Sat, 27 Mar 1999

India's dream factory entices local movie fans

By Mehru Jaffer

JAKARTA (JP): As if television was not enough, they are now all over the big screen as well, running around trees, chasing each other, singing and waltzing through mountains, valleys and parks often located in Europe. Boy still meets girl and both are drawn into a war between good and bad. After a few more pouts and gyrations, dramatic drumming and attempts at comedy, virtue finally triumphs as The End flashes across the screen, only to begin the cynical entertainment all over again.

This is the stuff that India's dream factory has been producing for over a century, churning out some 2,000 films a year that play in more than 6,000 cinemas to generate an annual turnover exceeding US$2 billion. Indians, of course, are addicted to this monstrous madness. But also afflicted are millions of movie fans around the world. In the 1950s and 1960s, Indian films played in nearly 150 cinemas all over Indonesia and in 50 cinemas within Jakarta alone.

Then came television and people sat mesmerized as they discovered that their favorite stars could now entertain them right there, in their bedroom. For nearly two decades, few ventured out to the cinema. Parkit Films, originally an Indonesian film-producing company which turned to distribution, has in its portfolio some 2,500 films from over the years which were aired on TV. With a 30 percent ownership in the Studio 21 chain of cinemas, Parkit Film recently reintroduced Indian films to the big screen. According to Marselli Sumarno, filmmaker and teacher at the Jakarta Institute of the Arts' School of Film and Television, Indian films are popular here because of the closeness in the culture of both countries.

Perhaps, too, in the closeness of the infantile mentality of both populations. Most people from both societies prefer to look at life wrapped up in symbolism and mythology. For them, the power of myth and allegory is very strong because life is governed by concepts that originated entirely in axiomatic references to legend and past history, says the cheeky writer Sasti Brata in a chapter titled The Celluloid Mirage from his provocative book on India, a country where the majority prefers to live by a mass of symbols and shorthand codes.

The spiritual, moral and ethical axes of life are not derived from analysis but taken as given. The mind functions on a set of data that is already provided; it does not deduce a code of conduct. This makes life so much more simpler than having to devise a correct response to every changing situation.

Therefore, the never-ending insistence on happy endings, on heroes being god-fearing, mother-loving, altruistic souls, reduces the function of Indian movies to simply provide lots of fantasy, relief, escapism and a little titillation. No heroine can ever have sex before marriage; adultery is permitted but only amongst the "baddies" and children do not hear, see or talk about sex.

It is considered too impolite to call a spade a spade in these societies and reality is just too much to digest; where right is clearly and totally right and wrong is wholly wrong is better preferred, sparing the audience the trial of having to work things out for themselves.

After all, when there is enough hard reality in day-to-day life, can a few hours of fantasy that enables a harassed horde to escape into spectacular homes that they can never dream of owning do any harm? Imagine the pleasure of an Indian peasant, who has never sat even in a train to go anywhere, to see snow-clad mountains of Switzerland in one scene, and to be able to romance atop the Eiffel Tower in Paris in the next, even if it is only on screen.

The life of Indian films remains its music really, inspired as it is by a folk culture that is thousands of years old with lyrics penned in the sophisticated court language of India's Muslim rulers, combined with superbly choreographed dances that are a mixture of indigenous and modern movements captured on screen by the very latest technology.

Parkit Film's marketing manager Michael Moffet said: "In these despairing times, when Jakarta faces so many social and economic problems, it seems the right time for us to provide people a few hours of escape into a fantastically unreal world."

Michael insisted that the cinema chosen is the cream of commercial films churned out in Bombay or Bollywood, known as the official kingdom of the stars on earth. They are not like the movies aired daily on television, which are a mixed bag of well- made and not-so-well-made films, he said.

However, Indonesian film buffs believe that Parkit is importing films from India for the big screen only because in the current currency crunch, they cost less than buying films from Hollywood.

On his part, Marselli is happy to see Indian films back on the screen here despite the decreased number of theaters from 3,200 in 1990 to a mere 1,100 now. Since all five private television channels show so many films from India and Hong Kong, it is encouraging that some are making it to the big screen as well. The only problem is that most of these films are extremely commercial, according to Marselli.

He would love to see more films like Mother India and The Making of a Mahatma that were shown here recently. And the chances to do so are perfect, now that Jakarta has become much more liberal and is even supportive of a kind of renaissance that is flowering in all aspects of life here from politics to the arts.

He feels that film distributors like Rahim Latif, who was responsible for getting both the 1957 classic Mother India and Shyam Benegal's 1996 film on the life of Mahatma Gandhi screened on RCTI, are not interested in just making money from movies. They are also committed to exposing film fans here to good cinema from India.

Perhaps it is worth waiting for Latif then to bring to Jakarta some more Indian films from the movement that is parallel to the giddily gaudy world of Bombay films. Films like Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay, perhaps in which Marselli saw honesty and a celebration of the spirit of survival, very much like a diamond in the mud of mainstream Indian cinema.

Meanwhile, all roads continue to lead to Studio 21 theaters, where mostly expatriates from South Asia and a few Indonesians escape to for a few hours in search of whatever may be missing from their lives.