Although India is the largest producer of films in the world, quality films represent a minuscule minority of the films produced.
I THINK the most important thing that has happened to Indian cinema since Independence is the emergence of regional films. I do not mean that there was no regional cinema before Independence. But a new regional cinema emerged, starting with the films of Ritwik Ghatak, Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen in West Bengal. The trio inspired a new trend in film-making in various parts of the country - in Karnataka, Kerala, Assam, Maharashtra, Orissa and even Manipur. Even in Bombay, the prime seat of commercial Indian cinema, there emerged a kind of cinema that was different from the popular variety, one which had great regional character.
This phenomenon was very important because it gave rise to a cinema characterised by significant themes and innovative treatment - essentially a cinema that sought truth, did not obey convention, and did not become subservient to popular notions of what was good and palatable.
This phenomenon did not come about all of a sudden. There were many causative factors. The most important of them was the post-World War situation in world cinema, specifically Italian cinema, with the emergence of neo-realism started by people like (Cesare) Zavattini and (Vittorio) De Sica.
Around the same time India also had a kind of popular cinema with social themes - again, particularly in Hindi - made by film-makers like Bimal Roy, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor. Although these film-makers were not very uncompromising in their stand and tried to strike a balance between the commercial formula and social themes, their attempts were significant.
Another factor that encouraged truly good Indian cinema was the establishment of several institutions such as the National Film Awards, the Film Finance Corporations, the National Film Archives of India and the Film and Television Institute of India. One of the greatest impetus-giving events was the first International Film Festival of India, held in the mid-1950s; it is now a regular feature. From the 1960s onwards, the country has had a strong film society movement in several States.
In the 1960s and 1970s, a large number of 'different' films were made in India. Even in Tamil, where there had been very little experimentation, people like Jayakantan and K. Balachander tried to make films that were not of the run-of-the-mill kind.
From the 1960s onwards, India became the largest producer of films in the world, replacing Hong Kong. Sadly, however, quality films represented a minuscule minority of the large number of films produced. Thus, over the years, cinema with a purpose - cinema that was uncompromising in its attitude - came to be looked upon as "art cinema", which meant, unfortunately, that it was not meant for the public.
Indian cinema, therefore, came to mean, by and large, commercial cinema, which was generally accepted as "mainstream cinema". And good cinema - which always struggled for finance and met with difficulties relating to its production and distribution and in getting people to see it - became "parallel" cinema.
Thus, the all-pervasive Bollywood variety of film, designed and executed for popular consumption and always trying to cater to an untrained kind of taste or logic, came to represent Indian cinema. This was a very unfortunate development, because in any part of the world - France, Italy, Greece or elsewhere - cinema meant the best cinema of that country, not the bad films. In a way Indian cinema is sadly unique in that respect.
The case of a State like Kerala is somewhat different. Though commercial cinema was always popular, most of the offbeat films made, right from the 1960s, were also released through regular cinema houses, there was always an audience for such films.
Significantly, Kerala has been a place with high literacy and where film societies have been active. In almost every town, people have been exposed to a better kind of cinema from all over the world, and they did not mind the new approaches being made in cinema in their own language.
There was also the influence of the modern literary movement in Malayalam. In the 1960s, for example, many outstanding works of Malayalam literature were made into films. They might not have been great works of cinema, but because of their literary content many of them were miles ahead of the run-of-the-mill cinema produced in many other languages.
A scene from Satyajit Ray's 1955 classic Pather Panchali.
Calcutta was the seat of the film society movement in those days and one should not fail to see the link this had with the kind of quality cinema that was produced in West Bengal. In Karnataka too, a strong film society movement had spurred much interest in making good films. It started with Samskara and film-makers like Girish Kasaravally. But sadly, such movements are dying out, and but for Kasaravally's films, the stranglehold of commercial cinema has had quite a negative influence in Karnataka, as in many other States.
This somehow did not happen in Kerala because people who tried to make offbeat films operated mostly on shoe-string budgets. Unlike in other States, popular Malayalam artistes were eager to be associated with such films. And there was always an audience, however small, for them. Malayalam artistes who had established themselves in popular cinema did not mind risking their reputation in serious films that held little promise of becoming popular. This was because they knew that such films had a lot of esteem attached to them in the State.
In the last ten years or so a new phenomenon has emerged that has affected Indian cinema badly: television. In its effort to earn revenue, even public television has turned commercial. Increasingly, soap manufacturers began to decide what cinema should be shown and what should be blacked out. So people were forced to see a kind of cinema made available in their own living-rooms and for which they did not have to go to a theatre to spend money on.
This means of making surreptitious inroads into the privacy of the people has had its impact. A public institution like Doordarshan could have been used positively to make people aware of the social situation and to give them decent, healthy entertainment. But it was made to fail miserably. Doordarshan is now competing with private channels to show stupid films, the worst kind that can be, to Indian audiences. The result is a kind of standardisation in the taste of the audience.
At a time when film societies are on the decline even in a State like Kerala, television has a major role to play. Whether good or bad, people are being offered more than one film a day. It is a serious problem and has had its impact also on commercial cinema. The majority, especially among the middle class, prefer to stay back home and watch the movie on TV. It is young people who patronise cinema halls now. Thus the popular films that are now being produced reflect the taste and response of this young audience - they are fast-moving and make no demand on a person's intelligence.
The world of cinema is like that of literature. It is the mediocre that becomes popular. But such popularity is also transient. A film becomes popular, then it is forgotten. By contrast, worthwhile literary - or cinematic - work remains for ever and has its impact on generations to come. In this regard, however, cinema has a problem. To sustain itself it has to become popular at the time it is made; popularity has to come as soon as the film is released. It cannot wait for an audience that will emerge in the next generation. This is what makes it special. Cinema halls, after all, cannot wait for an audience to come next week.
That is why the serious film-maker in India never had, or will have, an easy task.
As told to R. Krishnakumar in Thiruvananthapuram.