Societal structure of 20th Century in India was very conservative. There were many social aspects that people considered taboos and often felt squeamish to talk about them. Hindi Film Industry has a gamut of films in its library with stories that explore different cultural themes. However, there were some films that stood out in the race and demonstrated an unprecedented and more importantly audacious approach in their subject matter. These films considering all risk of facing a ban didn’t shun from including iconoclastic content. Such Indian films touched upon cultural themes or used political allegories that broke the stereotypes.
Here’s the list of 10 most audacious films of 20th Century in Indian Cinema –
1. Bhakta Vidur  –
Based on the mythological character, Bhakta Vidur, the film had used many political allegories. The makers portrayed the protagonist more like Mahatma Gandhi. The events in the film were allusive towards the contemporary political practices and situation in India. What went wrong is the fact that Bhakta Vidur’s text was inconspicuous retaliation of the coeval government. Subsequently, censor board banned the film concluding that, “We know it’s not Vidur but Gandhiji”. The character of Vidur was often shown shrouded in a shawl and wearing the Gandhi Cap. It happens to be the first Indian film which the censor board had banned. During the British Raj, making such a film was an audacious effort.
2. Achhut Kanya  –
Achhut Kanya is one of the blockbusters of talkies era. The film is one of the audacious films in Bollywood because of the social theme it had touched upon. Conduct of untouchability with Dalit caste was very rampant in India at that time, and sadly it still exists in the underbelly of the country. In that era, this film had chosen to tell an eternal love story of a Brahmin boy falling in love with an “achhut” Dalit girl. It’s a little-known fact that the director of the film, Franz Osten had screened the film at Goebbel’s Ministry of Propaganda in Berlin and it received appreciation from Nazi Leaders, who ironically themselves were supreme racists.
3. Patita  –
Whenever the discussion of films that dealt with pre-marital pregnancy comes into the picture, Patita is always on the top. This film directed by Amiya Chakravarty was way ahead of its time, and had dealt with this controversial aspect of society. It is not only the concept of pre-marital pregnancy that makes this picture an audacious attempt at a cultural theme, but the way the film disparaged the practice of abortion, with roots in love and moral values make this film special. Critics and film-goers liked the film back then. The songs received a lot of appreciation from audiences for their deeply moving lyrics.
4. Kissa Kursi Ka  –
This film by Amrit Nahata had stirred a lot of controversies. Seemingly made in reproach of then contemporary government, Kissa Kursi Ka was a political satire that had spoofed the idea of emergency in 1975. The film had a lot of allusions that sarcastically disparaged emergency and went on to depict that politics is the art of compromise and selling dreams to the public that are not possible in reality. In a way, the film told a story that falls somewhere in between farce and reality. The film was crushed under the juggernaut of censor board and was banned. Allegedly, a print of the film was burnt in 1975 and Nahata had reshot the film again to release it in 1977. The film had failed to make an impact because of the late release.
5. Arth  –
Films about adultery are rampant in Bollywood. It all started with B.R. Chopra’s Gumrah. This Mahesh Bhatt’s semi-autobiographical film was one of the most audacious attempts in exploring the extramarital theme in Indian Cinema. Arth has been chosen not only because of the subtext, but also because of the way the intricacy of infatuation has been blended with elements of adultery and psychology, with the key character of Smita Patil being shown pathologically challenged. The film is pretty blatant in its depiction of adultery and the transformation of the character of Shabana Azmi from dependent women to a self-reliant lady is phenomenal. What makes Arth so honest is the fact that the protagonist accepts his misogyny when he tells that he would not have been able to forgive his spouse if she committed adultery.
6. Zakhmi Aurat  –
Amid mindless masala films of the 1980s’, there some films that emerged out to be real gems. Some of them were the famous art films of the 80s’. One of the mainstream films that made an impact on the conservative society of India was Zakhmi Aurat. Despite songs, dance and action of typical masala films, the film talked about the serious issue of increasing rapes in India.
What was so unique about the movie was the way it strongly opined about the punishment that the court should give to rapists. In the country, wherein rapists often used to (and still) stay absolved of the capital punishment, the film had shown the rape victims castrating the rapists, which was very bold in that era, and that’s what makes Zakhmi Aurat one of the audacious films in Indian Cinema. The film also depicted influences from Hollywood’s “I Spit on Your Grave”.
7. Bandit Queen  –
Bandit Queen was a biographical movie of the much-disputed bandit of 90s’, Phoolan Devi. The film was directed by Shekhar Kapoor. Quoted as vulgar, explicit or indecent, the film faced a ban by the censor board. Its sexual content, nudity, and profanity were considered inappropriate by the audiences. Phoolan Devi took actions against the film on the basis of the fact that she found it inaccurate and exaggerated. She had also threatened to kill herself in front of the theatre if they released the film. Also, the Indian writer and intellectual Arundhati Roy retorted the makers in her review saying that it is a disgrace to make such a film without taking prior permission of the person.
8. Kamasutra – A Tale of Love  –
1997 came with not one but two of the most audacious films in Indian Cinema, one of which is Kamasutra – A Tale of Love. Board banned the film because of its sexual content and nudity. It is something which the censor board obviously could not digest. With the title inspired from an ancient text, this film also has influences from a short story by Urdu author Wajida Tabassum titled ‘Utran’. The film itself became taboo because of its undisguised lusciousness. This film by Mira Nair is now also a critically acclaimed film.
Fire  –
Fire is one of the very few films that have explored homosexuality and precisely in this case lesbianism. Deepa Mehta had directed the film. What was so good about Fire, is the fact that Deepa Mehta had intertwined the lesbianism with the mundaneness of married life and husbands’ misogyny, and that’s what added layers and ambiguity to this tale. The film was lauded even by famous film critic Roger Ebert. Surprisingly, the uncut version of the film was passed by sensor board and the film made good business in big cities for as much as three weeks. However, the film was referred back to censor board after protests by Shiv Sena in Mumbai and Bajarang Dal in Delhi.
Astitva  –
This film directed by Mahesh Manjerekar used the extramarital affair as a theme and went on to depict feministic ideas. The film was about the individuality of a woman. Her globetrotter husband, who is also a male chauvinist, doesn’t allow her to pursue a career. It would hurt his ego. The husband continues to travel the world for his career while his lonely wife seeks love in her music teacher, with whom she has an affair. Latterly, she gives birth to a baby boy who later turns out to be the teacher’s child. The film addresses the purist cultural norms that have made the individuality of women non-existent. Tabu had also won Filmfare Critics Award for the ‘Best Actress in the Lead Role’.
In a rather hidebound society of 20th Century, these films dared to make a difference. These are much celebrated by filmgoers today for their boldness and uninflected portrayal of reality.
Despite facing bans by the censor board and facing controversies and challenges, Indian Cinema is continuing to produce films that raise questions on India societal structure. To read about more such films, head on to the list of most audacious films of the 21st century in Indian Cinema.