Culture and Life
by Rob Gowland
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.