Bollywood largely focuses on commercial movies that provide the audience with a combination of romance, drama, comedy, mystery, thrill and action. However, over the years, Hindi cinema has also produced many arthouse movies -- such as Arth, Ankur: The Seedling and Salam Bombay -- which cater to a niche audience and are more experimental and artistic, often highlighting social issues or depicting the complexities and realities of relationships, rather than glamourising them. If you have a penchant for parallel cinema, the following five modern Hindi art films should definitely be part of your must-watch list:
1. Mr and Mrs Iyer
The issues of sectarian violence and religious prejudice were beautifully depicted in this 2002 drama film, written and directed by Aparna Sen. The film stars Aparna Sen's daughter Konkona Sen Sharma as Meenakshi Iyer, a Tamil woman, who is a devout Hindu Brahmin. Meenakshi meets Raja Chowdhury (Rahul Bose), a Bengali Muslim wildlife photographer, as the two are about to embark on the same bus journey, and they eventually find themselves drawn to each other, despite their differences, in the midst of communal riots.
A 1994 film by Shyam Benegal, Mammo is the first film of the Muslim trilogy including Sardari Begum (1996) and Zubeidaa (2001). It stars Farida Jalal in the titular role Mammo (Mehmooda Begum), a Pakistani national, living with her sister Fayyuzi (Surekha Sikri) in Bombay, India, and Fayuzzi’s grandson, 13-year-old Riyaz (Amit Phalke). This is a poignant tale, giving a glimpse of the highs and lows of Mammo’s life, and touches upon the theme of families divided and impacted by the partition of India and Pakistan.
3. Sardari Begum
The second installment of Shyam Benegal’s Muslim trilogy, this is a 1996 musical film, starring Kiron Kher as Sardari Begum, a famous thumari singer. The film chronicles Sardari’s youth and lifestyle -- as her niece and journalist Tehzeeb Abbasi (Rajeshwari Sachdev) investigates it -- while portraying the complexities of family relationships, generational and sexual politics, and social norms in India. The film also stars Amrish Puri and Rajit Kapur in vital roles, and features lovely Urdu classic music.
Known as Fly Away Solo in English, this 2015 drama film has been directed by Neeraj Ghaywan. Based in present-day Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh, India, Masaan follows the story of Devi Pathak (Richa Chadda), a college teacher who has a sexual relationship with her student Piyush Aggarwal, but is caught and then harassed by the police for a hefty bribe. The film also follows a separate story of Deepak Kumar (Vicky Kaushal), who works with his family in cremation ghats by burning funeral pyres and falls in love with Shaalu Gupta (Shweta Tripathi), a high caste Hindu girl. The film highlights problems stemming from caste discrimination and lack of personal liberty in a conservative society.
A 2006 Indian drama film, written and directed by Nagesh Kukunoor, Dor features Ayesha Takia, Gul Panag and Shreyas Talpade in the lead roles. An official adaptation of the Malayalam film, Perumazhakkalam, Dor is the story of two women, who belong to very different backgrounds, but come together due to their circumstances. Ayesha Takia plays a widow, Meera, who is confined by society and tradition, while Gul Panag plays Zeenat, an independent and strong woman trying to save her husband, who is on trial for murder.
While these movies have been produced after the 1990s, the parallel cinema movement in Indian cinema dates back to the 1950s and originated in West Bengal. This movement was initially led by Bengali filmmakers, such as Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and Tapan Sinha, who wanted an alternative to mainstream cinema and went on to produce internationally acclaimed work. The parallel cinema movement gained more prominence in the Hindi film industry in the 1970s and 1980s, when directors like Shyam Benegal, Gulzar and Rajinder Singh Bedi made movies with a wider appeal. In the present times, several Bollywood filmmakers, such as Ram Gopal Verma, Deepa Mehta, Anurag Kashyap and others, have also ventured towards making off-beat films. Aamir Khan’s production house combines realistic parallel cinema with the entertainment and production values of commercial films, blurring the distinction between the two kinds of cinema.