Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Nawazuddin Siddiqui — two names that encompass the entire spectrum of contemporary Hindi cinema. At the ongoing 66th Cannes film festival, Aishwarya was the toast of the red carpet, pirouetting in fashions by international designers like Elie Saab and Gucci. Meanwhile Nawazuddin did red carpet duty with no less than three films showing in various sections of the festival — Bombay Talkies, Monsoon Shootout and The Lunchbox. Both actors were equally celebrated and feted.
Which is what makes Cannes the world’s pre-eminent film event after the Oscars. The 11-day festival, which runs from May 15 to 26, is all things to all people. Cineastes consume the movies in official selection — each year, Cannes sets the global cinema agenda, particularly with the films screened in the main competition section. Distributors scouting for less arty fare congregate at the Cannes market in the basement of the Palais des Festivals, where titles such as Return to Nuke’ Em High do brisk business. And fashion folk devour the famed red carpet where legions of stunning actors and actresses posture for the tuxedoed paparazzi. It’s a heady cocktail of art, commerce, hustle and style — all breathlessly documented by an estimated 4000 journalists.
This year, the festival had a decidedly ‘desi’ flavour. India was the guest country. The 100th year of Indian cinema was celebrated with screenings, stars and an official sit-down dinner for 300-odd people, hosted by festival president Gilles Jacob and general delegate Thierry Frémaux. India has had a checkered history at the festival. An Indian film — Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar won the Grand Prix — at the first edition of the festival in 1946 but no Indian film to date has picked up the festival’s highest prize — the Palme D’Or (Pather Panchali was nominated in 1956). From the 1950s to the 1990s, Indian films continued to make waves at the festival. Raj Kapoor’s Awara showed in the main competition section in 1953. As did Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin in 1954 and M. S. Sathyu’s Garm Hava in 1974. But after Shaji N Karun’s Swaham in 1994, no Indian film made the cut for the main competition.
Instead, with the 2002 screening of Devdas as an out-of-competition entry, the accent shifted to Bollywood. India subsequently became a red carpet specialist — Bollywood stars would make headlines around the world but Indian films were a blink and you miss it affair. For seven long years, between Murali Nair’s Arimpara in 2003 and Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan in 2010, not a single Indian film was invited either for the main competition or for the less prestigious A Certain Regard.
So it was heartening to see Indian films making as big a splash as Indian fashions this year. Two first time directors Ritesh Batra and Amit Kumar carried forward the baton of ‘Hindie’ cinema with The Lunchbox and Monsoon Shootout respectively. The first is a poignant love story between a neglected housewife and a lonely widower who communicate through a dabba service. Monsoon Shootout, which was selected for a midnight screening, is a dense and dark thriller about a rookie cop, who must make a life-altering decision. Both films got rave reviews. Critics were divided on Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, which showed in the Directors Fortnight sidebar but the director, who also has producer credit on the other two, had plenty to celebrate — apart from five films at the Croisette, he was conferred with the French honour — the Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters — for promoting Indian cinema around the globe.
Meanwhile the India style quotient was being maintained by Aishwarya, Sonam Kapoor and Freida Pinto, all of whom walked the red carpet for L'Oréal Paris. The three made appearances on different evenings to different degrees of approval from the fashion police. Juror Vidya Balan stuck to traditional Indian clothes and said that she frankly
didn’t care about the response to her sartorial choices. Mallika Sherawat — soberly dressed in comparison to her previous Cannes appearances — also posed for photographers while Nandita Das, who served on the short films jury, kept a comparatively low profile. Of course, like everything else at the festival, the India story at Cannes ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous — mid-festival, starlet Sherlyn Chopra dropped by to promote her new film — Kamasutra 3D.
Two years ago, while speaking to journalists in Cannes, Anurag Kashyap labelled Bollywood the ‘comic relief in global cinema.’ But the filmmaker himself has done more than anyone else to dispel this notion — especially at Cannes. There was a sustained buzz and interest in Indian cinema at the festival. Young directors with fresh voices are emerging as Hindi independent cinema consolidates its position worldwide. Today, an Indian film in competition and even winning the coveted Palme D’Or seems like an achievable dream.