cinema. Instead, the audience sees myth and fantasy.

Girish Karnad’s KAADU (the jungle) breaks this spell. A story about rural passions and violence, it portrays the feud between two villages in Mysore. Both villages are in the same predicament—poor and exploited and totally dependent on their crops. If the harvest fails, they starve. But they continue to bicker over other values. As the story unfolds the viewer becomes aware of the hypocrisy and double values of the “respected” village elders. They chastise others for infidelity and lechery and, all along, they have been going to other villages to sleep with others’ wives. This cannot last forever. When violence erupts, everything goes—the crops, the huts and the villagers themselves. All this time, quite significantly, “law and order” has not appeared on the scene. The law’s only interest seems to be the harvest. Only when the villagers have started killing each other does “law and order,” in the form of some policemen, appear on the scene. But by then the problem doesn't exist. The carnage remains a brutal reminder of the violence.

Pattabhirama Reddy’s film SAMSKARA (Kannada) involves a Brahmin living in a village where another Brahmin has died. There is a problem. The dead Brahmin was an outcast because he had been living with a prostitute and had taken to meat and drink. Yet someone has to perform the last rites because the village cannot touch food until any Brahmin that dies in it is cremated. But whoever performs the last rites also becomes unclean and an outcast. Unable to solve the problem, the Brahmin, Praneshcharya (played by Girish Karnad), leaves the village.

There are other significant films on the same theme. Shyam Benegal’s ANKUR (Hindi) deals with the economic and sexual exploitation of the lower caste by the traditional land-owning classes. But ultimately the seeds of rebellion against this kind of tyranny are sown.

All these films explode certain basic myths about the development and change in the rural sector in the years since independence. Caste system and untouchability are far from being dead. Exploitation of the lower classes continues in all its forms. There is still no positive involvement of the ruling elite in the rural sector. The villagers are visited at election time and forgotten. It is this kind of falsehood that the new cinema is trying to correct and is succeeding.


India’s problems are not just in the villages, they are very visible in the cities. Overcrowded, with little growth or development in the last two decades, they suffer from a multitude of problems—continued in-migration of labor displaced from land in the villages; problems of housing this migrant labor; massive unemployment; and general disenchantment among today’s youth. The commercial cinema has bypassed these issues ingeniously—by never filming in a static urban background. Each film is placed in an unrecognizable urban setting, and the action switches back and forth from an urban to a semi-urban setting. This, in effect, encourages a non-discussion of the issues. Suddenly, however, there have been a number of films that are quite conscientiously discussing the cities and their problems.

Parthapratim Chowdhuri’s JADUBANGSHA (Bengali) is about a group of unemployed youth disenchanted with the system. They live parasitically, mostly off their parents, and when this is not possible, by breaking into railway wagons or gambling or stealing. As the film progresses, we realize that there is no real solution to their problems. Each character seems to undergo a further erosion of moral values. One goes on to steal a family heirloom and tries to pawn it; another fantasizes the seduction of his sister-in-law; a third hallucinates over a whore. The treatment of the film is crude but the point of the problem comes across quite powerfully: youth, their disorientation and the inability of their elders to direct them.

Adoor Gopalkrishnan’s SWAYAMVARAM (Malayalam) takes a different approach. A young couple are in love but they cannot marry because of caste differences. So they escape from their semi-urban setting to the city and begin to live together. The man begins to look for a job while the young woman sets up house in a dilapidated slum in the city. When the man finds a job, it has a macabre twist. The employer pays with liquor, not money. The young man leaves and finds a backbreaking job in a sawmill. Slowly his health begins to deteriorate, a result of the hard work and lack of nourishment. To compound it all, the woman, Sita, becomes pregnant. Neither of them can return and are caught up in the innate prejudices and cruelty of modern society. Ultimately the man, Viswam, dies leaving Sita alone with her newborn child. Gopalkrishnan’s film does not end on a happy note. It leaves us with the question of what might happen.

Again, in this film, there is no resolution of the problems eating into our urban existence. We become aware that the problems exist and that they will continue to unless we can make some major changes in our societal structure.


One of the major continuing conflicts in India is the communal (religious) one. Even twenty-eight years after independence, the tensions between the two major communities—the Hindus and the Muslims—remain. However, there is no discussion of this continuing conflict in film. And since the Hindi cinema cannot neglect the Hindu or the Muslim, cinema portrays them in a world of religious vacuum—Muslims in a Muslim world, Hindus in their Hindu world, with little overlap and hence little chance of any conflict.

