There are three radical and welcome developments regarding Indian and SouthAsian films at the Cannes Film Festival this year. The first is the choice of films and what they signal in the current political climate. Of the six SouthAsian films officially selected by the 75th Cannes Film Festival, the only twonew feature films are: first, an Indian film, Shaunak Sen’s All that Breathes; second, Pakistan’s Joyland by Saim Sadiq. All That Breathes won the coveted 2022 L’Oeil d’Or, the festival’s top prize for documentaries.
All that Breathes follows three compassionate, philosophical Muslims who are devoted to healing injured kites in Delhi. The brave Joyland, on the other hand, features actor Alina Khan as a transwoman. This is both sensitive-giving dignity and agency to a transwoman—and audacious, considering it is Pakistan’sfirst feature in Cannes official selection, and given that Pakistan is an Islamic society, politically dominated by the military, mullahs, and deeply conservative political parties. In other words, minorities and marginalised people have brought official Cannes glory to India and Pakistan this year.
The second reason: Joyland is a rarity, an Indo-Pakistani co-production, almost an unthinkable move in this country, given soaring right-wing temperatures; it is made by filmmakers based in the US. The third reason: it is also remarkable that of the two new South Asian features in Cannes official selection, Sen’s is a documentary, and Sadiq’s is a debut feature. South Asia is really socking it at Cannes.
The four Indian films selected in total for the Cannes official selection are (as against all the other non-selected films hogging the Indian media headlines): Shaunak Sen’s aforementioned title, All That Breathes, in the Special Screenings, Pratham Pooja Khurana’s Nauha (Eve of a Eulogy) in the LaCinef section (earlier La Cinefondation) for film school entries, and two restored films, Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi and Aravindan Govindan’s Thamp in the Cannes Classics section. In addition, two other South Asian films are also in Cannes Official Selection: Saim Sadiq’s Joyland, in Un Certain Regard, and Abinash Bikram Shah’s Lori (Melancholy of my Mother’s Lullabies, Nepal, 14min), in the Short Films Competition.
All that Breathes is a handsomely crafted, courageous documentary, that earlier won the Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema Documentary Competition at the Sundancer Film Festival. It is about two brothers, Nadeem Shehzad and Muhammad Saud, and their young colleague Salik Rehman, who have devoted their lives to saving cheel-black kites, the regal birds-increasingly falling from the skies, partly because of Delhi’s horrific pollution, and partly due to injuries by manja (kite string).
Despite their modest means, they have saved over 20,000 birds from a makeshift bird clinic in their home in Wazirabad, North Delhi. This empathetic film honours their compassion and poetry, while courageously commenting on the precarious state of minorities in today’s increasingly right-wing India. The producers include Sen, Aman Mann, Teddy Leifer and Florrie Priest, with funds from several nations.
In Joyland, a patriarchal Pakistani joint family unravels, after the son Haider (Ali Junejo) secretly joins an erotic dance theatre in Lahore and falls for Biba (Alina Khan), an ambitious transwoman starlet. Sadiq’s earlier film Darling, a coming-of-age story also starring Alina Khan, won the Best Short in Orizzonti at the Venice Film Festival in 2019, where it was also Pakistan’sfirst film in official selection. In Joyland, Sadiq questions the oppressive norms of patriarchy, gender and sexuality that stifle so many lives. The cast includes Sarwat Gilani (whom you also saw on Asim Abbasi’s jaw-droppingChurails), Ali Junejo and Rasti Farooq. Sadiq is an alumnus of Columbia University, New York, and his Joyland crew includes several Columbia alumni, including Indian-American producer Apoorva Charan, co-writer Maggie Briggs and co-editor Jasmin Tenucci (with Sadiq); Associate Professor Ramin Bahrani is Executive Producer as well.
Pratham Pooja Khurana’s Nauha (Eve of a Eulogy), a student short from WhistlingWoods International, Mumbai, is a sensitively observed and well-crafted filmabout a cranky old man and his composed male caretaker. The Cannes Classicssection includes Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi (The Adversary, 1970, restored by NFDC-NFAI), in which a middle-class man of integrity is made to feel like a loser by his two siblings. And Aravindan Govindan’s Thamp (The Circus Tent, Malayalam, 1978, restored by the Film Heritage Foundation and partners), lyrically observes the rootless lives of travelling circus artistes, who campin a village for three days.
Finally, there’s Abinash Bikram Shah’s Lori, from Nepal, in the Short Films Competition. An accomplished screenwriter of features, who has also directed many shorts, here Shah explores Nepali lullabies to question the deeply patriarchal Nepali society. Moreover, there are also four South Asian film projects officially selected in various sections. These include three projects in La Fabrique Cinema-Gourab Mullick’s Starfruits, produced by Umesh Kulkarni (India), Seemab Gul’s Haven ofHope, Panahkhana, produced by Abid Aziz Merchant (Pakistan), and Abinash BikramShah’s Elephants in the Fog, produced by Anup Poudel (Nepal).
Sein Lyan Tun’s The Beer Girl in Yangon, from Myanmar, produced by John Badalu (Indonesia), is in the L’Atelier section. Midi Z, the Burmese-Taiwanese filmmaker, whose films have been to Cannes, Berlin and Venice film festivals, is Patron, a mentor, at La Fabrique this year.
A final observation: while it has been a persistent trend for some years, this year, the Indian media seems to have gone overboard in its giddy-headed coverage of Cannes. Most Indian media have devoted acres of coverage to films not officially selected and fashionable starlets, largely ignoring Indian/South Asian films that were actually in Cannes official selection. There seems to be sudden, collective, national amnesia on how to identify the film titles officially selected (hint: Google works). Hopefully, good sense will return post-Cannes.
Meenakshi Shedde is India and South Asia Delegate to the Berlin Film Festival, critic and independent film curator to festivals worldwide.