In India, halfway around the world from America, more movies are produced than in any place else on earth.
India's films - 619 last year - have a following in Africa, the Soviet Union, East Europe and parts of Asia. But they have been virtually unknown in the United States.
However, the American public should discover Indian films this year. Prestigious showcases will be exposing Americans to distinguished Indian films in the summer and fall.
A panorama of current movies was screened at Delhi's recently concluded 7th International Indian Film Festival, demonstrating the vigor and breadth of a cinema whose only acknowledged world-class filmmaker until now has been Satyajit Ray.
Most Indian films, like their counterparts in the United States, are commercial, formula-ridden, escapist fantasies. But - starting with government-bankrolled low-budget films in the '60s, and abetted by the work of anti-formula graduates of the Poona Film Institute in the '70s - scores of Indian films are now serious, small, handmade, custom-tailored labors of love. They focus attention on the staggering social, economic and philosophical problems that beset the planet's most populous constitutional democracy. They speak a language that can be understood by men and women of good will in any nation, and deserve to find their rightful audience in the West.
Among the Indian films made in the last several years are at least a dozen which, if not indisputable international masterpieces, command respect for a collective excellence that compares favorably with the best work being done anywhere - including in the vaunted West German, Cuban or African cinema.
The Museum of Modern Art scheduled a showing of "Ghattashradda" ("A Ritual") early this summer, as part of its New Directors/New Films series. The film deals with a taboo against widows remarrying. WNET-TV also scheduled the film as well as "27 Down," a grim, potent neorealistic movie about a young man torn between tradition and modern life; "Sara Akahs," a fascinating if flawed film about arranged marriages; "Atithi," about the picaresque adventures of a runaway boy who joins a circus; "Sonar Kella" ("Golden Fortress"), a comic children's chase film directed by Satyajit Ray; and "Kaadu," an atmospheric film about the violent feud between two villages. They will be aired this year in a weekly series of Indian films.
Indian filmmaking's leading proponent in America is Muriel Peters, director of film and broadcasting for the Asia Society in New York. It is through her auspices that the public television showcase is being arranged. And she is organizing a full-scale festival of Indian films at a suitable theater in Ma nhattan.
There is no homogeneity in the new films. They range from old-fashioned films, classical in form and humanistic in outlook, to iconoclastic, agitated, gloomy neorealistic movies. They are not as stridently or directly critical of government ineptitude or corruption, rural superstition and the status of women as the filmmakers would like them to be. The government, state and central, reflects the basic puritanism of the average Indian and exercises absolute censorship over what can be said or shown in the movies. All films are rated U, for general audiences, or A, for adults over 18; many are banned if they don't make required cuts. Indira Gandhi's government seized and burned all the prints of a political satire, "Kissa Kursi Ka." (A remake of the story was financed by the government of Maraji Desai, but flopped at the box office last year.)
A movie like "Ghattashradda" is more than a social problem drama. Its theme is that despite new reform laws, custom in rural areas prohibits the remarriage of a widow. The widowed heroine, 16, becomes pregnant by a lover in a neighboring village, and must be purged and declared dead, an outcaste, by her village Brahmins. The film is at once touching, funny and sad. It manages to express the ineffable through patient observation of its characters. For example, the tragedy is shown through the eyes of a lovable little boy who, dominated himself by older children, only dimly understands what is happening.
The reason for the vast range and unequaled output of films in India is that the country is actually a nation divided into sects, castes and cultures. There are 15 separate languages in India's 18 states. Regional "nationalism" is rabid. Each state tries to nurture its own film production, thereby creating a large creative pool of filmmaking talent. While Hindi-language films, mainly from Bombay, have the biggest market, each region produces - often with state subsidies in places like Karnataka and Kerala - alternative films to the mindless potboilers.
Among the 16 regional productions shown at the festival, there was a heady mix of films and themes, ranging from urban angst and pessimism in "The Strange Fate of Arvind Desai" to poignant lyricism in the depiction of itinerant performers and their rural audiences in "The Circus Tent" ("Thamp").
Hindi films make the big profits in India. Huge billboards line the main roads in the principal cities. They display hugging, and some cleavage, but are controlled by a censorship code - celebrate family life, crime doesn't pay, etc. - just as Hollywood films were in the 1930s. Even kissing on screen in India was forbidden until last year.
The superstar actor is, typically, paid 100,000 rupees ($12,500) per picture for tax purposes and 1.5 million rupees ($187,500) "black" or undeclared salary.The commercial hits, attacked as hybrid fantasies by the intelligenstia, steal from western films, throwing together such genres as cops and robbers, cabaret scenes with scantily clad women, and song and dance, in three-hour masala (or curry) stews.
A bankable actor arranges his or her schedule to act in several movies at once. He will work a couple of hours a day on each picture, running from one set to another at a movie studio, for a week.
Movie stars are the royalty and even the gods of moviegoers, who number 70 million per week, and whose main relief from poverty is fantasy.(TV is a negligible factor today in India.) One Madras actress, who had played a goddess in a mythological film in her middle age, was still followed around as an older retired woman, by naive peasants who believed her to be the divinity she portrayed. They would stoop to kiss her footsteps in homage as she passed.
In South India, movie stars have parlayed fan clubs into political machines. The chief minister of the state of Tamil-Nadu, M. G. Ramachandran, in his mid-50s, is a veteran matinee idol. Though he hasn't acted lately, he starred in "I'll Nver Leave You" around the time of his election in 1977, and he says he will act again soon. His chief political rival is a noted commercial screenwriter.
The politics of South India are largely those of resisting the "imperialism" of the Hindi-speaking north and the encroachment of the north's Aryan culture on the south's ancient Dravidian culture.
A theater owner in Madras described how, before he switched from Indian to American spectacles like "Star Wars" in his cavernous theater, he would have to mediate between the fanatical supporters of Ramachandran.