GARM HAVA (Hindi), a film by M. S. Sathyu, ignores this convention and portrays a Muslim family in India during the post-independence communal conflicts. The family we see is a very large Muslim family with several brothers and their families living together. Theirs is a prosperous shoe manufacturing business, but that prosperity is also a curse because that is what the Hindus and other Muslims are focusing on. The economic pressure begins to mount—a contrived strike, illegal eviction, unfair competition.

Most of the family begins to believe that there is no place for them in India, and indeed there isn't. They slowly leave for Pakistan where, we hear, they are prospering. Only Halim Mirza, a very determined member of the family, stays behind and tries to make it work. It is his country, he reasons, and he will not be driven out of it. But then a personal tragedy, his daughter’s suicide, forces him to sell the remnants of his business and leave for Pakistan. The end is unconvincing. As Mirza is leaving, he sees his son, who has decided to stay behind, demonstrating in a street rally. Spurred by this, and, somewhat guilt-ridden, he decides to stay and carry on the fight.

GARM HAVA is not an angry film but its depiction and re-definition of the communal problems in India is also a critique of the times. The film was refused distribution by the commercial chain because of the fear that it would provoke communal passions. If this is a prevalent and underlying fear and can be sparked by a single film, there has to be something wrong with the communal situation in India. It is a fact Indians have refused to admit till now. GARM HAVA is a remarkable film because it does begin to set the facts straight.


Two major factors have prevented the growth of any kind of political film in India: capital and censorship. Those people who finance films are essentially part of an Indian economic elite and see little reason to endanger their own species. What is more they have shied away from these films on the grounds that they will not make a profit. There isn't an audience for this kind of film. The Censors, by their illogical arbitrariness, have been the other factor.

Violence is all right according to the Censors, as is disguised sex, but peasants’ rights or portrayal of a minority struggle against the establishment are taboo. This kind of arbitrariness also discourages investors. No one wants to finance an entire film only to have it banned by the Censors. The result has been film producers’ strict hands-off policy when it comes to politics.

Then, in the early seventies, Mrinal Sen made CALCUTTA-71 (Bengali). CALCUTTA-71 is made up of several stories, each set about ten years apart. Each story deals with poverty and the reaction to it. In the first story, we see a slum family facing the vagaries of the monsoon rains. They have no place to go and they bear their misfortune quite passively. But with each story, the reaction changes. The next story finds a family reacting differently to their poverty—the women sell their bodies. With each story, however, the consciousness of the poor family increases and their reaction is more dynamic. Ultimately, the man of twenty, who has been the link throughout the story, reacts violently to the situation around him (in Calcutta in 1971) and is killed.

Mrinal Sen’s next film, PADATIK (Bengali), is in quite a different vein. An extremist escapes from a prison and is directed to a shelter in the apartment of a young working woman, an advertising executive. There, in surprisingly bourgeois surroundings, he begins to analyze the movement. He questions the leadership and begins to find instances of where it went wrong. The party thinks this is disloyal and points it out. But the young extremist realizes that this kind of questioning of the leadership is necessary because many of the movement’s ills begin here. PADATIK brought an essentially underground movement out into the open. Ever since its brutal repression by Mrs. Gandhi’s military and para-military forces, the movement has been disorganized and has refused to enter into any kind of self-criticism. PADATIK breaks this silence.

Nevertheless, there was a great deal of criticism of PADATIK, both from the left and the right. The left condemned the film as an effort to commercialize the Naxalite movement and found the situations presented in it to be unreal. The criticism of the movement was not valid, according to them, and misleading. They said this kind of commercial leftism was harmful to the movement and counter-productive. Reactions of a completely different sort came from the right. They resented the intrusion of politics into film and argued against the idolization of a party containing anti-social, destructive elements. There was a strong move, from their side, to suppress the distribution and showing of the film. Fortunately, this move was not successful.


The new Indian cinema lacks all the facilities that have been given to the commercial cinema. It lacks sophisticated equipment, raw stock, and, most important, capital. As a result of this, shooting is usually on an impossibly low ratio (often 2:1) and mostly on location. These deficiencies have, however, been turned into advantages. The settings are more realistic than a studio set and lack their transparent artificiality. Most producers cannot afford “stars” and settle for actors, a very positive step towards improving the quality of acting in their films. A surprising number of technicians working in the new cinema are from the Film Institute in Poona(4). They bring with them an entirely new approach to camera work, sound recording and editing.

