There’s a video out there titled “Deepika Padukone prepares for Cannes Film Festival 2019 red carpet”. There’s another one: “Ranveer Singh to attend Cannes Film Festival with Deepika”. India is definitely making a splash at Cannes. I, for one, can’t wait to see what Ranveer will wear. (A suit of feathers, perhaps, in honour of the Gallic Rooster, the national symbol of France?) Our newspapers and web sites are going to be full of it. The designers. The looks. Whether Aishwarya Rai Bachchan’s still got it, and ranking her various looks. (She’s going, isn’t she? She always does.) Oh, Sonam Kapoor, too. To celebrate her becoming Sonam Kapoor Ahuja, the British designer duo Ralph & Russo created their first ever lehenga. Ever since I heard this news, I’ve been imagining Sonam twirling her leg to this line in Choli ke peechhe kya hai: “Resham ka lehenga mera / Lehenga hai mehenga mera”.
Do not, for a second, think I am mocking. As someone who packs (and recycles) three shirts for the entire festival, I am in utter awe of the sheer number of suitcases these women must carry. The awe doubles imagining how they manage to roll up their trains while squeezing into a seat at a screening. It’s a wonder L’Oréal doesn’t milk this more. Imagine the ad headline: Aishwarya Rai Bachchan tears up at the new Almodóvar, but Voluminous Butterfly Waterproof Mascara saves the day. Speaking of the beautiful lady, what’s the etiquette if you end up seated behind her bouffant? Do you tap her shoulder with a grubby finger and ask her to slide into her seat? And if you do so, will an army of L’Oréal bouncers descend on you and palanquin you out of the theatre? Questions, questions.
Here’s another one: Why is there no Indian cinema at the festival? Put differently, why is India represented only by fashion, and not films? Oh, there are sure to be Indian films at the Cannes Film Market (Marché du Film), the largest international gathering of film professionals. Sumitra Bhave’s Dithee, Milind Lele’s Bandishala and Omkar Shetty’s Aaron will be showcased at the Marathi film booth. Saurav Rai from Bara Mangwa, near Darjeeling, will take his first feature film, Nimtoh (Nepali), to the HAF (Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum) Goes to Cannes initiative at the Film Market, where Rima Das presented Village Rockstars.
But scan the four main categories — Competition, Un Certain Regard, Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight — and there’s nothing. There’s not even a “Gully Boy premieres at the Berlinale” kind of event, during whose promotions Ranveer Singh was seen in the Abominable Snowman’s fur, accessorised with fridge magnets. The man just rocks. Someone please snag him an invitation to the Met Gala. Last year, Nandita Das’s Manto played in the Un Certain Regard section. Rohena Gera’s Sir was screened as part of Critics Week. Pushpa Ignatius premiered Pournami in the Cannes Short Film Corner. Even in 2017, when not a single feature film made the cut, we still had Payal Kapadia’s Afternoon Clouds in the Cinéfondation section, dedicated to young creators.
Should we be at least a little ashamed that we are the world’s largest film industry, and yet, not one of these films was deemed worthy of being showcased at the world’s most prestigious film festival? Or should we seek refuge in facts? Say, that if a small filmmaking nation like Ukraine is making inroads into Cannes — in 2018, Donbass won the Un Certain Regard prize for Best Director, and this year, Evge will be screened in the same section — it’s because of the increased state funding. (A 2018 report pegged the amount at $36 million, or roughly, the cost of ferrying Sonam Kapoor Ahuja’s clothes to the Croisette). Whereas, our films get nothing from the state. But how, then, do we explain Manto? How do we explain Gangs of Wasseypur, which was screened in the Directors’ Fortnight (Quinzaine des Réalisateurs) section?
Let’s not go back all the way to 1946, when Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar became one of the winners of the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film award, the festival’s highest honour before it was renamed Palme d’Or in 1955. Let’s look at now. Why do Indian films find it so difficult to get into the main categories? Even granted that most of what we make is “mainstream” cinema, there is a significant amount of alternative work being produced. There’s experimentation on a scale that hasn’t been seen since the Parallel Cinema heydays of the 1970s/80s. Why do these films fall short? You’d expect to see at least a few films nurtured by top international talent at the Work in Progress Lab and Screenwriters’ Lab at NFDC’s Film Bazaar, in Goa. That’s where The Lunchbox came from. It was screened as part of International Critics’ Week, in 2013. There was film and fashion. Nimrat Kaur walked the red carpet in a black embroidered sari by Sabyasachi.
At least one major reason for the inability to make it to Cannes is that very few filmmakers outside the Mumbai circuit (except the odd Vetri Maaran) know how to “play the game”, so to speak. They don’t know the rules. They don’t have Manish Malhotra’s number. They don’t keep track of the deadlines. (One Tamil filmmaker asked me in April if a film could be submitted for this year’s Festival.) They don’t have the contacts. And they don’t keep an eye on when scouts come looking for films. Look at the films chosen, in 2007, for the Tous Les Cinemas du Monde section, which showcases cinema from different countries. Apart from Lage Raho Munna Bhai, Guru, and (gulp!) Dhan Dhana Dhan Goal, we had Saira (Malayalam), Veyil (Tamil) and Dosar (Bengali). Maybe widening the net, getting these other industries excited about film festivals, is a start. I’m not dismissing the fashion. L’Oréal is good. But laurels would be better.