India had big plans for the upcoming Cannes Film Festival that opens in the French Riviera town on May 17. After all, it would be the 70th edition of the influential festival taking place in the 70th year of India’s independence. To mark the occasion, a high-level Indian delegation, led by information and broadcasting minister M Venkaiah Naidu, was planned. The state-run National Film Development Corporation was entrusted with the task of managing India’s pavilion at the Cannes Film Market, the world’s biggest film industry meet. Not to be left behind, a producer from south India decided to co-sponsor the official opening party of the film market.
To cut a long story short, India was all set to be a hit at Cannes this year—until the festival announced its official selection on April 13. To the shock of the Indian film industry and fans of Indian cinema, there were no Indian films in the official selection. Even the festival’s parallel sections—Critics’ Week and Directors’ Fortnight, which had screened films such as Gangs of Wasseypur and The Lunchbox in the past—have given Indian films the cold shoulder this year.
Consolation comes in the form of a short film, Afternoon Clouds, and another in post-production, Village Rockstars, which will represent India at Cannes this year. Afternoon Clouds by Payal Kapadia, a Film and Television Institute of India student, will be part of the section for film school projects, while Village Rockstars by Assam’s Rima Das is part of a new work-in-progress section at the film market.
Not surprisingly, Naidu will not be heading to Cannes. The biggest worry for the Indian film industry, however, won’t be his absence, but the lack of entries from the world’s largest film-producing nation. In fact, the initial announcement of selected films by Cannes in April completely ignored both Indian and Chinese cinema. One film from China (Walking Past the Future by Li Ruijun) was, however, added last week as an afterthought. No such luck for India though. “Well, what can I say? It’s a great country for movies,” said Thierry Fremaux, the festival’s general delegate, when asked about the absence of Indian films at Cannes this year. Fremaux didn’t say how many Indian films he had received for selection, but under the Cannes watch were new productions like Anup Singh’s The Song of Scorpions, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Daddy, etc.
Singh, who won the Best Asian Film award at the 2013 Toronto International Film Festival for his Punjabi Partition drama Qissa, shot The Song of Scorpions in Rajasthan. The love story stars Irrfan Khan, Iranian actor Golshifteh Farahani and Waheeda Rehman. The Switzerland-France co-production, however, encountered delivery timeline problems and hence couldn’t be selected. Ahluwalia, too, was widely expected to return to Cannes—where his debut feature film, Miss Lovely, was screened in 2012—as part of the Un Certain Regard section (a big-ticket category at the festival), with Daddy, a biopic on Mumbai don Arun Gawli. Also among the more than 2,000 films submitted to Cannes for consideration was Argentine director Pablo Cesar’s Thinking of Him, an Indo-Argentine co-production, which is based on Rabindranath Tagore’s relationship with Argentine poet Victoria Ocampo and stars Victor Banerjee as Tagore.
“Cinema is the history of a country,” says Malayalam filmmaker Shaji N Karun. “We lose the opportunity to tell our history if our films are not participating in international festivals.” Karun should know. He was the last Indian director to show a film in the prized competition section of the Cannes Film Festival. And that was 23 years ago. Karun’s Swaham (My Own) competed in 1994, the year when American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino won the Palme d’Or, the top prize at Cannes, for Pulp Fiction. Before that, Karun won a Special Mention of the Camera d’Or jury for Piravi in 1989.
Interestingly, Cannes has served as the hunting ground for Indian directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Bimal Roy, Shyam Benegal, MS Sathyu and Karun himself. Referring to the selection of mostly regional films from India by Cannes in the past, Karun says, “Our diversity is our strength… The human emotional content from small places makes for great cinema. Our films have demonstrated that before. The current situation shows the failure of the political vision to rediscover that capability.”
Last year, too, it was the same story for Indian cinema at Cannes. There were no films from the country in the official selection. A documentary (The Cinema Travellers) filled a slot in the Cannes Classics section, which celebrates film heritage, while Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 was screened as part of the Directors’ Fortnight section.
In fact, the last time an Indian feature film was part of the official selection at Cannes was in 2015 when two films—Chauthi Koot by Gurvinder Singh and Masaan by Neeraj Ghaywan—were part of Un Certain Regard.
French critic Jean-Michel Frodon says the absence of entries from India and China, the two leading film-making nations in the world, is ‘abnormal’. “A Chinese film was added to the Un Certain Regard section… Nevertheless, these are abnormal absences,” says Frodon, former editor-in-chief of the prestigious French film magazine Cahiers du Cinema. “I can’t believe there was nothing from the two leading film-making countries worthy to be screened at Cannes.”
As per Frodon, the absence is related to the “exaggerated presence” of French films and co-productions. Ismael’s Ghosts, a French film by Arnaud Desplechin, will open the festival, while another, Barbara by Mathieu Amalric, is the opening film in the Un Certain Regard section. Yet another, Let the Sunshine in by Claire Denis, opens the Directors’ Fortnight section. “I am worried that Cannes may lose its leading position if it becomes too much connected with the French production-distribution system,” says Frodon, adding, “Cannes is not a French festival. It’s the world’s most important international festival, which happens to be located in France.”
As far as the Indian film industry is concerned, it can’t continue to ignore its absence at Cannes. Compared to the Seventies and Eighties when parallel cinema from India ruled the global stage, independent filmmaking has lost its sheen in the current era. To some extent, Marathi and Tamil cinema has shown revival in recent times, with laurels in film festivals like Venice and Toronto. Independent cinema from India, however, has made way for vibrant cinema from other Asian countries like Thailand, Korea and the Philippines at international festivals. “We have fantastic stories, but we don’t have the courage to show them,” says independent director Manjeet Singh. After screening his first film, Mumbai Cha Raja, at the 2012 Toronto film festival, Singh was selected for the Cannes co-production forum, L’Atelier, for his next project, Chenu. The film, however is yet to be shot. “Producers are scared because they think the story is dark,” Singh says about the film, the story of a low-caste boy caught between Maoists and landlords.
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State support and recognition play a big role too. As per Karun, though, National Awards today are decided keeping in mind “growth of the jury”, not “growth of cinema”. “We are forgetting honest filmmakers by doing that. The government has a duty to tell us why this is happening,” he says.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer