CANNES, the French seaside town, hosts arguably the most famous, most glamorous film festival in the world, and this year it is celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. Frankly, the spotlight has been harsh, exposing the cracks in Bollywood’s badly applied foundation. Over a decade has passed since Devdas introduced a dash of Bollywood glamour to the sometimes self-conscious festival. In that time, our commercial films have made little headway, neither taken seriously nor able to compete with Hollywood for blockbuster drawing power.
The Bollywood pecking order means little on the Croisette. A film isn’t going to find an audience just because of the names on the banner. So Bombay Talkies, despite its directors who are celebrities back home either because they represent the slick, emerging brand of Bollywood filmmaking or they’re Karan Johar, got much less attention than films made by industry nobodies. Talkies was invited as a tribute to Indian cinema, but still didn’t merit a screening at the Grand Théâtre Lumière, the main hall. “A breezy, unsubstantial work,” sniffed Screen International.
Compare this tepid response to the substantial buzz generated by Ritesh Batra’s directorial debut The Lunchbox (see pix). Set in middle class Mumbai, Batra tells the story of three people who come together over that rarest of events — a dabba that is delivered to the wrong address. The understated storytelling and endearing characters appeal to the international indie set. The performances by Irrfan Khan, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Nimrat Kaur were a big hit with the audiences. Khan, one of the film’s co-producers, told me he was excited by the response, if a little baffled. The film, he said, “has a warm sweetness” that might appeal to otherwise jaded cinemagoers. Several distributors, he added, had made approaches for the film, including Artificial Eye, the British distributors with a knack for spotting successful art house and foreign language films. Cannes is, after all, about business.
The Lunchbox was screened at the parallel International Critics’ Week and is eligible for the Caméra d’Or award for best first film at the festival. Some of the smart money says it may even have a chance. Amit Kumar’s debut, Monsoon Shootout, the only Indian film in the Official Selection, is also eligible for the Caméra d’Or. Kumar’s film was praised by Hollywood Reporter for its “international look… But, thankfully, it’s still so packed with colourful things it’s hard to mistake it for anything but Indian.” The Guardian’s praise was also faintly patronising, describing Shootout as an “entertaining popcorn-movie with a twist”. Siddiqui plays a hit man and the enthusiasm for his performance has been unreserved, one publication describing him as “every inch an unstoppable force”.
Siddiqui’s hattrick of films at Cannes (he also appears in Dibakar Banerjee’s slice of Bombay Talkies) means he’s more likely to be recognised at the festival than Shah Rukh Khan. It takes us back to the point, that Bollywood reputations count for so little here. It’s refreshing. Zoya Akhtar, certainly considered promising at home, is a lightweight in international company. Even Dibakar Banerjee is just one of many exciting talents at the festival.
Of course, none of this is to say our film industry has to cut its cloth to suit the opinion-makers at Cannes, but this is not a festival averse to international cinema and our films don’t make the cut. The last Indian film actually in the race for the Palme d’Or, the main award at Cannes, was Shaji N Karun’s Swaham in 1994. Never mind the Chinese, Korean and Iranian filmmakers, even Chad, one of the poorest countries in the world, has a film in competition this year: the slight, gentle but absorbing Grigris, directed by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, described by The Guardian as an “emerging master of African cinema”.
Anurag Kashyap, recently made a Knight of the Order of Arts and Letters, France’s top cultural award, is a director most in thrall to Cannes and vice versa. His film Ugly was screened at the ‘Director’s Fortnight’, but didn’t quite make the kind of splash Gangs of Wasseypur did last year. The lukewarm react ion was in keeping with a festival that still doesn’t get Indian cinema. Not that Indian cinema is trying too hard to be got.