Judged purely as an art form, the new cinema is infinitely superior to the established commercial cinema. The subjects that the new cinema deals with are quite relevant and contemporary. These are subjects that would be rejected by the commercial cinema: untouchability and exploitation of the lower caste; poverty and its neglect by the ruling elite; politics and political movements.

There is no question that the new cinema has been able to achieve a great number of things. It has been able to deal with many new subjects, involve that section of the audience turned off by the commercial cinema, raise audience consciousness and develop a more critical attitude to film.

However, on closer examination, we will find that while the topics of the new cinema are different, the exploration and analysis of these topics and the conclusions arrived at are not markedly different from that of the traditional commercial cinema. KAADU does show a starker vision of village India. Yet it does little to dispel the notion that India’s villagers are economically irrational, traditionally backward and often violent. PADATIK discusses the Naxalite movement, but it shies away from any real discussion of the brutal repression and extermination campaign that the government carried out against the Naxalites. JADUBANGSHA does portray the despair and frustration of urban youth, but it fails to explore the roots of the malaise. CALCUTTA-71 is about poverty, but it does not go into the mechanics of the exploitation process.

Why has this happened? One answer seems to be that the new cinema—st another attempt to present a different set of issues for a different kind of audience, an audience that has been turned off by the superficiality of the commercial cinema, but that it has not involved any transformation in the consciousness of the filmmaker. Hence the lack of real analysis.(5)

There is yet another answer. Much of the failure to question the mechanics of the system is a result of what the new cinema is. It may be new in form and composition. But it still retains the characteristics of the commercial cinema on two fundamental points—financing and distribution. While it is true that the commercial investor will not touch the new cinema, there are other private and institutional investors. The major institutional one is, of course, the Film Finance Corporation, a government corporation set up to finance the independent art film. Various nationalized banks are also coming forward to help in the financing of low budget films, as are enlightened capitalists.(6) The distribution of films is still through the established distribution system. Though there have been instances where filmmakers have tried to bypass the existing system by trying to distribute their films themselves, the exorbitant financial guarantees demanded by exhibitors have undermined their effort. Surprisingly, this has happened to a large number of Film Finance Corporation financed films: Mani Kaul’s USKI ROTI, Kumar Shahani’s ASHAR KE EK DIN, Mrinal Sen’s ED ADHURI KAHANI.

It becomes apparent then that while the new cinema is new in the subject matter it deals with, it still survives within the trappings of the commercial cinema network. What then are its class characteristics? If it is against the ruling class, and the subjects it takes up leads one to believe it is, how does it exist within a repressive capitalist system? Isn't there a contextual credibility problem? Can one honestly believe that Mrinal Sen is capable of making a film truly critical of the government with funds disbursed by the government? Mrinal Sen himself confesses in an unpublished interview,

“Why does the establishment come out to help you make such films? This is part of the bourgeois make-up ... There is a kind of repressive tolerance among the bourgeois countries which is a new kind of sophistication appearing within the system. I can assure you that it would have been extremely difficult, perhaps impossible, to make the kind of film we are making, previously, because of censorship. These days censorship has become wiser—they allow you to make such films and, I believe, will continue to allow you to do so.”

It is difficult to understand why the establishment would allow the making of films that are a real threat to the establishment and its continued existence. The opposite view must therefore be accepted. The new cinema is allowed to exist because it looks revolutionary and gives the establishment a good, non-repressive image but, in fact, is not revolutionary.

It does not examine or analyze the real mechanics of contemporary problems such as caste, religion, poverty, or unemployment. It does not explore the oppressive neocolonialist nature of the present system, and it does not advocate any radical social or political change.

It is an extension—a more sophisticated form—of the bourgeois repressive mechanism. Until the new cinema can rid itself of all establishment associations and come up with an alternative form of financing, distribution and exhibition, it will be neither credible nor honest. And until then it cannot become a viable and potent form of social and political change. What is more, whatever political and radical content the films might exhibit, consciously or unconsciously, will also become suspect. This is because the class enemies they depict are also their backers, their patrons. It must also be recognized that as soon as a film constitutes a real or potential threat to the establishment, it will be suppressed—if not directly by the Censors, then by the related obstacles of raw stock availability, financing and distribution.

What are the implications of this? Have we to accept that, in the Indian context, a revolutionary cinema cannot exist without a revolution?

