There was a dramatic moment at the end of a long session with Thierry Fremaux, general delegate of the Cannes Film Festival, at the Film Bazaar on Friday. In response to a lady in the audience who asked whether Cannes would open with an Indian film if it was a magnificent one, he quipped, "Where is that magnificent Indian movie? Show it to me."
Earlier during a one-to-one conversation with Fremaux, he said that Cannes had an enormous responsibility towards promoting world cinema, which included Indian movies.
However, soon after he took over the reins of what is arguably the world's most important cinema event, Fremaux screened Sanjay Leela Bhansali's Devdas in 2002. "Only to prove that the Festival was open to all kinds of cinema, Bollywood too," Fremaux averred.
He admitted that showing Devdas was his personal decision, not quite approved by his selection panel. "But I loved Devdas," he smiled, "It was a good work." He then felt that Cannes needed something as "surprising" as Devdas. "Cannes always requires something surprising to make it look fresh every year."
One Indian film critic had commented that Devdas somehow spoiled the country's image at Cannes but Fremaux never imagined such a reaction. "Cannes is not about France," he said. "It is a Festival that takes place in Cannes, and we have to ensure that we provide a platform for moviemakers from all over the world. Bollywood directors included".
Fremaux admitted that while he fully understood his duty as the chief of Cannes, he was not above making mistakes. As a human being, he was not only fallible, but also has his likes, dislikes and even prejudices. "But you have to keep fighting these," he said.
Come January, Fremaux and his team, which includes the deputy general delegate Christian Jeune, will begin watching some 800 films. They will eventually select some 60 (in sections like Competition, Outside Competition, A Certain Regard, Special Screenings and Midnight Screenings).
"As we get into the trying process of elimination and selection, we are also trying not to make mistakes, to avoid those which we made earlier. And yes, my job is not to say that a movie is good or bad. It is not even to say that I like a film or do not like it. My job is to determine whether a movie is suitable for Cannes," Fremaux said.
But what is suitable for Cannes? Fremaux was modest enough to admit that he was not sure about this. "But even if I were, I am not going to tell you," he laughed.
Of course, he has a broad guideline to follow when he chooses his films. "Cannes has four priorities: glamour, art, industry and media, and we try and satisfy each of these when he put together our festival."
One can have a Sharon Stone or an Aishwarya Rai on the jury, but you can be sure that it will be headed by someone like Tim Robbins or Steven Spielberg, men who can look beyond the kind of cinema that they themselves make. "Let us not forget that Spielberg gave the top Palm d'Or to a movie like Blue is the Warmest Colour. It was so very different from the films he makes".
All this proves that Cannes is universal. "Cannes is open to all," he added. If there was Devdas, there was also Monsoon Shootout and Bombay Talkies in this year's selection - very different from Bhansali's work.
Yet, Cannes is often seen in India as leaning towards the Hindi language cinema. Bombay Talkies, which played at the festival as a tribute to 100 years of Indian cinema, consisted of four short segments all made by Bollywood directors.
That Fremaux is fond of Bollywood is undeniable, especially when he concluded the interview by saying that "my dream is to see a Bollywood film in Cannes competition". Bollywood, I repeat. "Yes Bollywood or auteur cinema". He added the last two words as an afterthought.
Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered the Cannes Film Festival for 23 years, and has seen two legendary directors - Gill Jacob and now Fremaux - at the helm of affairs.)