Looking way beyond Bollywood, “Indian Cinemas: From North to South” contextualizes the major, and very separate, non-Bollywood film industries spread out across the lingually diverse subcontinent. Rounding up a who’s who of helmers from West Bengal to Kerala, plus critics and a few famous thesps, documaker Hubert Niogret, also a critic for French journal Positif, assembles a traditional collection of talking heads and clips with satisfying results for informed and general viewers alike. A natural for fests, and with claims for wide artscaster berths in parts or its entirety, the three-chapter series airs on Euro cabler Cine Cinema in 2009. Dates are to be confirmed.
Continuing his run of national industry reports (2005’s “The Nine Lives of Korean Cinema,” 2007’s “Chinese Cinema: Today and Yesterday”), Niogret builds his necessarily lengthy essay — total duration is about that of a standard Bollywood musical — around the proposal that without a common language, religion or unified political system, it’s cinema that gives 1.2 billion Indians in 28 states their strongest sense of national identity.
Prefaced with historical data on India’s 1947 independence and a clear message that Bollywood movies are here for occasional reference purposes only, the first chapter is devoted to Bengali cinema. Late master Satyajit Ray is paid due respect by former assistant Goutam Ghose (“Yatra,” 2006), veteran Mrinal Sen (1982’s “The Case Is Closed” and 1984’s “The Ruins”) and Sharmila Tagore, the femme star of Ray’s “The World of Apu” (1959). Emphasis in this section is placed on the political and cultural identity awareness of Sen and the poetics of Buddhadeb Dasgupta (“A Tale of a Naughty Girl,” 2002). Like several other old-stagers, Dasgupta laments the audience drift away from Bengali arthouse fare in recent years.
Next up is “The Heroes of Hindi Cinema,” which sets up the politically driven ascendancy of movies in that language. Section’s highlights include screen icon Shabana Azmi describing a beautiful sequence in Guru Dutt’s 1959 “Kaagaz ke phool” and Shyam Benegal discussing the neorealist-like parallel-cinema movement. Centerpiece, inevitably and appropriately even with docu’s general avoidance of Bollywood, is all-time action megahit “Sholay” (1975), with a good deal of stimulating analysis of how national feelings of discontent were wrapped up in the film’s swaggering antihero.
Final instalment, “The Film Industries of Southern India,” is a little talk-heavy as it sweeps through hubs producing features with Tamil, Malayalam, Telugu and Kannada dialogue. Key helmers discussing cultural traditions and north-south rivalries (at one stage, Hindi films were effectively banned in four states after cinema torchings during riots) include Kerala-based Adoor Gopalakrishnan, whose 1972 breakthrough hit, “Swayamvaram,” put the location on the film map.
Docu’s socio-cultural-political thrust is well served by expert commentator Krishnan Hariharan, a Chennai film-school director, and insightful local critics Nasreen Munni Kabir, Premendra Mazumdar, Raj Narayan and Aruna Vasudev. Polished lensing and nicely applied music, drawn from a variety of local sources, will assist the aim of raising awareness of Bollywood’s lesser-known but equally vital cousins.