The Village House. 2019. India. Directed by Achal Mishra.

Get a Crash Course in Indian Independent Cinema

Go to New York’s MoMA for this epic film fest if you can; stream the films online if you can’t

The Village House. 2019. India. Directed by Achal Mishra.

Courtesy Deaf Crocodile Films

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Words by Siddhant Adlakha

In 2022, the western world finally has South Asia on the brain. The unprecedented American success of S.S. Rajamouli’s Tollywood banger RRR seems poised to push the action epic all the way to the Oscars. Meanwhile, on the Hollywood side of things, the popularity of Ms. Marvel on Disney Plus brought the fraught history of India and Pakistan’s Partition to unfamiliar viewers. However, the success of mainstream, action-heavy properties doesn’t necessarily guarantee a nuanced cultural conversation, a hole more likely to be filled by less mainstream and more esoteric works that may not command as much attention. This is where the world of independent film programming enters the fray—in particular, the ongoing series at New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), titled Making Waves: A New Generation of Indian Independent Filmmakers, which runs from Sept. 15 to Oct. 12. And, for those unable to make the trek to the Big Apple, a handful of its selections are even available to stream on various platforms.

A non-mainstream alternative to the few Indian blockbusters that cross over from time to time—whether the blazing Bollywood bikers of Dhoom 3 or the Kannada-language action-melodrama of KGF: Chapter 2—MoMA’s lineup has an impressively diverse list of underappreciated works from the last 12 years. Boasting 16 features and 5 short films (one of which accompanies a feature, and four of which play together in their own slot), the program runs the stylistic gamut, drawing from all across India’s various regions and sub-industries, each in their own languages. On one hand, you have the Tamil-language Koozhangal (or Pebbles), the 2021 debut of director P.S. Vinothraj, whose straightforward tale of domestic abuse, set against a scorching rural backdrop, is painted in vivid hues thanks to its watertight focus on intimate drama, often told through the eyes of a child. But on the opposite end of the spectrum, the lineup also plays home to Payal Kapadia’s rousing Hindi-, English- and Bengali- language black-and-white documentary A Night of Knowing Nothing, also a debut film, but one whose ruminations on right-wing fascism in modern India are brought to life through not only fictionalized romantic letters, but footage of real protests, all wrapped in moody constructions of light and darkness.

If RRR made you curious for what else Indian cinema has to offer, you could not ask for a more varied inventory, whose aesthetics are more experimental, and whose politics are more challenging, than what’s usually seen in the studio mainstream (especially Bollywood, with its litany of Hindi-language romantic musicals). However, as it happens, providing an alternative to the spotlight shed on the Indian mainstream this year was the last thing on curator La Frances Hui’s mind; she began programming the lineup well before Rajamouli’s Telugu-language blockbuster had its theatrical release in March. “It’s a result of paying attention to Indian films for many years,” Hui notes. “It became apparent to me that there’s a wave of new filmmakers from all over India who make original and daring works, and have collectively built a creative environment that’s inspiring for everyone.”

Court. 2014. Indian. Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane.

Courtesy Zeitgeist Films

Hui has also programmed several editions of New York’s New Directors/New Films festival (ND/NF), an annual spring showcase co-presented by MoMA and Film at Lincoln Center that provides a platform to emerging filmmakers the world over. This fest was one of several—including Cannes, Venice, and even the Mumbai Film Festival—from which Hui would go on to sketch the current Making Waves showcase. Her lineup includes several works previously featured at ND/NF, including Arun Karthick’s Nasir (2020), a rhythmic, slice-of-life drama about a Muslim shopkeeper under the threat of India’s modern sectarian violence, and films that wrestle unapologetically with tradition, like Pushpendra Singh’s alluring Hindi/Gujarati folk fable The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020), and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s Malayalam-language road thriller Sexy Durga (2017).

For Hui, Making Waves is an opportunity to introduce New York audiences to these unique and underappreciated works. “I hope [audiences] will find that India and Indian cinema are a lot more than what they thought,” she says. “I hope they feel energized by the vibrant film scene and see that filmmakers from all across India are eager to experiment with filmmaking ideas and have created works in many different languages that represent a wide range of artistic, personal, social, and political perspectives.”

For those in the New York area, the month-long program is still ongoing, and films which have already played are scheduled to run a second time in the coming weeks. However, for those unable to attend in person, we’ve curated our own list of recommendations from MoMA’s lineup, which are available to stream at home:

Ozhivudivasathe Kali (An Off-Day Game)

Sanal Kumar Sasidharan’s 2015 Malayalam-language film—his predecessor to Sexy Durga—is a creeping, restrained slow-burn about five middle-aged friends on a forest getaway, and the woman they hire to cook their meals. The quintet’s escape from the real world and its turbulent politics is actually anything but apolitical, as Sasidharan uses their lengthy, unassuming, and eventually alcohol-fueled conversations to unearth festering social woes, as his “boys will be boys” hangout movie morphs slowly, but inevitably, into something resembling a subdued and sinister thriller, about what men are capable of when left unchecked by a society that grants them limitless permission.

Ozhivudivasathe Kali is available to rent on MovieSaints. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 5.

An Off-Day Game. 2015. India. Directed by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan.