Under the present system, the government has complete control over raw stock availability (quota systems), laboratories (vital chemicals are imported on license from the government), and the finished product (censorship). The capitalist has control over the production, distribution and eventual exhibition of a movie. In this system the Indian cinema just cannot be revolutionary. Theoretically, however, if the filmmaker chooses to challenge establishment controls, go underground, it is possible. But that involves buying raw stock in the black market at exorbitant rates, obtaining laboratory services without the necessary official approval (also at high rates), and setting up an underground exhibition system at considerable capital cost. This system is capital-intensive in its own way and on a scale which is prohibitive to the radical filmmaker (at least in India) and is a deterrent to revolutionary filmmaking.


In this discussion and analysis of the content of the new Indian cinema, a more fundamental question arises—given the capital-intensive nature of cinema, can there really be an anti-capitalist revolutionary cinema, a cinema committed to radical change in the social and economic structure? Or have we to resign ourselves to a limited “reactionary” role for cinema, a medium that is used to satisfy the ideological and economic interests of the ruling class?

Paul Rotha, who addresses himself primarily to documentary films but whose remarks are applicable to cinema in general, suggests that cinema has immense potential and that it cannot remain a mere medium of entertainment:

.”.. It is absurd to suggest that cinema, with its powers to enlarge the public’s conscience, to create new standards of culture, to stir mental apathies, to build new understandings and, by virtues inherent in its form to become the most powerful of all modern preachers—it is absurd to suggest that it can be left in the hands of commercial speculators to be used as a vehicle for purposeless fictional stories ...” (7)

Rotha says that other media should be used for entertainment while cinema should be left

“to explore outside the limits of what we are told constitutes entertainment ... Let cinema attempt film interpretations of modern problems and events, of things as they really are today, and by doing so perform a definite function.” (8)

Today, especially in the Third World where the majority of the population is still illiterate, the visual properties of cinema make it the most dynamic means of communication in that environment. It has become one of the most effective ways of proposing social and radical change and communicating it to large segments of the population.

But while cinema can propose radical change, the strength, consistency and politics of that proposal has to be measured in relation to the capital that finances it.(9) It is easy to misdirect audiences towards confusing politics under the guise of politicization. Consequently, many movies with a radical rhetoric and a seemingly radical approach develop many incorrect ideas and tendencies because of the compromises they have had to make with the capital that financed them. STATE OF SIEGE seems to suggest that there will always be a continuum of oppression, that popular struggles will not succeed against the overwhelming strength of the ruling classes. Nowhere does Costa-Gavras explore the weaknesses of the Tupamaros’ organization and try to relate it to the failure to obtain greater support in this particular situation. In BATTLE OF ALGIERS, Pontecorvo documents the Algerian struggle against the French, but he does not look at the dangerously nationalistic and elitist nature of the struggle. Hence it is easy to make the mistake of equating a mass-based popular struggle with a nationalistic struggle that is alienated from the masses (a factor that has caused Algeria to become what it is today).

It is in this context, therefore, that it must be argued that given the present capital-intensive nature of cinema, a truly revolutionary cinema—a cinema that explores class contradictions, that deals with the factors that create these contradictions, and proposes change—cannot exist except in a society where there is no contradiction between the goals of that cinema and the means by which the capital financing that cinema is acquired. Thus, a revolutionary cinema can probably exist only as a state-backed cinema in a society where a revolution has occurred, in a post-revolutionary society.

This argument is certainly true for the Third World, where along with the problem of obtaining capital (a scarce and monopolized commodity), there is also the repressive arm of a not-so-democratic government to contend with. Any film that is critical of the system is put down on the basis that there is need for unquestioned growth, and any criticism of the government, however valid, will impede it.

Not that all state-backed cinema is revolutionary. A look at the large body of cinema that is emerging from Soviet Russia and most of Eastern Europe will convince one of that. But the Cuban cinema is a good example of an attempt by a state to produce a truly revolutionary potential. Consider Michael Myerson’s account:

“To speak of Cuban cinema is to speak of revolutionary Cuban cinema. There just wasn't a Cuban film industry, properly speaking, before the Revolution came to power ...”

“With the triumph of the Revolution, (Alfredo) Guevera [sic: Guevara] (a former student federation leader, a schoolmate of Fidel Castro, and a filmmaker) became an administrative assistant to Fidel. Several weeks after the barbudos (bearded ones) entered Havana, Castro called Guevera to ask that he prepare a law founding the Cuban Film Institute ...”

“ICAIC (Instituto Cubano del Arte e Industria Cinematografica) serves, in the Cuban order of things, as something of a ministry of Film. It oversees all aspects of the budding film industry; the training of film students; the production of Cuban theaters; the import and export of films ...”

