What comes to your mind when you think of India? The Taj Mahal? Holi celebrations? A Kathakali performance? Depending on who is imagining the country, the symbols and clichés that describe it change. If the Western gaze has its exotica-tinted glasses — just think of how the likes of the film Slumdog Millionaire and the series Shantaram have depicted Mumbai, focusing on the city’s urban poor — then commercial Hindi cinema has its own set of preferred clichés. Fortunately, there are some Indian filmmakers who challenge the stereotypes and frequently, their films get noticed because of being selected by international film festivals. This year, for instance, Cannes Film Festival shone the spotlight on two unusual titles from India — Kennedy by Anurag Kashyap and Agra by Kanu Behl.
Over the years, being selected by Cannes Film Festival has helped many Indian filmmakers make a name for themselves and raise Indian cinema’s profile. Here are some of our favourites from what Cannes has picked over the decades:
Salaam Bombay! is a movie that catapulted Indian cinema onto the international stage. Directed by Mira Nair, the movie tells the story of a young boy named Krishna who runs away from his village and ends up in the slums of Bombay. The movie is a poignant portrayal of life in the underbelly of the city, and the plight of street children. It won the Camera d'Or at Cannes in 1988, and was also nominated for an Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The Lunchbox is a heartwarming tale of two strangers who develop a connection through letters exchanged in a lunchbox. Directed by Ritesh Batra, the movie stars Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur in leading roles. It premiered at Cannes in 2013 and was met with critical acclaim. The movie went on to win numerous awards at film festivals around the world, cementing its position as one of the finest Indian movies of recent times.
Devdas is a classic Bollywood movie that premiered at Cannes in 2002. Directed by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, the movie is a tragic love story between the titular character and his childhood sweetheart, Paro. The movie stars Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai, and Madhuri Dixit in lead roles, and was highly praised for its lavish sets, costumes, and music. Devdas was the third Indian movie to be screened at Cannes and was also nominated for the Palme d'Or that year.
Directed by Kanu Behl, Titli is a dark drama about a dysfunctional family in Delhi. The film premiered at Cannes in 2014, where it was selected for the Un Certain Regard category. It also won several awards at other film festivals, including the Best First Feature award at the BFI London Film Festival
Masaan is a coming-of-age drama set in the holy city of Varanasi. The movie tells the story of four people whose lives intersect in unexpected ways. Directed by Neeraj Ghaywan, the movie stars Richa Chadha, Vicky Kaushal, and Sanjay Mishra in lead roles, and was highly praised for its screenplay, performances, and cinematography. It premiered at Cannes in 2015 and won the FIPRESCI Prize in the Un Certain Regard section.
Directed by Satyajit Ray, Pather Panchali is widely regarded as one of the greatest Indian films of all time. The film premiered at Cannes in 1956, where it won the Best Human Document award, paving the way for Indian cinema to make its mark on the international stage.
Directed by Vikramaditya Motwane, Udaan is a coming-of-age drama about a teenager trying to break free from an authoritarian father. The film premiered at Cannes in 2010, where it won the Un Certain Regard award for best film. It also won several awards at other film festivals around the world.
Directed by Nandita Das, Manto is a biographical drama about the Urdu writer Saadat Hasan Manto. The film premiered at Cannes in 2018, where it was selected for the Un Certain Regard category. It also won several awards at other film festivals, including the Best Director award at the Singapore International Film Festival.
Directed by Zoya Akhtar, Gully Boy is a musical drama about a young rapper from Mumbai's slums. The film premiered at Cannes in 2019, where it received critical acclaim and was widely considered one of the highlights of the festival. It went on to become a major commercial success in India and abroad.
Directed by Chaitanya Tamhane, Court premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2014 and later went on to debut at Cannes in the 2015 Un Certain Regard section. The movie, which focused on the Indian legal system, went on to win two awards at the festival - the Luigi De Laurentiis Award for Best Debut Film and the Lion of the Future award for best first feature film. Court was praised for its realism and its ability to portray the many injustices of the Indian legal system.