Talking movies at MoMA with Rajendra Roy

Rajendra Roy

Rajendra Roy   | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Last week, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern and David Lynch headlined the Museum of Modern Art’s 2019 Film Benefit. Curator Rajendra Roy says there is more in store

Rajendra Roy describes his move to film curation as “a happy accident”. When he arrived in New York 25 years ago, he had no plans of ending up a film curator, let alone the one at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Since 2007, Roy has been the Chief Curator of Film at the New York museum. “In a way it was a quick arrival at MoMA, but it has been a long journey in total,” he looks back.

Born and raised in California to an Indian immigrant father and an American mother, Roy was studying to become a lawyer and had come to New York to attend law school. “Every good son of an immigrant should either be a doctor or lawyer, right?” he laughs. As it would turn out, both the Roy siblings broke this mould. His sister, Rachel Roy, is a well-known fashion designer, with Michelle Obama, Kim Kardashian and Sharon Stone on her client list.

Meeting Ainouz

Having always been interested in the history of cinema, Roy’s experience in film curation has come through practice rather than training. After his move to New York, the co-author of The Berlin School: Films from the Berliner Schule (2013) started volunteering for small film festivals downtown.

What gave him the high was the “ability to work directly with the artistes, to create platforms for them to celebrate their work”, he tells me on a call from New York. In a recent interview, he recalled one such association with Brazilian filmmaker Karim Ainouz whom he’d met back in 1994, while working at the MIX film festival. Ainouz’s film, The Invisible Life of Eurídice Gusmão, was the top winner at Un Certain Regard section at Cannes this year and is the Brazilian entry for the foreign film Oscars.

To continue building such connections, MoMA organises an annual Film Benefit and this year they honoured actress Laura Dern. When we speak, which happens to be the morning of that event, he remembers how, as a young person in California, he’d watched her films and admired her talent.


Cinema meets art

With MoMA reopening on October 21, after an approximately $450 million renovation, expectations are high. Definitely larger, it has a more inclusive approach to modern art. Cinema will play a significant part, something Roy is more than ready for. Author and director of New York Indian Film Festival, Aseem Chhabra, remembers meeting the curator for the first time in early 2000, when he was the director of the Hamptons International Film Festival (Roy had also done a short stint at the Guggenheim Museum). “It was fascinating to see someone of Indian origin managing a festival in a wealthy, white neighbourhood,” says Chhabra.

He considers Roy’s current position “a very, very major job”. After all, MoMA is one of the top museums engaging with cinema in a consistent way. There might be the British Film Institute in London or Museum of the Moving Image in New York, but they are entirely devoted to cinema and audio visual media. Then there are the major arts museums that may have a one-off engagement with films. However, at MoMA, cinema is one of many modern art forms that it is dedicated to. “It is a space where cinema and arts come together,” says Chhabra. So, giant video installations or small viewing sets could stand next to paintings.

The cinema-art symbiosis reflects even in the way the films are programmed. Viewing films could go hand-in-hand with perspectives on set design or a photo exhibition. Chhabra remembers how a retrospective of Pedro Almodovar was accompanied with an exhibition of his films’ posters.


Retelling modernism

Roy says that, fortuitously, he arrived at MoMA at a time when everybody there was ready to rethink the history of modernism. It pleases him that he and his colleagues from various departments were able to “tell more unified stories about the way the different art forms came together to create this modernist moment”. Also, while other institutions do attempt to tell similar stories, no one has the collection that MoMA does, built over 90 years. “It demands of us to tell more rich, complex stories.”

Roy’s MoMA bio-note talks about a collection of over 30,000 works that he manages there. These range from early reels, strips, stills and films from all over, including India. Pather Panchali, that premièred at MoMA in 1955, occupies a pride of place.

Roy breaks it down
  • Technological role: “Technology has evolved constantly over the 120 years history of cinema. It is frightening, because it upends some business models, but it is also liberating in other ways. Access to cinema has never been greater. I find it very exciting that more and more people can view the work that is being created around the world, simultaneously.”
  • Changing perspectives: “It wasn’t that we hadn’t tried putting a film next to a painting [or] in a room adjacent to some masterwork. We have been, covertly, without big announcements, trying out how this feels. I remember several years ago we put some early silent films in a gallery near the cubist paintings. Years later, I had a young man apply to me for internship... It [had] inspired him — that any kind of art-making can be, should be celebrated. That’s what he wanted to be involved with. Something we’d done here affected someone’s life to a point that they changed the course of what they thought they wanted to do.”
  • Road ahead: “Everyone should look forward to continuing the evolution of the presentation of moving images in galleries. Also, the relationship between what we are showing as part of the history [in galleries] and what we temporarily programme in the cinemas itself. How we are creating those links, benefiting from what we are seeing today, from what has come before.”
  • Ethnicity and immigration: “I think my own background absolutely informs my perspectives... I am not the only one. There is a strong embrace of diversity of ethnic backgrounds and how it should inform the way we tell these stories. A lot of my colleagues are immigrant themselves, mostly from Europe. No one here takes it for granted that this is some movement or art production that is isolated to western Europe or North America. This is a truly global phenomenon and we are trying to embrace that.”

The big wins

There is always the effort to make the programme stand out. “While organising retrospectives, the idea is to build a programme that helps make connections, give the audience some idea of the artiste’s intention,” says Roy, who has organised retrospectives for Almodovar, Wim Wenders and Tim Burton, among others.

Chhabra likes how Roy introduces major films and filmmakers at the MoMA screenings, and recalls the conversation with Canadian filmmaker Xavier Dolan. “It was playful; there was great camaraderie. It was fun to watch them together,” he says.

One of the most significant film programmes has been The Contenders, in which ‘innovative, influential’ films of the last 12 months, having ‘lasting historical significance’ are showcased annually. Last year, Rima Das’ Village Rockstars was on the list.


A fresh start

Roy calls the last month a “legacy moment”, what with the new concept for the museum coming to play. “When you enter the new MoMA you are confronted not just with the traditional 19th century paintings but also simultaneously see early photographs and films.” With the digitisation of technology one could also see a far bigger usage of film in other mediums of art.

What about India? There is an acknowledgement on his part about the vibrancy of the mainstream Indian film industry and the huge audience base. However, MoMA watchers think the programming has largely remained focussed on restored classics like Mrinal Sen’s Khandhar or new-age films like Titli, Court and Sexy Durga, which were shown in the New Directors/New Films Festival that MoMA organises annually, in association with the Film Society of Lincoln Centre. Perhaps because more than Bollywood, Tollywood or Kollywood, the independent, the cutting edge, and the experimental in cinema ties in well with the idea of modernism.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2020 2:57:36 PM |

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