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Bollywood: It’s a masala the West cannot digest

The 2015 Cannes Film Festival began on May 13, and concluded on Sunday. At the same time the Jaipur Literary Festival came to London’s South Bank Centre, the artistic hub of Britain’s capital. One of the sessions at the JLF’s Brit debut was a discussion on Bollywood.

columns Updated: May 25, 2015 00:03 IST

The 2015 Cannes Film Festival began on May 13, and concluded on Sunday. At the same time the Jaipur Literary Festival came to London’s South Bank Centre, the artistic hub of Britain’s capital. One of the sessions at the JLF’s Brit debut was a discussion on Bollywood.

With distinguished figures Shabana Azmi, Nasreen Munni Kabir, Rachel Dwyer and the JLF’s own Sanjoy Roy, I was also asked to put in an appearance on this platform. For me the coincidence of the two fests have started me thinking about why Bollywood, though not Indian film, falls outside the criteria for acceptance at festivals such as Cannes.

In the last two decades, however, the Cannes festival has been marked by an Indian presence.

I don’t know why, apart from the fact that the rich and the aspirant think it’s a fun place to be. It wasn’t different this year either.

The Indian pavilion is where Indian films are advertised and where there are talks about Indian cinema attended by Indians. The pavilion acts as a stop-over and natural meeting place for film-makers, touts, people who have no accomplishments but plenty of ambition to exchange cards and promises over coffee.

Some years ago I was at the Cannes festival, having been invited by the producers of films I had written, which they were trying to sell at Cannes. The day after I got there my mobile phone rang.

It was my sister in Bengaluru.

“Where are you?”

“I am in Cannes at the film festival.”

“I know! The newspapers here are saying you have five films at Cannes!”

“What? I have no films at Cannes.”

“What about The Rising?”

“That’s not at Cannes! Bobby (the producer) has brought it to show to international distributors together with American Daylight, which I wrote.”

“But the other three?”

“They are films I wrote for a production company called Inspired Movies who have brought them to sell at Cannes. They’ll have showings and call distributors. They’re not at Cannes (Which Indians inevitably pronounce as ‘Karn’ or Karnz’). Being at Cannes means that you have submitted your film in one of the competitions and been chosen by the selectors to be exhibited in the official red-or-other-carpet screenings. The juries then judge which film wins. I have no films submitted or selected.”

“Oh!” said my sister.

A little later that day I was accosted by an Indian TV crew and the presenter approached me saying “Mr Dhondy, you have five films at Cannes this year?”

I repeated my denial and explanation. I said I wish I did.

I added an example: If a lady attends a course to learn English in a language school in Cambridge, she is perfectly entitled to say she studied ‘at Cambridge’ but it may mislead people into believing she was at the university.

“Oh,” said the presenter.

“And now you’ve ruined my life.”

“What do you mean?” the presenter asked.

“How can I ever go back to India? All my creditors will gather at the airports thinking I am rich!”

She didn’t get it.

In that year and every year since there has grown an Indian tradition among film-makers, to carry their cans to Cannes, hire cinemas on the fringes of the town and invite their guests. No international distributors attend these screenings but it allows the film-makers to say that their film “was screened at Cannes”.

This doesn’t apply to film-makers such as Satyajit Ray, Mira Nair, Shekhar Kapur, Shaji Karun and others who have been selected for screening at Cannes in competition and have won awards.

Their films are distinct from those of Bollywood, which don’t work at Cannes because the critical criteria by which films are judged in the West are not those used by producers to appeal to Indian audiences.

To say that Bollywood films are formulaic, divorced from any attempt to portray life as it is, melodramatic, sentimental, camp, full of unlikely musical sequences and absurd violence is to state the obvious.

Such a description could apply equally well to several Hollywood genres.

Indian films, which then achieved commercial success as Bollywood, began in a nationalist era with a combination of asserting the deep traditions of Indian culture and embodying some ideas of Gandhian reform. In the age of the genius Raj Kapoor they moved on to defining, spiritually and morally, who the men and women of India were.

Raj Kapoor constantly portrayed himself as the innocent abroad, the ‘Awaara’ who embodied the values of the salt of the earth — “hoton pey sachchai, dil mey safai etc” — in opposition to greedy venal, creeping modernism. Nargis, in Mother India, embodied the woman whose dharma enjoined her to follow the path of truth and even sacrifice her love for her son in order to do it — a female embodiment of the Gita’s teaching.

Cannes wouldn’t get that, though the emergent peasant Republics of the Soviet Union did and gave Raj and Nargis hysterical respect and several prizes.

Farrukh Dhondy is an author, screenplay writer and columnist based in London

The views expressed by the author are personal