India’s Parallel Cinema Remains Unmatched

Govind Nihalani’s ‘Party’ was among a slate of films that used realism to challenge political power. Where are such movies now?

Meher Manda

May 18, 2022

India’s Parallel Cinema Remains Unmatched
Amrish Puri in 'Party'

The 1980s was a contentious decade for Hindi cinema. Only the truly brave treat it as the era of delightful so-bad-it’s-almost-good films. The masala of the 1970s gave way to a decade of too-muchness, with little subtlety or imagination. Truly, the decade saw the birth of camp on celluloid: in Rekha’s drag queen-inspired makeover of vindication in Khoon Bhari Maang (1988), in the blinding shimmer of Mithun Chakraborty’s pants in Disco Dancer (1982), and Sridevi’s serpentine metamorphosis in Nagina (1985). Amitabh Bachchan’s angry young man aged into a still angry older man whose schtick began to feel been there, seen that. 

And then there was Party (1984) by filmmaker Govind Nihalani, which brought together reigning talents of Hindi parallel cinema and theater to share space at a house party in a single-set ensemble skit-like film. In one of the film's most pivotal moments, emerging poet Bharat (K.K. Raina), fresh off the praise and attention from wealthy benefactors at the party, suggests that art and poetry need not be political. To this declaration, Avinash, a fiery journalist played with moral earnestness by Om Puri, says, “Art can never be separated from politics. If you observe closely, the government of every country uses art and media to establish its rule. If we want to bring fundamental changes, then we have to use our art and media as a weapon.”

And then, to conclude the dialogue with indefinite clarity, Avinash says, “If the artist is not politically committed, then his art is not relevant.”

In one swift stroke, Nihalani takes an axe to the meaningless drivel that the Hindi film industry had been churning out. Party, an essential film in the parallel cinema movement — a sub-genre inspired by New Wave cinema and which included realistic movies that subverted and challenged political, social, and cultural consciousness — showed the willingness of a select few filmmakers and actors to imagine Hindi cinema outside the limits of commercial, mainstream fare — cinema that was consistently unafraid of taking on the establishment.