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The variety of life in movie-mad India

In its far-ranging 16-film series “The New India”, the Museum of Modern Art in New York skims from the top and the sides to provide…

In its far-ranging 16-film series “The New India”, the Museum of Modern Art in New York skims from the top and the sides to provide an unusually thoughtful snapshot of the crowded contemporary scene. With documentaries, commercial films, indies and shorts, the series could easily serve as a primer for the curious and a horizon-expander for the knowledgeable.

Despite all the variety, certain themes recur: poverty and wealth; caste and class; violence and fear; and, unsurprisingly in movie-mad India, the persistence of cinema as a map for living. Among the Bollywood selections, Zoya Akhtar’s charming Luck by Chance, a backstage drama about moviemaking and movie dreams, tackles the film business head on. It addresses the need for change in the industry’s star culture (while featuring a parade of cameos by some of its biggest actors), its corruption (showing the price many women pay for success) and its nepotism (of which Ms Akhtar has a working familiarity: both of her parents are in the business).

Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye!, a smart comedy about class, follows the career of a Delhi con man — the real-life Lucky Singh (Abhay Deol) — who, by dressing the part and acting as if he belongs (he jogs!), moves freely among the rich, stealing everything in sight. Directed by Dibakar Banerjee, the film establishes its own tone, a breezy mix of satire and realism, and uses its sometimes hip-hop inflected songs (no dances) thematically.

If Luck by Chance and Oye Lucky! push a bit at the boundaries of the commercial cinema, the epic Jodhaa Akbar, directed by Ashutosh Gowariker (Lagaan), is a pure product of Bollywood in all its starry, song-and-dance glory. Dripping with gold and thundering with elephants, it tells the story of Akbar (the beautiful Hrithik Roshan), the 16th-century Muslim emperor who marries a Hindu princess (the beautiful Aishwarya Rai Bachchan). Pictorially splendid, the movie is also an undisguised lesson in tolerance, a vivid example of Bollywood’s frequent role as populist classroom.

Unlike mainstream Hindi movies, some of which open in New York, films from the booming Tamil industry are still the great unknown there. So it is hard to say if Shashank Ghosh’s Quick Gun Murugan, a “curry” western in which a vegetarian cowboy fights the good fight against corporate bad guys and meat eating, is sui generis or business as usual. The movie, much of it in English, pays musical and visual homage to Sergio Leone, though with its candy colours, cartoon villains and showdowns at the Well-Known Lodge and the Institute of Coconut Tree Climbing, Quick Gun is above all a comedy, and an exhausting one.

A more independent movement, the parallel cinema, exists alongside Bollywood and the other popular regional industries. With its high production values and sometimes dizzying aerial camerawork, Neeraj Pandey’s excellent thriller A Wednesday, a sleeper hit in India, fits easily on a continuum with Bollywood. About a terrorist (the always superb Naseeruddin Shah) who plants bombs in Mumbai, A Wednesday addresses the timely question of how to remain civilised in the face of threatening violence, a topic also taken up by Firaaq, the first feature directed by the actress Nandita Das, which traces the aftershocks of the 2002 communal riots in Gujarat.

One of the series’s strongest films is a documentary, Children of the Pyre, that follows the untouchable boys who burn bodies (and steal shrouds) at Hinduism’s holiest cremation site, in Varanasi. The director, Rajesh S. Jala, wisely lets the boys — almost always framed by fire — speak for themselves. They are by turns thoughtful, hilarious and defiant. “Aren’t you ashamed of that question?” one replies when asked why he smokes marijuana. “I’m old enough to earn”, he says, “I’m old enough to smoke”.

The series also includes a rare glimpse into tribal India: Yarwng (“Roots”), set in the rural northeast, where the building of a dam uproots a village and threatens a way of life. Directed by Joseph Pulinthanath, a Roman Catholic priest, this measured film was shot in Kokborok, a tribal language, and features nonprofessional actors.

Culled from The New York Times

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