“Guevera has said that a major effort of the ICAIC goes to educate Cuban audiences as to the nature of film. For those who were filmgoers before the Revolution, their taste was corrupted by the Hollywood and Mexican fare. ‘This is a public,’ he says, ‘that still looks for this kind of product, that feels lost without it, even though it knows better politically ... If we don't educate the public to understand nuances, educate them to the full significance of the political, social, and historical problems of the treatment of the characters, we will always have that open window—and ... people desperate to get through it. People do not enjoy and accept such cinema because of the ideology it transmits, but because it comes wrapped in a language understandable to them ...’”

“More important than serving the pre-Revolutionary audience, in ICAIC’s perspective, is taking the cinema to the peasantry. Says Guevera, ‘This is an area of the public that is very interesting; precisely because it did not know the old commercial cinema; it is not warped. It is warped in another way, however, because ignorance is warping. So our efforts have been concentrated on the public and in the areas where the cinema was once unknown, we now have 13 million moviegoers a year ...’”

“'Our work is not simply making or showing movies: everything we do is part of a global process towards developing the possibilities of participation—not passive but active., not as recipients but as protagonists of the public.’”(10)

The Cuban example is one where the state has been able to exploit the dynamism of cinema and use it for radical social and political change. There are other examples (and some of them can be questioned): the early Soviet cinema, the Czech cinema during the Dubcek period, the present Chinese Communist cinema.

The fact remains, however, that cinema is a peculiarly capital intensive medium and, like many other bourgeois art forms, tends to serve the interests of the ruling classes. To fight this and to make it a true medium for change seems to be possible only in a state where the state itself is interested in that change and requires it for its own development. In other situations, we probably have to be content with a limited role for cinema: raising consciousness, providing information and challenging the system wherever possible. More than this one should not ask.


1. Spiraling costs, a general decline in all existing facilities and little or no expansion in audience size have all contributed to the overall unprofitability of the regional language film. The only healthy regional language cinema is perhaps the Tamil cinema based in Madras (Tamilnadu).

2. It is interesting that one of the biggest money earners in the last few years, MANORANJAN, was a completely plagiarized version of IRMA LA DOUCE, in an Indian setting. As a matter of fact, the two movies were running in Calcutta at the same time. No one was perturbed.

3. It may seem strange that there is no further discussion of Satyajit Ray in this article. The reason is simple. Ray is as much a part of the traditional film establishment as the commercial filmmaker. What distinguishes him from them is his genius as a filmmaker and complete control of the medium, but it is certainly not his method of analysis. Ray continues to make films about contemporary situations, but he ignores the politics of even the most political ones. He ignores the politics of the man-made famine in DISTANT THUNDER, the aspects of economic elitism and exploitation in COMPANY LIMITED, and the real causes of student unrest and disenchantment in THE ADVERSARY. All he seems to be interested in is giving us a beautiful, aesthetic and humanistic portrait that is totally removed from the reality of the situation. Ray is not the new Indian cinema.

4. The Film Institute in Poona was set up by the Government of India in order to train actors, technicians and other personnel for film and television. The idea was to make this kind of training accessible to more people and also improve the quality of personnel in film and television.

5. Here a parallel can be drawn to some recent U.S. cinema: films such as Scorsese’s MEAN STREETS, Cassavetes’ A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Coppola’s THE CONVERSATION. The subjects dealt with are different from what traditional Hollywood has dealt with, and there is a marked difference in the approach of the filmmakers. But there is nothing to distinguish the analysis and the conclusions from traditional films. Each tries to depict the hopelessness of the individual in the environment: In A WOMAN UNDER THE INFLUENCE, Mabel is declared mad and there is little she can do about it. In MEAN STREETS organized crime is ultimately victorious. In THE CONVERSATION, corporate crime has complete control. What are the real issues here? Are there any class distinctions? Why is organized crime tolerated? Why is corporate crime so accepted? There seems to be a marked disinclination towards exploring the real crucial questions. It is probably because of the politics of the filmmakers and their undeniable affiliations with the elite.

6. It is interesting to note that Mrinal Sen’s last film, CHORUS (Sept. 1974), was financed by the United Commercial Bank, one of the largest banks in the country and still connected with one of the biggest industrialist families, the Birlas.

7. Paul Rotha, Documentary Film (1935; rpt. New York: Hastings House, 1963), p. 69.

8. Ibid.

9. There is an organic consistency about capital. It is hard to accept that the capitalist will use his capital for purposes other than those which, directly or indirectly, lead to the acquisition of more capital.

10. Michael Myerson, Memories of Underdevelopment—The Revolutionary Films of Cuba (New York: Grossman, 1973), pp.18-22.