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The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) distinguishes itself from other visual art museums by taking film as seriously as it does sculpture or painting. MoMA has also long had a keen interest in Indian cinema, especially beyond the mainstream. In 1955, it hosted the world premiere of Pather Panchali, the debut of a then-unknown Satyajit Ray. Since 1972, award-winning Indian filmmakers such as Mani Kaul, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Ketan Mehta have featured at the annual New Directors/New Films festival.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) distinguishes itself from other visual art museums by taking film as seriously as it does sculpture or painting. MoMA has also long had a keen interest in Indian cinema, especially beyond the mainstream. In 1955, it hosted the world premiere of Pather Panchali, the debut of a then-unknown Satyajit Ray. Since 1972, award-winning Indian filmmakers such as Mani Kaul, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Ketan Mehta have featured at the annual New Directors/New Films festival.
With India Now in 2007 and The New India in 2009, MoMA presented a wider mix of the popular and the critically-acclaimed. Dibakar Banerjee, Vishal Bhardwaj and Zoya Akhtar jostled with older festival favourites like Bengali auteur Buddhadeb Dasgupta and crowd-pleasing documentaries like Smile Pinki and Supermen of Malegaon.
Making Waves: A New Generation of Indian Independent Filmmakers, curated by La Frances Hui, is the largest Indian festival at MoMA since 2009 and returns to MoMA’s core mission: highlighting recent developments in cinema. Intended to showcase “small-budget but artistically ambitious and accomplished films” that “have expanded the making of, thinking about, and ways of seeing Indian film” since 2010, Making Waves includes 16 features and five shorts in languages as diverse as Assamese, Bengali, Dogri, Hindi, Maithili, Marathi, Malayalam and Tamil.
While staying away from mainstream commercial work, the films at MoMA cut a wide swathe in terms of cinematic style and degree of political charge. Aditya Vikram Sengupta’s ambitiously wordless 2014 debut Labour of Love uses visual and sound design to suggest that love in the late-capitalist Indian city is a hard-won (perhaps unfindable) reprieve from the repetitiveness of labour. Pushpendra Singh adapts the folktales of Vijaydan Detha into dreamy, evocative, allegorical visions, featuring contrary female protagonists from marginalised nomadic communities. His 2014 The Honour Keeper follows Mani Kaul’s 1973 Duvidha, drawing on the same Detha telling of a ghost filling in for a harsh, unromantic or absent husband and staying within the same Rajasthani visual palette of rich reds, sparkling whites and empty brown desert sands. Meanwhile, his The Shepherdess and the Seven Songs (2020) transports another Detha story to Jammu and Kashmir—and thus to a frightening contemporary context involving Indian policemen and the migrant Muslim shepherd community of the Bakerwals. Shepherdess adopts a semi-comic distance from the power dynamics it deals with, producing some kinship with Chaitanya Tamhane’s brilliant debut Court (2014), in which a fatal manual scavenging accident is blamed first on its victim and then on a Dalit singer who may have sung against manual scavenging.
Films like Amit Dutta’s Nainsukh or Ashim Ahluwalia’s short Events in a Cloud Chamber offer philosophical engagements with the history of Indian visual art. Others are rooted in the country’s visual and aural history while tracking the tectonic shifts in the Indian socio-political landscape. The passing of an older way of life becomes the subject of Achal Mishra’s Gamak Ghar, a moving visual essay on an old rural home with increasingly urban owners.
There is little redemption in the present, where everyday occurrences reveal the darkest aspects of the Indian psyche: Sanal Sasidharan’s disturbing An Off-Day Game is about a meeting of Malayali drinking buddies, while a teenage outing turns tragic in Rima Das’s Bulbul Can Sing. In Sasidharan’s Sexy Durga, one couple’s experience on the road unmasks Indian men as the monsters they are, while a gentle day in the life of a sari shop salesman unfolds as less than gentle in Arun Karthick’s Coimbatore-set Nasir. Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing takes us through the past eight years through an Indian college student’s eyes, capturing the tumult and horror of the state’s multi-pronged attack on universities—repression, censorship, violence and privatisation. Watching these films together is an education in New India.
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