There’s never a dull or predictable moment if you’re watching cricket on Hotstar Premium. One moment you’ll be admiring AB DeVilliers in peace, the next you’ll be assaulted by 31 in-house advertisements for films of the worst potboiler kind.

But there’s also a whole other side to OTT (over-the-top) media platforms — one where it acts as a curator of alternative cinema. A Twitter thread put out by @CinemaRareIN sent me down a rabbit hole of Indian indie cinema, mostly from the ’70s and ’80s (and quite a few ’90s classics, as well), on Hotstar Premium. Not only is this a huge stash of NFDC (National Film Development Corporation) classics, it is also, by proxy, a brief history of alternative Hindi cinema.

March of the avant-garde

The first film I watched — or rather, rewatched — was Kamal Swaroop’s Om-Dar-B-Dar (1988), an absurdist classic that got a new lease of life about a decade ago, when Anurag Kashyap acknowledged it as one among the inspirations behind his Devdas adaptation Dev D , especially the brass band scene, which was a direct hat-tip to a similar scene in Swaroop’s film. Om-Dar-B-Dar , loosely a coming-of-age story, is packed to the rafters with Freudian imagery, plus all manner of surrealism and disjointed allusive dialogue. But Swaroop was hardly the first Indian director to make important (and influential) avant-garde films. From the ’70s onwards, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani, in particular, made a slew of films that placed pure aestheticism over all other concerns, especially the social realist, invested-in-justice cinema that was in vogue throughout the ’70s and ’80s.

Kaul, who died in 2011, was acknowledged by critics and filmmakers as one of India’s finest, but most of his works either did not make it to Indian theatres, or did so on a minuscule scale. His first three films — Uski Roti (1969), Aashad Ka Ek Din (1971) and Duvidha (1973) — are each a classic in their own right and available on Hotstar Premium.

All three are literary adaptations. The first two are based on a story and a play, respectively, by Mohan Rakesh (who also scripted these films), while Duvidha was based on a story by Vijaydan Detha.


Black and white: A scene from Mani Kaul's film "Uski Roti" based on a story by Mohan Rakesh, who also scripted the film

Uski Roti , a masterfully told story about gender dynamics in rural Punjab, follows the lives of Balo (Garima) and her husband Sucha Singh (Gurdeep Singh), a bus driver who spends most of his time away from home. Despite knowing all about Sucha’s philanderings in a different town, Balo religiously sticks to her routine of walking miles from home to bring Sucha his packet of rotis. Again and again during the film, the idea of a man’s “appetites” and “consuming” women is subtly reinforced. We see Sucha meticulously polishing off a big plate of chicken curry at a traveller’s inn where he’s a regular. He ends the meal by quietly buying a racy photograph of a “modern” urban woman riding a Vespa in body-hugging clothes.



Lit fest: Mani Kaul’s film Aashad Ka Ek Din is based on a play by Mohan Rakesh who also scripted the film

Aashad Ka Ek Din is a period romance sans the usual over-the-top antics of this genre. It’s the story of Kalidas (Arun Khopkar), his abandoned first love Mallika (Rekha Sabnis) and Priyangumanjari (Aruna Irani), the woman he marries after becoming a well-known court poet. Duvidha , the wild card in this pack of three, is both a love story and a ghost story, about a woman who falls in love with a ghost that impersonates her husband while he is away travelling for business (absentee husbands/ boyfriends are a common thread in the three films).

Kumar Shahani’s 1997 film Char Adhyay , based on Rabindranath Tagore’s last novel, is also part of this Hotstar Premium stash. Although competently told, it’s far from Shahani’s best work, which for this writer remains the 1984 classic Tarang .

