In Search of Filmwallahs CD set and MP3
popular Indian cinema churns out more than four times as many films as Hollywood
every year. And on any single day in that year more than eleven million
Indians will be lining up to pay their fifty cents to go and watch a 'Hollywood'
These popular films have often been dismissed as nothing more than an Indian version of postwar Hollywood. Highly ritualized melodramas, obligatory song and dance routines between scenes, a heft dose of comedy to defuse tensions, over-stylized emotions. The whole thing seems at first glance a caricature of something else.
But what appears ridiculous to us also has a clear link backwards to Indian classical and folk dramas. These are familiar forms, easy to grasp for villagers who suddenly find themselves uprooted from the country side and forced to look for work in the big city.
But do they tell us anything about contemporary India beyond a widespread need for escapism. The serious or alternative cinema, certainly tries to do just that: films about caste injustice, discrimination against women,the disruptions caused by modernization on traditional ways of life, political corruption, the traumatic nightmare of Partition of the country in two in 1947, for a long taboo.
But the serious cinema has been by and large a failure both in financial terms and in attracting an audience within India. Some movie-makers will tell you, not so jokingly, that the best Indian movies are commissioned and shown, not in India but in foreign film festivals and on Britain's Channel Four.
So where does that leave the mainstream Hollywood movie? Movie-going itself is under threat from the VCR. More ominously, the move-making industry is rotten through and through. It's kept alive with huge injections of drug and other 'Black Money' that is laundered through movies. Costs are way out of line. There are far too many movies actually made and never ever shown, because they're all loss-makers. And television is spreading fast into every nook and cranny of this vast land.
The warning signs are there for all to read. And yet, and yet...there are also some plausible reasons why this rickety industrial giant may keep lumbering along. First, it still satisfies a widespread craving; its messages may seem all wrong to ivory-tower critics, but they make sense to those millions of filmgoers. And if businessmen and others are prepared to throw money down a drain there must be a pretty good reason why they keep doing so.
In short, movie-making may be about selling dreams. But if you take a second look it's also about something a lot more immediate and real, about an India that we may not instinctively like, but one which is reality to the great majority of Indians themselves.