In Bollywood, it's enter the loser

Is small subtle and strong cinema over? Not quite!

Going by the non-mainstream films lined up for the next couple of months, avant-garde cinema seems to be alive and kicking.

Films like Mahesh Dattani's "Morning Raga", Pamela Rooks' "Dance Like A Man", Sabiha Sumar's "Khamosh Pani", Manisha Jha's "Matrabhoomi" and Piyush Jha's "King Of Bollywood", all lined up for the Dussehra-Diwali season, again kick-start the aesthetic neo-realistic movement in Hindi cinema.

Revathy's delicately delineated film "Phir Milenge" dealt with the issue of AIDS. In spite of the towering presence of Salman Khan, the film got an abysmal opening, not just in the smaller cities but also the supposedly enlightened metropolises where audiences are expected to respond more warmly to cerebral stimuli.

"This is a myth," says filmmaker Arjun Sablok. "Audiences everywhere are the same. They seek an escape route from everyday stress when they venture into cinema halls. By that definition, films that dwell on unpleasant aspects of life are definitely out of the question."

So where do reality-based films stand?

Even as these questions inundate the market, some filmmakers are venturing out into the dark areas of human existence to create cinema that goes beyond the stereotypical definitions of entertainment.

In the coming months, several such films are lined up. The most prominent among the issue-based films is Pakistani filmmaker Sabiha Sumar's "Khamosh Pani", a small epic in the Punjabi language with socio-historic resonance that takes the plot deep into the heart of the India-Pakistan divide.

At a time when efforts are on to bring the two sides close, "Khamosh Pani" makes a sincere and heart-warming attempt to recreate a slice of human history that concerns the whole Asian subcontinent.

Shyam Shroff of Mumbai's Shringar Films, who are releasing "Khamosh Pani" in India in October, feels such small films need to be seen albeit by a selected audience.

Another portable epic ready for release is "Dance Like A Man". Directed by Pamela Rooks, "Dance Like A Man" goes into the story of a couple played by National Award winner Shobana and Arif Zakaria, both husband and wife classical Indian dancers, and the stress that their cultural commitment causes in the life of their daughter, played by sitar maestro Ravi Shankar's daughter Anoushka.

According to Shroff, whose Shringar Films releases both these valuable films, the clientele for such avant garde films may be slim but it's staunch. It exists.

Manisha Jha's hard-hitting treatise on female infanticide in Bihar "Matrabhoomi" is also being readied for release in this season of renewed excellence in the art house circuit.

Playwright Mahesh Dattani, on whose work "Dance Like A Man" is based, is ready with his second feature film.

After the rough and raw "Mango Souffle" which explored alternate sexuality, in "Morning Raga", Dattani takes a lush and lyrical journey into the classical arts as seen through the eyes of a Carnatic classical singer played by the constantly brilliant Shabana Azmi who returns to the screen after a longish gap with a rousing performance.

And now "Morning Raga" has been entered in the Mannheim-Heidelberg film festival in Germany. The film will be screened in the prestigious "international discoveries" section where new filmmakers from the world over are honoured.

But the question is, do these intimate gems stand a chance in the commercial Indian market?.