World cinema is alive and well in India but living on the small screen.

In India, world cinema is classed as anything that is not Bollywood or Hollywood. This means that an American independent film falls under the “world cinema” banner, as does a 1930s Fritz Lang classic, contemporary films like Soul Kitchen and Persepolis, or even a South Asian-themed British indie like Brick Lane. 

Such a wide definition and such a small gap into which to squeeze. I’ve always maintained that arthouse cinema has an audience in India – a huge country with growing numbers of educated and well travelled citizens – it’s just a matter of locating it. Now after nearly a year of living in Mumbai, I’ve come to the conclusion that, for the time being at least, world cinema has found its natural home on the small screen.

A customer with a basic cable package costing only $5 (Rs250) a month can see a pretty impressive array of “world” movies ranging from mainstream fare on channels such as HBO, BIG CBS Prime and Sony PIX to more genuine arthouse titles on UTV World Movies or Lumiere Movies, acquired by Turner last year.

The downside is that films screened on television are even more heavily censored than those on cinema screens. Gaspar Noe’s Irreversible was broadcast without the rape or revenge scenes – surely among the more pivotal moments in the film. Swear-words are beeped out and the English sub-titles contain less offensive equivalents such as darn or drat. All this makes for amusing viewing, but doesn’t do much for the integrity of the film.

Yet only four years ago it all looked so promising. A slew of companies, including UTV, Palador Pictures and NDTV Lumiere, were sucking up whole libraries of arthouse titles and floating ambitious plans for theatrical releases and outings on DVD. Television was seen as the last port of call, not the entire journey, as distributors were encouraged by packed screenings at India’s international film festivals and growing numbers of multiplexes – a promising trend as world cinema titles would never be booked by the country’s thousands of single screens.

The reality was that theatrical screenings of films such as Three Monkeys and Waltz With Bashir were poorly attended, while the DVDs were soon gathering dust on video store shelves. Partly it came down to problems with launching effective marketing campaigns, or securing space at the multiplexes, which are firmly fixated on Bollywood or Hollywood movies with special effects and 3D. Not even independent Indian films can find good slots at the gleaming new cinemas in Bangalore, Delhi and Mumbai – unless like Aamir Khan-produced Dhobi Ghat and Peepli Live, they have the endorsement of a major star.

But perhaps the biggest problem is one of perception and pricing. Multiplexes and distributors of sub-titled DVDs ask the audience to pay first-world prices for something that is ironically regarded as part of India’s socialist past. Back in the 60s and 70s, audiences could watch everything from French New Wave to Russian masterpieces at the country’s hundreds of film societies. In the present day, many films are screened at local film festivals at ticket prices that are usually considerably less than the multiplexes.

Therefore “world cinema” in the mind of most Indians is something that should be available cheaply, as part of a cultural exercise, or even for free. People are happy to watch Three Monkeys at a film festival, or on television, but they don’t want to shell out $3 (Rs150) plus parking and popcorn to watch it at the cinema. Multiplexes are part of the new aspirational India, but aspirational these days means Avatar, not Kurosawa or even Takeshi Kitano. World cinema needs to undergo a serious re-branding exercise to change its status in the minds of Indian cinema-goers.

In the meantime, some brave souls are continuing with theatrical releases for specialist titles. The most successful are companies like PVR who have good relationships with international sales companies and, more importantly, own their own multiplex screens. India may still not have the world’s most diverse cinema market, but it’s possible to see both The King’s Speech and Black Swan at a Mumbai multiplex this week.

And for everything else there’s the small screen. This is promising for sales companies – India’s TV landscape is one of the most dynamic and competitive in the world, which means that prices should be on an upwards trajectory. But it’s not so great for armchair viewers. I really have to get to my not-so-local multiplex in the next day or so, because I don’t want to wait for The King’s Speech with beeps.