India's film industry: production soars, but it's mostly for export

An Indian movie that could put India on the international film map may never be seen by many of the Indian people.

The movie is "Gandhi," depicting the life of Mahatma Gandhi, India's independence leader. It's a $22 million production premiering in November. The film, coproduced with a British company and years in the making, "will be as successful as 'Lawrence of Arabia,'" says Malati Tambay Vaidya, director of India's national Film Development Corporation.

The English-language film may become a hit in the West, but it will have a tough time reaching India's 700 million people, 75 percent of whom live in rural areas.

Ironically, the nation that annually produces more films than any other country has an acute shortage of theater seats.

It also has 15 official languages with dozens of variations, which makes the costs of dubbing "Gandhi" into each language almost prohibitive for a poor country.

Lack of cinemas has become a celluloid bottleneck for the world's busiest film industry. Last year, India produced 737 commercial films, almost double the 396 films made a decade ago. But its cinemas have increased by only 25 percent, from 8,734 to just over 11,000.

Of these, about 4,000 are traveling cinemas, a peculiar feature of India. They involve pitching up a temporary structure so villagers can see the latest movies.

India now has roughly 7 cinema seats for every 1,000 people, very low by world standards. And they are hardly distributed evenly. The cities of new Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, Madras, and Bangalore have more than their fair share.

In response to the shortage, a number of state governments have tried to support construction of new theaters, and the national Film Development Corporation, a federal body, is financing 45 new cinemas. But with an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 more of them needed, silver screens are being added at a pace that lags far behind movie production.

Such a paucity of seats makes for long lines, with some movies booked up weeks in advance, and admission prices beyond the reach of the poor.

A competition for land in India may be the obvious reason for slow development of movie houses, but the real villain could be the "black money" that supports the country's estimated $8 billion film industry.

"Shortage of money has never been a problem for the industry," writes Prof. M.A. Oommen, of the University of Calicut and author of "Economics of the Film Industry in India."

"This is the secret behind the growth of the film industry," he continues. "It could attract capital precisly because the consuming public have been ready to patronize motion pictures, a badly needed entertainment."

The capital rarely comes from traditional capitalists, but from tax-avoiding black marketeers, who take big gambles on box-office hits, forcing many producers, directors, film stars, and others to operate with cash under the table.

"The money is in backing productions, not building theaters," says M.V. Krishnaswamy, director of India's film festival. "Everybody knows about it, but nobody knows what to do about it."

The dearth of cinemas also locks many producers into sure-fire successes, which means relying on the old formulas for Indian films: one star, six songs, and three dances. The "new wave," or "parallel cinema" -- with directors like M.S. Sathyu, Ktean Mehta, and Shyam Benegal -- must try extra hard to make its social-consciousness themes go over with the public.

Not all directors and producers operate in the black economy. In fact, some have become financiers themselves, such as Raj Kapoor, G.P. Sippy, and the internationally known Satyajit Ray.

Low-budget films cost about $150,000, while the new big-budget, multistar variety can require $3 million-plus.

The Film Development Corporation now finances about a dozen small-budget movies a year, ones that are considered "art films with social relevance," says Mrs. Vaidya. Only a few become profitable.

"We are able to help the newcomers, so that there is no question of black money." she adds.

The corporation also recently bought a sophisticated subtitling machine from a French company and will use it to help boost exports of Indian films. With $2 .5 million in exports last year, the industry is gaining recognition worldwide for improving quality.

But within India, with only 36 percent literacy, subtitling is not widely used.

"Dubbing will be necessary for good development of films," Mrs. Vaidya says. But the average cost per film for dubbing, she adds, is $200,000 or more. "Indian films will be more competitive when we start dubbing more. We should have done it in the past."

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