Indian cinema has, for the most part, been notable for its absence from American screens. The exception is the humanistic and acclaimed work of Bengali filmmaker Satyajit Ray, which has dominated international awareness of Indian movies for more than 25 years. His singular talents, however, have tended to mask both his relative isolation in India and the richness and diversity of India's other movie-making.

In a surge of concentrated exposure following years of neglect, the variety of Indian movies will be showcased in Washington over the coming weeks. The AFI has already begun screening its "Film India: Contemporary Cinema" (through June 1), which includes 20 of the original 22 films assembled by New York's Museum of Modern Art for the last segment of its ambitious three-part Film India program.

One film not included in the AFI's selections was the series' sole Marathi-language entry. An independently organized festival of Marathi cinema (at the Biograph for matinee shows this weekend and next) has stepped in to compensate for this omission and to complement the AFI's program, offering a seven-film retrospective with works from 1944 to 1982.

In late June, the Smithsonian will distill the first part of the Museum of Modern Art's Film India series--its tribute to Satyajit Ray--into five feature films and two shorts. The features are among Ray's finest.

The AFI and Marathi series have drawn largely from India's new wave and the work of a generation of young and committed directors. In defiance of the hybrid formula films of Hindi commercial cinema, this new cinema insists on its roots--on detailed authenticity and cultural identity. Movies are made in 16 languages and represent 22 states (although all are subtitled in English in the current series). No blind defenders of tradition, these filmmakers readily challenge oppression and injustice, even when it lurks in age-old customs and rituals. Thus Ketan Mehta refashions a traditional folk form to protest the treatment of untouchables in "A Folk Tale" (1980), and Aravindan offers a striking retelling, with a tribal cast, of the Hindu epic The Ramayana in "Golden Sita" (1977). Other important movies deal with the desperate but tenacious lives of slum-dwellers ("The Vicious Circle") and the silent, smoldering anger of exploited tribal peoples ("Cry of the Wounded"), both made in 1980.

Marathi cinema, with a history as long as the history of talkies in India, is a good example of revitalized regional cinema. Prabhat Studios, along with a couple of others, was noted in the '30s and '40s for its earthy, naturalistic productions and its progressive social concerns. "Ramshastri" (1944), the Prabhat film in the Marathi festival here, follows that tradition--using its historical setting to formulate more immediate questions of nationalism and loyalty to the crown (this in an era when the British were heavily censoring Indian films and such messages had to be passed on to audiences surreptitiously).

Two other films in the Marathi series predate the new cinema movement. These are "Lakhachi Goshta" (1951), which is one of a fondly remembered spate of social comedies, and "Sangtye Aika" (1955), which features tamasha--a lively and sometimes erotic mix of song, dance and comedy--and Hansa Wadkar, an actress whose turbulent life was the subject of Shyam Benegal's "The Role."

In their representative selections, both series highlight films from an impressive variety of directors. "Scorching Wind" (1975), made by M.S. Sathyu, is India's first--and, to date, only--movie to approach the deep and still painful memory of Partition. Set in Agra, in the distrust and uncertainty that marked the aftermath of Partition, it is about the dissolution of one Muslim family and the resolve of its male head--in the face of mounting personal tragedies--to remain in his ancestral home.

Director Mrinal Sen has an iconoclastic, underdog kind of talent. Two of his most satisfying films--the disarmingly appealing "Mr. Shome" (1969) and his much more complex "In Search of Famine" (1980)--appear in the AFI series. "In Search of Famine" is a film within a film, and it is about the relationship of filmmaking to the real world. Sen has often been at variance with his fellow Bengali, Satyajit Ray. Sen uses "In Search of Famine," about the same 1943 Bengal famine as Ray's "Distant Thunder," to criticize Ray's genteel and peripheral handling of the massive tragedy. "In Search of Famine" has something to say about the moral responsibilities of filmmakers.

Shyam Benegal is one of the best known figures in recent Indian filmmaking and his "The Churning" (1976) is surely one of its most unusual efforts. Financed by milk cooperatives in Gujarat, the film explores the complexities and tensions implicit in social change.

Other highlights:

* Two films by actor/director Girish Karnad: "The Forest" (1973) and "Once Upon a Time" (1978). The first assumes the perspective of its young central character, a city boy left with village relatives. He sees the village plunge into increasingly violent rivalry with a neighboring village. Karnad brilliantly orchestrates the rising tension to its final, deadly, eruption. Set in the 13th century, "Once Upon a Time" is India's version of a samurai film and an unabashed homage to Kurosawa. Karnad uses traditional Indian martial arts--particularly the dazzling swordbelt fights--to great effect.

* "Umbaratha" (1982), directed by Marathi filmmaker Jabbar Patel, is the newest film in either series. It features a strong performance by Smita Patil as a woman searching for a role outside the confines of her home. An earlier Patel film, "Sinhasan" (1980), deals with the abuse of power and political intrigue.

* "Akriet" (1981), directed by Amol Palekar, closes the Marathi series. Based on a recent incident that shook Maharashtrian society, "Akriet" examines the events that surrounded a sensational series of ritual murders. Carefully avoiding a lurid treatment of the material, Palekar's film was nonetheless a subject of controversy when its sole subtitled print was withheld by the government and then released after a storm of protest. "Akriet" will be shown on Sunday, May 2, followed by a panel discussion with directors Palekar, Patel and others.