By NAN ROBERTSON of the New York Times

Published: April 15, 1984

''The Far Pavilions,'' a $12 million epic movie made for Home Box Office, is the most expensive, ambitious production ever risked by a pay cable service. This six-hour film, set in 19th-century colonial India and starring Ben Cross, Amy Irving, John Gielgud, Omar Sharif, Christopher Lee and Rossano Brazzi, has the whole dramatic landscape of northern India as its backdrop. It also has 20 elephants, 40 camels, 120 oxen, 80 horses, herds of goats, sheep, cows, a cobra or two, the 61st Indian Cavalry and 1,000 extras. Among its 547 scenes, which took four months to shoot, are a royal wedding that goes on for three days, lovemaking, murder and a suttee episode in which the favorite wife of a prince is burned alive on his funeral pyre.
The heart of the story of ''The Far Pavilions'' - adapted from a novel by M. M. Kaye with readers in the millions - is the forbidden love affair between a British officer (played by Mr. Cross) and an Indian princess (Miss Irving). The initial two-hour episode of the mini-series - the cobra is in it, but the lovemaking and the suttee come later - will be be shown on HBO next Sunday, April 22, beginning at 8 P.M. The subsequent two- hour installments will be presented at the same hour on April 23 and 24.
HBO, which was shelling out more than $250 million a year to rent and show films to its subscribers, is now making its own movies, with ''The Far Pavilions'' the most costly by far. The 5,000 original costumes created for the film alone cost half a million dollars and would shatter the lacquered hairdo of even Diana Vreeland, the former high priestess of Vogue who has mounted all those stunning fashion spectaculars at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Vreeland was present for some of the promotional ballyhoo surrounding ''The Far Pavilions.'' Mrs. Vreeland was one of the 400 guests at a supper and two- hour screening of excerpts recently in the Metropolitan Museum, where the likes of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her daughter Caroline, the museum's director, Philippe de Montebello, and important Indian diplomats sipped and nibbled around the Temple of Dendur (which is Egyptian, but never mind). The Met will give its own salute to India in a huge exhibition scheduled to open in September 1985; hence, the tie-in.
How these made-for-HBO movies go over with the service's 13.5 million subscribers across the nation - or do not - could affect the future of both cable television and the film industry. HBO is also seeking prestige, as well as audiences willing to stick with presentations screened over a number of evenings.
Michael Fuchs, the 38-year-old president of Home Box Office, a subsidiary of Time, Inc., calls the concept behind this movie ''big-event television - like the Superbowl or the Olympics. We are telling the viewers that pay-TV is giving them something significant. American television is becoming fragmented: We see viewers leaving the networks for cable and home video cassettes. Half-hour sit-com TV is dying on the vine, and so are hour-long dramatic programs.''
HBO is 11 years old. When Mr. Fuchs, a former show-business lawyer, came to it about seven years ago, ''there were 600,000 subscribers nationwide, no more than the readership of a modest magazine,'' he said recently. In March 1983, he became president of HBO Entertainment; a month ago, he stepped up to the HBO president's job.
Last May, HBO presented its first original made-for-HBO movie, ''The Terry Fox Story,'' about a young, one-legged cancer victim who ran across most of Canada, became a national hero and died shortly thereafter. The service's initial foray into mini-series was an eight-hour Australian-made production called ''All the Rivers Run,'' which was shown on HBO over four consecutive nights in January.
''We were pleased with the results,'' Mr. Fuchs said. ''We got extremely high marks on viewer satisfaction. We've also learned the lesson very quickly that if you're going to compete in this industry, you've got to step up to big prices. Most of 'The Far Pavilions' was shot in India, making it possible to do the picture much cheaper.'' For $12 million, he continued, ''we've got the look of a $20-million movie, with all of its length, lushness, detail and production quality. We're financing pictures now that will be more expensive than 'The Far Pavilions.' ''
Unlike its financial-only arrangement on ''All the Rivers Run,'' HBO was involved from the start in crucial creative decisions such as script and casting of ''The Far Pavilions.'' However, HBO put up only slightly less than $5 million of the total cost of ''The Far Pavilions.'' The rest of the $12 million was provided by Goldcrest Ltd., the British company for which Geoffrey Reeve produced the film. The director was another Briton, the award-winning Peter Duffell. ''The Far Pavilions'' was shown on British television's new Channel 4 this past January, achieving the highest viewer ratings of any program presented during the channel's first year.
Mr. Reeve, reached by telephone in London, said a two-hour version of the movie, ''concentrating on the love story, with special scenes shot for the movie alone,'' will be distributed by Goldcrest to commercial movie houses around the world, beginning this summer in Western Europe and Australia. The British producer also said that Goldcrest regarded this film ''very much as the first wedge into the American television cable market.''
The ''big picture'' concept has also been embraced by the director of ''The Far Pavilions.'' Mr. Duffell said in a phone conversation from London that ''my philosophy was that I shot it like a big-screen movie. The notion that TV is only a close-shot medium is a bit dinosaur.'' He also believes that the ''shelf-life'' of a television film is longer than that of a commercial feature. He expressed hope that ''The Far Pavilions'' would ''be around and be enjoyed for a few more years.'' Mr. Fuchs said that while a network might run an original movie once and possibly play it again a year later, there is ''tremendous repeat viewing'' on cable. The second three- evening showing of ''Pavilions'' is scheduled to begin on April 30 in mid- morning and the third on May 3 in late evening. He expects by then that 70 percent of the subscribers to HBO will have seen the film.
It is impossible to tell precisely how HBO will recoup the money spent on ''The Far Pavilions,'' Mr. Fuchs pointed out. Unlike a commercially released movie, with its box-office receipts or a once-shown network program, with its viewer ratings and commercials, ''you can't break out the money we bring in for one show,'' he said. ''The reason is that we get our usual monthly fee for everything that month'' on the HBO menu.
''The name of the game is always money, of course,'' said Mr. Fuchs. ''But we also hope that 'The Far Pavilions' will be something people will talk about, something they'd hate to miss. I want this picture to enhance the reputation and status of HBO.''