A film is not just a film in prolific `Bollywood'

Despite the Bombay industry's penchant for silliness, Indians say their movies have a heart no Spielberg can match

THE Indian film industry, the largest in the world, is in crisis. Greedy stars have pushed budgets to ruinous heights. Videocassette pirates are draining away revenues. Less than a third of the films make a profit.

So why are hundreds of films made there every year?

``Films are not just films in India,'' says Shobha De, a Bombay celebrity writer. ``They're the country's dreams.'' And when one industry encapsulates the dreams of so many individuals - investors who want a profit, stars desperate for a hit, not to mention 897 million average Indians hungry for a few hours of glamour, action, and a minimum of six clamorous song-and-dance routines - a problem with cash flow will never be life-threatening.

``In 1921,'' says producer Amit Khanna, ``the Indian government set up a committee to go into the problems of the film industry. They concluded that if the problems weren't addressed, the industry was doomed. We've remained in that critical state since 1921. Somehow we survive.''

And now comes competition. ``Jurassic Park,'' dubbed into Hindi, was the first big foreign hit after India reversed a 20-year ban on the widespread distribution of foreign films. Indian producers and directors were stunned: They thought they alone had the key to the hearts and purse strings of the moviegoing public.

``How can you explain that `Jurassic Park' was a success?'' asks Taran Adarsh, editor of Trade Guide, the film-industry journal of Bombay. ``There was no Amitabh Bachchan.'' (Mr. Bachchan, a cross between Clint Eastwood and Cary Grant, is the reigning monarch of Indian cinema.) ``There was no sex. There was no action.'' No action in Jurassic Park? ``Well, there was no hero punching 10 guys in the air. When I was a kid, I remember watching Amitabh Bachchan bashing up 10 guys simultaneously. I'm watching the same thing today.''

It didn't have a single dance sequence either. Get with it Steven Spielberg.

By producing 807 films in 1987, India's film industry made the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest of all time. (Hollywood, at No. 2, produces about 200 a year.) The biggest segment of the industry is films made in the southern Indian languages of Tamil and Telugu. But Bombay produces the movies with the big budgets, the big stars, the not-so-big innovations that are copied in other films. They are the films that are distributed nationally and get a whole country weeping and wiggling their hips. They're made in Hindi, and they are the prime factor in creating a national language for heterogeneous India. These films have made Bombay ``Bollywood,'' a nickname that was once a joke but no longer - not in an industry that employs 500,000 people full time.

(India also has serious filmmakers like the late Satyajit Ray, but their films are more appreciated at foreign-film festivals than at home.)

It's a big business - budgets go up to $2 million and star salaries to $200,000 - and even more chancy than other film industries.

Some 300 Hindi films get started in Bombay each year, with solemn religious rites and ads in the trade press. Half never get completed or released because the producer runs out of funds or the film is so bad. Last year, 133 Hindi films made it to the theaters (down slightly from the 1990 peak of 165), but only 30 percent made a profit.

Nonetheless, money continues to pour into the industry from glamour-struck diamond merchants, gangsters, gentlemen farmers, and other outside investors. There's virtually no bank financing.

The films are so unusual they seem to set Indians apart from the rest of humanity. (Although they are also popular in the Middle East and, in more restricted times, in the former Soviet Union.) Many elements are the same in all films: the song types, the dances, relations between the sexes. The plots are familiar to audiences before the first reel begins, even when central ideas are lifted from Hollywood films such as ``Ghost'' or ``Cat People.''

``The characters,'' writes psychoanalyst Sudhir Kakar, ``are always typical, never unique, and without the unnerving complexity of real people.'' They're the pious mother, the wronged son, the hard-drinking bad guy. The themes are straight out of fairy tales: vengeance and the reuniting of lovers or families.

In these ways, Indian cinema is more akin to folk theater than to Western cinema. Mr. Kakar points out a kind of daydream quality to Indian films: bright colors, bucolic exteriors, and rich, glamorous interiors.

``In real life,'' journalist Malvika Singh says, ``people suffer such huge indignities. For relaxation they want to go into the cinema hall, sit under those fans and have their fantasies, their aspirations: that when they get the money they are going to buy a formica box bed, just like the people on the screen.''

The films have come a long way from ``The Growth of a Plant,'' which thrilled audiences in 1912 with the sight of a pea germinating. They've even come a long way from the 1950s and '60s, when Bombay's chaotic production system (see accompanying story, left) allowed the making of single movies to stretch over several years. Continuity suffered: Actors would enter a door slim and clean-shaven and come out the other side paunchy and mustachioed. Actresses aged from scene to scene.

But aside from technical improvements and a faster pace, Indian films haven't changed that much. All villains have mustaches and the mother is a woman with a steel-gray bun. The costumes seem permanently stuck in the 1970s. Songs and dances still make or break a film and, when a producer has a big budget to flaunt, he throws in a dance sequence in which the cast's costumes change with each chorus.

Producers insist that with a largely illiterate audience, only a formulaic cinema is possible. But defenders of Indian films make a greater claim: Despite the sillinesses and the predictability, Indian films have an Indian heart that no Spielberg will ever be able to imitate.

``Emotion, romance, the songs that link them, the mother sentiments,'' Mr. Adarsh says. ``People believe in this in the industry.''

And increasingly, a little more heart is showing up on the screen. Indian films have been censored since colonial days and a heavy government hand has kept heroes and heroines chasing each other around trees - rarely catching up - for decades. In 1978, an on-screen kiss was allowed after several decades of prohibition.

Ever since, the industry has been at war with the censors. Last year, they passed a song lyric that went instantly into the annals of popular culture. Buxom starlet Madhuri Dixit sang: ``What's behind the blouse? It is my heart.''

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