The Guardian

The Guardian April 17, 2002


Culture and Life

by Rob Gowland

Indian cinema

The Indian film Lagaan won the awards for Best Film and Best 
Direction at the Indian International Film Awards last week. Filled with 
the song sequences that typify commercial Indian cinema, it had previously 
failed to win the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film.

India makes more films than any other country. Last year it "churned out" -
- to use Reuters apt wording  an incredible 1013 feature films, far in 
excess of Hollywood.

But this huge industry also exemplifies an art form traduced and all but 
abandoned in the interests of crass commercialism. It is not for nothing 
that the film studios of Bombay and other Indian production centres are 
collectively and derisively known as "Bollywood".

This capitalist industry grinds out bourgeois escapist drivel so 
deliberately aimed at a lowest-common-denominator audience that it makes 
the bourgeois escapist drivel produced by Hollywood look like neo-realism 
by comparison.

With a huge market and low levels of literacy, the Indian "film industry" 
concentrates on absurd action films, over-the-top melodramas, grossly 
overacted soap operas, loud and witless comedies. Whatever the genre, these 
films are really only an excuse to present a series of song sequences.

Whether it's a comedy or a drama, adventure or love story, every few 
minutes the action will stop, the cast range themselves across the screen 
and everyone break into a song sequence.

India has a long heritage of varied and sophisticated song and dance. But 
the modern Indian cinema (and television) rarely shows authentic Indian 
dance.

Instead, overweight matinee idols accompanied by nubile young ladies do 
interminable impressions of the type of American-inspired teeny-bopper 
show-dancing seen on Johnny Young's Young Talent Time.

As the perceptive Oxford Companion To Film notes, "Traditionally, 
Indian drama has always incorporated dance and music, and the origin of the 
popular Indian film can be linked with the now virtually extinct folk-music 
dramas of the 19th century.

"The commercial necessity of building a film round a collection of songs 
has clearly been instrumental in preventing the development of the popular 
cinema beyond its present frivolous state.

"Neither creating a coherent imaginative world of its own nor reflecting 
the social reality of India, the popular Indian film creates a limbo of 
song and dance, of sentiment and melodrama, which is comfortably flattering 
to the wealthy among the audience, seductively escapist for the poor."

But, as well as this escapist "popular" Indian cinema, there is another 
Indian cinema, which does deal with the reality of India. This Indian 
cinema dates back at least to the realistic dramas of the Bombay Talkies 
Studio in the 1930s, whose films tackled such taboo topics as the caste 
system.

Indeed, India is as capable as any other country of producing splendid 
filmmakers. In the second half of the 20th century, Indian filmmakers such 
as Shyam Benegal, Bimal Roy, Mrinal Sen and of course Satyajit Ray, had 
their work recognised and awarded prizes at Cannes and Venice, Berlin and 
San Francisco.

Ray was an undisputed master, whose work ranks with other cinema greats 
like Griffith, Kurosawa, Eisenstein, Renoir or Sjostrom. But for the 
mainstream commercial Indian cinema, it's as though he never existed.

Sadly out of fashion today, Ray's films were firmly rooted in the history 
and culture of India, whether set among ordinary people or an educated and 
well to do elite.

In a previous life, I helped to distribute Ray's films in Australia, 
through Quality Films. Eddie Allison, the senior partner in Quality Films, 
had met Ray in Calcutta, and over the years built up an unparalleled 
collection of Ray's films.

It gave us great pride to watch the audiences for these superb films grow, 
as people began to appreciate the measured pace, the beautiful black and 
white photography, the splendid use of music (also by Ray), the brilliant, 
deeply felt acting by Ray's regular ensemble cast, and his concern with 
significant issues and themes.

Hoping to raise the standard of Indian cinema  and probably to win more 
international awards  the Congress-led government in the early 1970s 
instituted a system of state support for what it called "Alternative Indian 
Cinema". These were films in the "Western" style typified by Satyajit Ray 
and Bimal Roy.

Unfortunately, a bourgeois-landlord government like Congress might 
encourage alternative filmmakers, but there was no way it was going to 
inhibit the activities of the mainstream capitalist film industry.

The "alternative" filmmakers had to compete with the stars and advertising 
 and the escapism  of the established industry. Given a choice between 
the little-hyped realist drama and the highly promoted escapist effort 
filled with song sequences, the public chose the easy option.

It was rather like the ABC, on a budget of zilch, trying to compete with 
heavily promoted voyeuristic rubbish like Big Brother. A very one-sided 
contest.

The Indian Government's initiative produced a range of good films from 
various parts of India in a variety of languages, but they were looked on 
as "the kind of films the government think we should see" and their 
audience was limited to the better educated.

The Indian film industry's renaissance will come when the people take 
government and the film industry reflects their aspirations. Then the 
desire for escapism will be replaced by the desire to see their new reality 
portrayed on the screen.

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