Indian Cinema's New Exposure

October 27, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS

Thirty years ago, Satyajit Ray, a Calcutta advertising man, sold or pawned all his worldly goods to make "Pather Panchali," which became the first installment in an epic family trilogy. It took the special jury prize at the Cannes Film Festival in 1956.

Not all of Ray's subsequent films have received much exposure. In the last decade, there have been sporadic local attempts to operate theaters presenting only Indian films, with minimal success--and with little or no effort made to reach out to a wider moviegoing public.

There have been occasional local retrospectives of Indian cinema, and now there will be an offering of Indian films without precedent when the UCLA Film Archives presents "Film Utsav" ( utsav meaning festival/celebration ), a two-part, 47-film survey of contemporary and classic Indian films. It begins Nov. 2, halts on Dec. 22 and resumes in February.

The series program suggests just how unknown the Indian cinema is, even to those of us who have tried to see as much of it as possible. India produces 750 to 800 films annually, most of them long-winded escapist fare crammed with music and dancing. At the same time, Ray has been joined in recent years by such serious and critical film makers as Shyam Benegal and Mrinal Sen. All films will be presented in their original-language versions with English subtitles. The series is part of the nationwide "Festival of India, 1985-86."

Part I consists of eight vintage Raj Kapoor features, four documentaries and 18 recent features by film makers virtually unknown in the West. It begins at 5 p.m. Saturday in UCLA's Melnitz Theater with Kapoor's "Aag" ("Fire") (1948) and "Awaara" ("The Vagabond") (1951). Kapoor, who will be present, starred in and directed these immensely popular, highly romantic films--"Awaara" was also a huge hit in the Soviet Union--that are noted for their use of music. Kapoor, older brother of India's biggest star, Shashi Kapoor, has been widely praised for his ability to combine romance, spectacle and social consciousness.

Benegal will be represented by two new documentaries in English, "Pandit Nehru" and "Satyajit Ray." The other two documentaries are V.K. Jhaveri's 5 1/2-hour "Mahatma: The Life of Gandhi" and Mani Kaul's "Mati Manas" ("The Mind of Clay"), about India's potters' communities.

Few of the 18 recent features have had local exposure, at least outside the Indian community. One that has is Aparna Sen's deeply felt, though occasionally awkward "36 Chowringhee Lane," in which the late Jennifer Kendal, best known for her appearances in the films of James Ivory, is radiant and heart-breaking as an aging Anglo-Indian spinster schoolteacher faced with the desolation of retirement.

The other recent features are Ketan Mehta's "Holi" ("The Festival of Fire"), which is critical of India's educational system; Govid Nihalani's "Ardh Satya" ("Half Truth"), about a newly appointed Bombay police officer whose frustration at fighting corruption drives him to indiscriminate acts of violence; Kumar Shahani's "Tarang" ("Wages and Profits"), a saga of conflict and betrayal within a disintegrating industrial dynasty, and Saeed Aktar Mirza's "Mohan Joshi Haazir Ho!" ("A Summons for Mohan Joshi"), which tells what happens when an elderly Bombay couple naively dare to demand that their greedy landlord repair their ramshackle home.

Nirad N. Mohapatra's "Maya Miraga" ("The Mirage") concerns a middle-class family coming to terms with the realization that it can no longer stay together; Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Mukhamukham" ("Face to Face") deals with the effect of automation at a tile factory in a small town in Kerala; G.V. Iyer's "Adi Shankaracharya" ("The Philosopher"), the first feature made one of the world's oldest languages, Sanskrit, is a biography of Shankaracharya, the celibate philosopher-saint who lived 1,000 years ago.

Mahesh Bhatt's "Arth" ("The Meaning") tells of a woman who develops independence through the painful breakup of her marriage; Bapu's "Thyagayya" is based on the life of the 18th-Century Swami who became a celebrated poet, composer and musician. Manmohan Mohapatra's "Neeraba Jhada" ("The Silent Storm") is described as "depicting a universe of deprivation within the closed atmosphere of a single small village."

Sandip Ray's "Phatik Chand" ("Phatik and the Juggler"), the first feature by the son of Satyajit Ray, focuses on the adventures of an amnesiac kidnaped boy and a juggler who befriends him; Prema Karanth's "Phaniyamma," one of the few Indian films made by a woman, is a biographical film of a child widow who rose above the rigid social code of her time (1870-1952). Jabbar Patel's "Umbartha" ("The Threshold") is a drama about a woman who finds the courage to leave her husband and family to accept a job in another town at a shelter for destitute women.

The festival schedule:

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