The cannes and can’t of Indian films abroad

However, their enormous fan bases and the celeb-hungry media were all agog back home.
A still from the movie 'The Shameless'
A still from the movie 'The Shameless'

“Can we talk about this?” began a provocative Instagram post from actor Tanmay Dhanania shortly after his film, The Shameless, directed by Bulgarian filmmaker Konstantin Bojanov, was selected in the Un Certain Regard section of Cannes Film Festival, which begins May 14.

Dhanania wanted to point out the power imbalance between Indians who get to attend Cannes and those who can’t. While the cast and crew of films like his are forced to scrounge around to get together the money for the trip, “people who have nothing to do with the festival, who have no films there, who don’t know what cinema means, let alone indie cinema, get sponsored”. Dhanania compared it, rather bitingly, to a circus troupe being special invitees to the Olympics instead of the athletes.

He was referring to the star ambassadors of the various beauty and fashion brands who are flown into Cannes from India, among other countries, every year to walk the red carpet and pose for shutterbugs. Add to that the social media influencers who crashed the party last year on the French Riviera, faffing around on random panels and posing on the red carpet when no one was quite looking at them. However, their enormous fan bases and the celeb-hungry media were all agog back home.

This is not to diminish the clout and reach of stars and influencers. They have helped make Cannes a household word in India even though its correct pronunciation might still be up for debate. In the times when the number of hits, engagements and virality of content gets valued way more than quality, it’s perhaps fitting for Cannes to do with some trending and outreach beyond the bubble of the converted.  Also, the red carpet is serious business and the various brand associations keep the wheels of the festival moving, helping bring cinema to the cinephile.

What irks, however, is the skew. The disproportionate focus on celebrities, to the obliteration of everything including cinema, which should be the true star at Cannes. As general delegate Thierry Fremaux said last year, “Films are at the heart of the world for two weeks.”

A regular at Cannes knows that there exists a definite separation between the church and the state. For those devouring films, nothing else matters. For the majority, the game is all about waking up early, booking tickets online for their favourites and then queuing up outside Grand Theatre Lumière, Salle Debussy et al to view them. One can only hope that a bit of that passion for cinema also finds its place in the middle of the hullabaloo over gowns and tuxedos. All the more so in a year Cannes is laying out the choicest of picks among cinema with an India connection. “Historically, China and India are important markets for films. They are making a marked comeback to Cannes,” said Fremaux while announcing the year’s programme.

Indeed, 2024 is a historic year that marks a record India presence. We have a film in competition after 30 years of Shaji Karun's Swaham. Payal Kapadia’s Malayalam-Hindi All We Imagine As Light is competing with the likes of Sean Baker’s Anora, Francis Ford Coppola’s Megalopolis, David Cronenberg’s The Shrouds, Jia Zhang-ke’s Caught by the Tides, Yorgos Lanthimos’ Kinds of Kindness, Mohammad Rasoulof’s The Seed of the Sacred Fig, Paul Schrader’s Oh Canada and Paolo Sorrentino’s Parthenope.

Besides Kapadia and Bojanov’s, there are other Indian films in the official selection—Sandhya Suri’s Santosh and the restored print of Shyam Benegal’s classic Manthan. It’s the third year in a row for Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation to have its restoration work platformed at Cannes, after G Aravindan’s Thampu in 2022 and Aribam Syam Sharma’s Meitei-language classic Ishanou last year. FTII student Chidananda Naik’s Kannada short Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know competes in the LaCinef student section. The same segment also has British-South Asian Mansi Maheshwari’s Bunnyhood.

Three films play in the independent sidebars—Maisam Ali’s In Retreat, Karan Kandhari’s Sister Midnight, and Nightbirds, for which Indian filmmaker Ashok Vish collaborated with Maria Estela Paiso of the Philippines.

Beyond films, the iconic Indian cinematographer Santosh Sivan will be honoured for his achievements at the prestigious Pierre Angenieux Tribute ceremony. As we go to press, Apoorva Charan, producer of the much-acclaimed Pakistani film Joyland, who has her roots in Hyderabad, has been chosen as a fellow for the Cannes Producers Network Programme.

“This time, it’s extra special. So many films with India connection, so many close friends… It really feels like a team is going,” wrote Dhanania. There are other things to note, too. Most of the films are either helmed by women or are women-centric. Kapadia, Ali and Naik are all FTII graduates. And almost all of the films are co-productions, pointing at the universal reception of Indian stories. To come back to Dhanania, “A festival recognition is not just a pat on the back but also a chance to get more work, to sell the film, a chance for some financial solvency in a cutthroat world.”

Neecha Nagar is the only Indian film to have won the Palme d'Or. How will the current lot do? Will they get accolades and awards? Will they bag good international distribution deals? Will they generate enough buzz? For now, the world’s a stage for Team India at Côte d’Azur.

Namrata Joshi

Consulting Editor

Follow her on X @Namrata_Joshi

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