A medley of unnaturally sculpted actors, impeccably choreographed dance numbers, and slick, over-the-top action are the components of the escapist “Bollywood” fare internationally synonymous with Indian films.
“Artists in India are focusing on regional issues in unprecedented ways, as opposed to finding the easiest story to tell to the most people, which commercial cinema does so well already.”
It’s no wonder, considering that the Mumbai-based production center accounts for almost half of India’s box office revenues, according to Deloitte, and dominates when it comes to worldwide distribution. But in a country with 29 states and dozens of dialects, there’s much more where its cinematic offerings come from. That variety is what the Museum of the Moving Image (MoMI) in Astoria, Queens, is inviting New Yorkers to experience at its first-ever India Kaleidoscope film festival.
Taking place from Dec. 8 to 11, the event — organized in partnership with the India Center Foundation (ICF) — will screen eight films from the southern state of Tamil Nadu to Manipur in the northeast, providing a cross section of the regional Indian cinema.
The festival comes at a pivotal moment for independent Indian films, which have been largely overlooked for most of their history, both domestically and abroad. Only in recent years have audiences and distribution both become less elusive, with productions like Vimukthi Jayasundara’s Bengali “Chatrak” in 2011 and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi “Court” in 2014 receiving acclaim everywhere from Cannes to Toronto.
India Kaleidoscope is the latest in the Museum’s own numerous endeavors to encourage further recognition of non-mainstream Indian films, following its 2014 retrospective of veteran Tamil filmmaker Mani Ratnam, and its monthly “India’s New Wave” series featuring the subcontinent’s contemporary filmmakers.
MoMI’s efforts caught the attention of ICF’s Priya Giri Desai, who co-founded the nonprofit in early 2016 with the mission to promote cultural understanding of the subcontinent among and beyond Indian Americans. “Artists in India are focusing on regional issues in unprecedented ways, as opposed to finding the easiest story to tell to the most people, which commercial cinema does so well already,” Desai told NBC News. “ICF has positioned itself to be a platform for those less often heard and revelatory voices.”
Upon noting that MoMI shared ICF’s appetite for independent film, the idea for India Kaleidoscope was born.
“When the India Center Foundation approached us to collaborate, we were thrilled for the chance to take the Museum’s programming to the next level,” Christina Marouda, director of development at MoMI, told NBC News. “Presenting brand-new regional films in six different languages, and flying in the directors for live discussions, was a natural step forward to reiterate our commitment to Indian cinema.”
The undertaking was both timely and tricky. Marouda noted the challenges of programming for non-Indian viewers, who can become impatient with the subtitles and slower pace of foreign films, she said. But the strong cinephile presence in New York, along with proponents of Indian independent film within the city’s vast South Asian community, proved encouraging. “The audience is there,” Marouda said, “it’s a matter of attracting their attention and keeping them engaged.”
Foregoing a specific theme for a more open-ended approach, the selection process was spearheaded by a five-person committee including Marouda, Desai, New York University cinema studies adjunct faculty member Priyadarshini Shanker, Queens College assistant professor Anupama Kapse, and writer/producer Tristine Skyler.
“We sought out work in languages like Manipuri that aren’t given much play in the U.S., as well as languages with long film traditions such as Bengali and Tamil,” Desai said. The final slate ranges from debutant Kannada director Ananya Kasaravalli’s faux-documentary “Harikatha Prasanga” to veteran filmmaker Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Bengali “Tope,” a surrealist commentary on Indian class relations. With the exception of one, all films will be New York premieres.
“The filmmakers are telling stories that are unique to their communities, and yet feel global. The topics they address, be it environmental change in ’Loktak Lairembee‘ or gender identity in ’Harkatha Prasanga,’ transcend place.”
The inclusivity is a boon for filmmakers like Mangesh Joshi, who said that despite the Maharashtra government’s rule for theaters in the state to screen a minimum number of Marathi films per year, finding an audience remains problematic. “Competing with the budgets and the releases of Bollywood giants is difficult, so it’s especially helpful for a prestigious institute like MoMI to showcase my film,” he told NBC News.
The festival is an even bigger blessing for Paban Kumar Haobam, whose home state of Manipur has no mandate supporting its regional cinema. Haobam (who will be in attendance for the screening of “Loktak Lairembee,” his documentary on a fishing town facing eviction by the government) said the screening at MoMI will not only widen his film’s reach, but also reveal a side of Indian cinema rarely explored. “India Kaleidoscope’s objective is to introduce audiences to the unexplored world of real Indian cinema, which is why I chose it for my film’s New York premiere,” he said.
While the festival celebrates the cinematic diversity within India, Desai noted that it highlights that we are all more alike than we think. “The filmmakers are telling stories that are unique to their communities, and yet feel global,” Desai said. “The topics they address, be it environmental change in ’Loktak Lairembee‘ or gender identity in ’Harkatha Prasanga,’ transcend place.”
Joshi, whose feature “Lathe Joshi” centers on skilled workers facing obsolescence in an increasingly automated world, is also optimistic about the films’ universal appeal. “I believe that humans react in identical ways, irrespective of our culture,” he said. “I doubt it will be difficult for foreign audiences to relate.”
Its language and syntax may be unfamiliar to most, and it may not boast the extravagance of its Bollywood counterparts, but the cinema featured at India Kaleidoscope offers something equally spectacular: a daring to be true to the evolving democracy it hails from. “After all, it’s a country of over 1.3 billion people and such a complex society,” Marouda said. “If audiences are open to immersing themselves into depictions of the human condition within an Indian context, the stories are endless.”