School of ‘middle cinema’



No half-measures: Ardh Satya, by Govind Nihalani, is remembered for the powerful performances by its lead actors Om Puri, Smita Patil and Naseeruddin Shah

The avant-garde filmmakers were flying under the radar at a time when the so-called “middle cinema” movement was taking off, with two directors — Shyam Benegal and later Govind Nihalani — at the frontlines. Many of Benegal’s early triumphs are now on YouTube in their entirety — Manthan (1976), Bhumika (1977) and Mandi (1984), with the last having perhaps the most impressive ensemble cast of its era, a veritable who’s who (Smita Patil, Shabana Azmi, Neena Gupta, Soni Razdan, Naseeruddin Shah, Om Puri, Saeed Jaffrey, Pankaj Kapur and Amrish Puri, among others). These films cemented Benegal’s reputation as the de facto leader of Hindi parallel cinema.

The ones on Hotstar Premium are from the ’90s and the following decades. Among them are gems such as Mammo , surely Farida Jalal’s magnum opus, with a stellar performance that deserved all the accolades it received. Also worth a watch are Welcome to Sajjanpur and The Making of the Mahatma , the latter starring Rajit Kapoor as a young Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi.


Her story Farida Jalal in a stellar role in Shyam Benegal’s film Mammo

Nihalani, who began his career as a cinematographer in the early Benegal films such as the Shashi Kapoor-starrer Junoon (1978), debuted as a director with Aakrosh (1980). Now available on YouTube, the film is a withering indictment of the Indian judicial system. Simmering outrage, a flawed (but earnest and well-meaning) hero, and a slow-burning plot that leads up to a theatrical deconstruction of Indian society’s various fault lines. Many of Nihalani’s early films followed this broad template, including Ardh Satya (1984; available on YouTube), Aaghaat (1985) and Tamas (1987). Ardh Satya is equally remembered for the powerful performances by Puri, Patil and Shah.

Clash of titans

The ’70s and ’80s were marked by a low-key rivalry between Kaul/Shahani and company on one side and the Benegal/Nihalani group of filmmakers on the other. ‘Low-key’ because it was a time before the hell-site known as Twitter came into our lives, so ideological and/or creative differences rarely descended into the kind of vicious troll-fest we see today. Yet, as the critic and curator Girish Shahane wrote in his obituary for Kaul in 2011, “The formal experiments in Kaul’s work left even the leading lights of parallel cinema befuddled and angry. It is amusing, today, to witness Shyam Benegal and Govind Nihalani being asked to eulogise Mani Kaul. The media groups all these directors in the category of ‘1970s and 80s art film makers’. The fact is, though, that they belonged to two separate camps — social realists and aesthetes if you will — with no love lost between them. Mani Kaul and his colleague Kumar Shahani treated Benegal and Nihalani’s work with something close to contempt; and, while I’m not aware of what Shyam Benegal thought of the Kaul/ Shahani style, I know Govind Nihalani despised it.”

This feuding of sorts comes out most clearly in Nihalani’s film Party (1984), which unfolds over the course of a dinner party, where writers, artists and intellectuals debate the role of an artist in society, specifically whether they should concern themselves with realpolitik, even flat-out revolution. Uppity ‘intellectuals’ are made fun of at several points in the film. During one car scene, a character mocks “Marxist filmmakers who comment on the lives of people while sitting in their Malabar Hill bungalows”.

“That’s probably a dig at Kumar Shahani, who lived in Breach Candy, though there were many Malabar Hill Marxists in those days,” Shahane tells BL ink .

He further explains “the genealogy” of these two schools of cinema that he calls “aesthetes” and “social realists”. “On one hand, you had Mani (Kaul) and Kumar Shahani, who were both students of Ritwik Ghatak at FTII Pune. Ghatak made these epic films, where the melodramatic tradition of Indian narratives was modernised in a very interesting way. And then you had Satyajit Ray, who made social realist films, broadly speaking. Ghatak was very Marxist (like Kumar Shahani) while Ray was a social democrat (like Nihalani).”

Regardless of where you stand in this debate today, especially with a crucial and highly polarised election underway in the background, there’s no doubt that the works of all these directors are a big part of the history of Hindi cinema. And thanks to India’s nascent streaming boom, OTT platforms are bringing you significant chunks of that history.

Aditya Mani Jha is a freelance writer based in Delhi