Courtesy the filmmaker

Court

While measured in its visual approach, Chaitanya Tamhane’s 2014 social drama—an ND/NF selection that year—is an exacting and almost daring deconstruction of superstition and censorship, and the way they infect the Indian legal system. Filmed in multiple Indian languages (primarily, Hindi, Marathi, and Gujarati), its characters are in constant need of translators, often more than one at a time. The film uses this linguistic labyrinth to explore the exhaustive nature of legal red tape, in its story of a social activist put on trial when one of his protest songs is alleged to have convinced a poor, ill-equipped manhole worker to commit suicide on the job. It’s a film as absurd as it is sobering—not to mention, prescient about the country’s political direction in the subsequent decade.

Court is available to stream on Kanopy and available to buy or rent on Amazon Prime, Apple TV, Google Play, Kino Now and YouTube. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Sept. 24 and Oct. 3. 

The Disciple

Tamhane’s follow-up to Court, though it features the same observational quality, is a deeply immersive film that is at once steeped in, and critical of, Hindustani Classical Music, as a nearly millennia-old art form with deep religious roots. The Hindi- and Marathi-language drama follows first-time actor Aditya Modak as Sharad Nerulkar, the film’s eponymous protégé; it tells not only of an artist’s tireless dedication to his guru and to his craft, but of the way this dedication consumes his worldview, as his passion intersects with the movement of larger social and cultural tides in modern India. Tamhane’s floating camera not only captures unexpected spiritual dimensions, but turns the film itself into a spiritual experience that looks both outward and inward at once.

The Disciple is available to stream on Netflix. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Sept. 23 and Sept. 25.

The Disciple. 2020. India. Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane.

Courtesy Netflix

Bulbul Can Sing

From filmmaker Rima Das—a figurehead of the cinematic resurgence of the (oft-ignored) eastern state of Assam—the vivacious 2018 Assamese-language drama Bulbul Can Sing is a tender coming-of-age story that feels in direct conversation with Das’ previous effort, her debut feature Village Rockstars, which was India’s submission to the 2019 Academy Awards. Where the young protagonist in Village Rockstars saw music as an escape from rurality, Bulbul, played by the quietly radiant Arnali Das, becomes trapped on all sides by the rigid cultural expectations in her village: not only the performance of art and music for other people’s gaze, but the performance of gender, too. Das’ thoughtful exploration of her characters—Bulbul and her teenage friends, Bonnie (Banita Thakuriya) and Suman (Manoranjan Das), the latter of whom finds himself at odds with traditional masculinity—goes hand-in-hand with her exploration of the natural environment, which, depending on scene in question, she has the keen ability to turn either oppressive or serene, as she takes the reins of not only the directing, but the writing, editing and cinematography as well.

Bulbul Can Sing is available to stream on Netflix. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Sept. 21 and Sept. 24. 

Ship of Theseus

A film that digs deep into the complications of traditional philosophies as they cross paths with the modern world, Anand Gandhi’s reflective 2012 anthology Ship of Theseus is a paradoxical beast, exploring the rigidity of moral principle using a free-flowing visual approach. Its three tales seem largely unconnected, between a rich Indian stockbroker who becomes entangled in a devious, capitalistic organ black market, a blind Egyptian photographer whose eye transplant causes unexpected spiritual displacement, and an ascetic monk forced to confront his own inadvertent involvement in animal testing, in a world where such horrors are a default setting. However, these stories are bound not only by the way the debuting Gandhi uses his camera to confront each character’s deep-seated beliefs, but by the poetic use he makes of his widescreen frame, which deftly captures the inner, more ethereal confrontations each character is forced into as well.

Ship of Theseus is available to stream on Amazon with Fandor and available to buy or rent on Apple TV. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 4. 

Gamak Ghar (The Village House)

A work of time and memory, Achal Mishra’s languid Maithili-language drama was one of 2019’s underrated gems, both for its unique approach to its setting—a family home in the northeastern Indian state of Bihar, a space whose nooks and crannies it scrutinizes with a washed out 4:3 frame resembling old photographs—but its equally unique narrative framing. This house, even though it plays host to several generations of human characters, is ostensibly the film’s protagonist. Not the way a city or backdrop becomes character-esque, in service of someone else’s story, but rather, in the way its walls seem to hold impressions of lived experiences, even as seasons change, and the family gathers upon its grounds from time to time, whether to celebrate the arrival of a newborn child, or to collectively mourn. Mishra’s silent, textured, and descriptive shots make the house feel like a vital constant—as tangible and as sturdy as a human body, but eventually, just as temporary.

Gamak Ghar is available to buy or rent on Apple TV. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art on Oct. 1.

Events in a Cloud Chamber

Events in a Cloud Chamber begins with decades-old home movies emerging from behind the scratched and battered fabric of a poorly-maintained film print, like memories being recalled from beneath the fog of time. Ashim Ahluwalia’s experimental short—a 2016 ND/NF selection— runs a mere 21 minutes, but feels enormous in its emotional scope, as it introduces us to renowned painter and filmmaker Akbar Padamsee, a few years before his death in 2020. While it has the aural structure of a journalistic interview, the film plays like a vivid portrait of Padamsee’s memories, as he recounts not only his methodologies, but the challenges he faced as an independent filmmaker en route to creating his now-lost 1969 avant-garde film, titled… Events in a Cloud Chamber. Part tribute, part re-construction of a lost masterwork, Ahluwalia’s modern re-imagining is both a lament about film preservation, as well as a statement about the lasting and transformative nature of cinema.

Events in a Cloud Chamber is available to stream on GuideDoc. It plays at the Museum of Modern Art as part of the Indian Independent Short Films Program on Oct. 3.

 

 

 

Published on September 21, 2022

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Words by Siddhant Adlakha

Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter