India's film dandies delight the masses and relieve hard lives

For the 12 million Indians who go to the movies each day, it is mostly a world of song and dance and fantasy: handsome heroes and beautiful heroines larger than life . . . and revenge with a swashbuckling, ''angry young man'' cult figure, Amitabh Bachchan, always triumphant, most usually outside the law.

The moviegoers' daily world is one of poverty and squalor, a world with a 60 percent illiteracy rate. They do not want to see rural poverty depicted, a mirror of their lives, during their precious moments of relaxation. They simply want to escape.

Yet, slowly but perceptibly, this is beginning to change.

The change is not a revolution. Things move slowly in a culture whose epic poetry, dance, and music stretch three millenniums. And it is this very cultural heritage that has provided the touchstone of the Hindi cinema in the largest producer of films in the world.

Film is one of the few universal media - it is certainly the most powerful one - in this disparate land, whose 10,813 cinemas are supplemented by mobile theaters and tents. This is not a large number by Western standards. In India there is one cinema house for 63,000 people, as compared to the European average of one for every 1,800 people in 1981. But here the cinemas are packed.

More than 700 films are made each year in this country - that's two films a day - most coming from the garish world of the Hindi-language industry, centered in Bombay.

This is a movie-mad culture, where Indians idolize their film stars. They live the lives of their heroes and heroines, to escape the tedium and dashed dreams of their own.

One can move from a poor southern village, whose harsh reality is never seen in Hindi films, to northern, Muslim Kashmir, whose communal pressures are likewise never depicted in film. Yet, if lost for conversation, one can always discuss Bachchan's newest contract or a starlet's newest home. A simple, unskilled peasant regales you with details about such things.

When Bachchan was hospitalized last summer, because of an accident during filming that nearly cost him his life, hundreds of thousands of Indians went to Hindu temples, Sikh shrines, and Muslim mosques to pray for his recovery. The prime minister, Indira Gandhi, rushed to his bedside.

Actors are even called heroes in popular magazines, a decided advantage for N. T. Rama Rao and M. G. Ramachandran, both of whom have been catapulted from ''hero'' to chief minister in southern states now controlled by Mrs. Gandhi's political opposition.

''One would think,'' said the respected film critic Chidananda Das Gupta, ''that a study would have been done on how a preliterate society like India is affected by watching so many films. Particularly now,'' he said with some derision, ''since there are two cases in which the cinema has taken over the state.''

When Rama Rao campaigned for public office in January, his regional party was only seven months old. He had no organization, except his formidable fan clubs. Teen-age boys and girls and elderly women fanned out through the countryside. Though they were dressed in clogs and saris, bundled in blankets against the winter cold, they were universal - ''little old ladies in tennis shoes.''

NTR, as he's affectionately called, had so often played the gods Rama and Krishna that he had come to be seen as a god. Likewise the swashbuckling Tamil leader, Ramachandran, who would put Clint Eastwood to shame, was synonymous with triumphing over adversity, whatever the odds.

Thus, the Bombay ''dream factory'' continues with its formula, tried and true. There are at least three song-and-dance numbers in every Hindi film. There is a chase scene, often lasting 30 minutes, a rain scene, and plenty of fights. Obstacles to happiness are most usually due to accident or villainy, almost never equated with problems demanding social change.

I was first struck by how often it rained in Hindi films, thinking it symbolic of this often parched, drought-prone land. An Indian friend made me feel less than sophisticated when she patiently explained that kissing is still banned by the film censor, and since every film is believed to need its measure of romance, rain provides the answer. Clinging, water-soaked saris and dhotis leave little to the imagination on what comes next.

Films in India are decidedly an event.

According to Mr. Das Gupta, however, and a growing number of sociologists, the flair and the fantasy are not pure escape. They mask a deeper message, which is impeding social development and change.

By reinforcing all of the more unrealistic, and negative, forces of a traditional society, the Hindi-language cinema, so its critics charge, reinforces all of the existing prejudices as well. This confirms that traditional stereotypes which exist in the nation, where one is constantly assaulted by tradition battling modernity.

For, although film settings are always opulent, and heroes and heroines always upper- or upper-middle-class, men continue to dominate women; loyalty is to caste and family, almost never to the state; the mother-in-law is omnipotent; and anything that questions religion is simply never seen.

Labor disputes are not solved by legislation or by a workers' strike, but by a change of heart by the management, always portrayed as a kindly father figure, in a highly patriarchal society. If a woman falls in love with an inappropriate man, it is resolved by her death in an accident. Bands of family-linked heroes violently resolve their own disputes. Revenge is a powerful motive. There is little respect for state authority, even less for the law.

In case after case before tiny courts in rural areas, police officers cite duplication of a crime depicted in a film. They charge that a primary catalyst is an impossible quest for consumer goods, laying responsibility squarely at the cinema door.

Yet the film world is slowly changing, as ''middle cinema'' launches a valiant attempt to bridge the worlds of Calcutta's largely Bengali-language art films, celebrated abroad, and Bombay's highly escapist, purely commercial films.

By producing a handful of yearly productions, in the Hindi language, meant for a mass audience, the new school of directors has combined social themes with enough light entertainment not to offend the sensibilities of an audience demanding fantasy.

In ''Arth,'' Mahesh Bhatt's autobiographical account of adultery - the first time in its 87-year history that the Hindi cinema has depicted adultery so openly and starkly - actress Shabana Azmi asks her estranged husband, ''If I had done the same thing, would you accept me back?''

He pauses momentarily, looking patently confused. Then, in a whisper, provides the film's moral message. One word - ''no.''

''So, there you have it,'' says the newly confident Miss Azmi, and she slowly walks away.

It is not a startling development for Western film devotees. But in India, it is revolutionary. A traditional wife just doesn't leave her husband, no matter the abuse.

And, to the incredulous delight of even the film's producer, it is doing terribly well. And not just in Calcutta, New Delhi, and Bombay, but also in the many towns and villages that are the backbone of this kaleidoscopic land. Now in its 22st week of viewing, it could be one of the most popular films of the year.

Perhaps true, perhaps fanciful, a story is being told of an elderly couple in the Punjabi town of Patiala, lower class by all appearances, as they watched a film.

When Miss Azmi walks away, the woman is said to have begun cheering. Her husband is said to have begun beating her in the darkened hall. What was different was that the largely male audience subdued him.

Social realism or fantasy? We may never know.

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