Stories of the subcontinent: Films from India, Pakistan, Nepal illuminate 75th anniversary line-up of Cannes Film Festival

Stories of local heroes and social challenges underline the strength of subcontinental cinema today as reflected in the Cannes selection from the region.

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A film school production from India has also made it to Cannes this year, reflecting on the depth in the next generation of Indian filmmakers.

There is a strong subcontinental flavour at the Cannes Film Festival this year. Celebrating its 75th anniversary, the world’s most influential film festival has lined up movies from India, Pakistan and Nepal in the official selection for the May 17-28 event. The three neighbouring countries are also part of mentorship programmes for a new generation of filmmakers from emerging countries at Marche du Film, the Cannes festival’s marketplace for movies. Marche du Film has already announced India as the Country of Honour this year to coincide with the 75th anniversary of India’s independence and 75 years of diplomatic relations between India and France.

Stories of local heroes and social challenges underline the strength of subcontinental cinema today as reflected in the Cannes selection from the region. All That Breathes, Delhi-based filmmaker Shaunak Sen’s documentary in the Special Screenings programme of the festival, is about two brothers saving birds of prey from the city’s polluted air. The film, which won the Sundance festival’s top award for world cinema in January this year, shares screen space with the new documentaries of the Oscar-winning American director Ethen Coen (Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind), Ukrainian filmmaker Sergie Loznitsa (The Natural History of Destruction) and Chilean director Patricio Guzman (My Imaginary Country) in the Cannes special screenings section.

Vernacular stories

“This year has been especially good for Indian cinema at large and documentaries in particular. The appreciation of major international festivals for Indian non-fiction has been good. There is certainly a curiosity for vernacular stories. Our film is a story about a black kite in Delhi,” says Sen, who was surprised to get the Cannes call for All That Breathes.

A film school production from India has also made it to Cannes this year, reflecting on the depth in the next generation of Indian filmmakers. Nauha by Pratham Khurana, an alumnus of the Whistling Woods International in Mumbai, is among 16 films in La Cinef (formerly Cinefondation) category selected from 1,528 entries from film schools around the world. The 26-minute film, made by Khurana for his final semester at the Whistling Woods International undergraduate filmmaking programme in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, tells the relationship between an ailing elderly man and his caregiver. Nauha, an Urdu word which means “mourning the loss”, was shot last year in Noida on the outskirts of Delhi. “Urbanisation and migration are the big themes of the movie,” says Khurana. A Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune production, CatDog directed by Ashmita Guha Niyogi, had won the 15,000-euro (about `12 lakh) top prize at Cannes film school competition in 2020. Another FTII alumna, Payal Kapadia’s Afternoon Clouds was the first Indian film to compete in the Cannes film school competition in 2017.

The growing respect for the works of the new generation of filmmakers from the subcontinent is also reflected in the selection of Pakistani film Joyland in Un Certain Regard category for new voices in world cinema at the Cannes festival this year, a year after Bangladeshi director Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehana Maryam Noor featured in the same category. If Rehana Maryam Noor, Bangladesh’s own MeToo story, dealt with a medical student’s unsuccessful attempt to expose the sexual assault on her classmate by a professor, Joyland explores a blooming sexual rebellion in a patriarchal family. Directed by Saim Sadiq, who studied filmmaking at the Columbia University, New York, Joyland is a feature extension of the director’s own short film, Darling, which won the Best Short Film prize at the Venice festival in 2019.

Nepali director Abinash Bikram Shah’s Lori (Melancholy of My Mother’s Lullabies) is among the nine films competing for the Palme d’Or for the Best Short Film in Cannes this year. Selected from 3,507 films from 140 countries, Lori is the first Nepali film to be selected to a competition section of the Cannes festival. A well-known scriptwriter, Shah’s stories for the screen probe personal relationships. Shah is also part of La Fabrique Cinema mentorship programme at the Cannes festival’s film market with his debut feature film project, Elephants in the Fog, about a group of transgender women responsible for patrolling wild elephants which are in conflict with a nearby human settlement. “In our society, where conservative ideologies can sometimes take over humanity and empathy, people who desire what our society forbids them to desire are often marginalised. They fail in society’s eyes, and are cast aside,” says Shah, an alumnus of Locarno Filmmakers Academy. “We actively partner with the new generation of filmmakers who strive to tell local stories that are bold, original and authentic,” adds the film’s producer Anup Poudel of the Kathmandu-based independent production house, Underground Talkies Nepal.

New generation

Hindi language feature project, Starfruits directed by Gourab Kumar Mullick, is among the ten projects in various stages of development mentored this year at La Fabrique Cinema programme to help young filmmakers from emerging countries gain international experience. Last year, another Indian project, Eka by Kolkata-born Suman Sen about a single protester against a giant statue of common man in the West Bengal capital, was the only Indian entry in La Fabrique Cinema. Set in Mumbai in the ’90s, Starfuits, which is undergoing casting and location scouting, tells the love story of a small-time gangster and his male friend. Along with the two Indian and Nepali projects, Pakistani film Panah Khana (Haven of Hope) completes the subcontinental addition to La Fabrique Cinema. Directed by Pakistani artist and filmmaker Seemab Gul, Panah Khana is about three inmates from an asylum for women who venture into the outside world for a day. In the advanced development stage, the film addresses women’s rights and mental health. “The focus of the film is less on the mental health of the women, but how their sanity is questioned when they demand their rights; rights to their children, divorce and especially their inheritance,” explains Abid Aziz Merchant, the Karachi-based producer of the film. “I am a firm believer that the only way we can have our presence felt in this highly competitive world cinema is by showing our uniqueness and our strengths, our culture and our reality to the world,” adds Merchant, who quit a lucrative banking career to launch an independent film production company, Sanat Initiative, in 2013. “It is a risk but it’s worth taking.”

Zombie film

A French zombie film, Final Cut, by Michel Hazanavicius, who directed the Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist, will open the festival on May 17. “It is the story of a filming of a zombie movie,” says Cannes festival artistic director Thierry Fremaux. “The film talks about the passion of making movies, about the collective effort.” It is the second time a zombie film is the opening movie in Cannes, after American director Jim Jarmusch’s The Dead Don’t Die in 2019. A compelling line-up of international cinema marks the 75th anniversary of the Cannes festival, founded in 1939 in the then small fishing hamlet by the Mediterranean Sea. Among the films vying for the prestigious Palme d’Or are Tori and Lokita by Belgium filmmaker-brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne, R.M.N by Romanian Cristian Mungiu, Crimes of the Future by Canadian director David Cronenberg, and Armageddon Time by American filmmaker James Gray. There are five female directors in the competition section: French director Claire Denis (Stars at Noon), American director Kelly Reichardt (Showing Up), who has an Indian-origin producer, Anish Savjani (who also produced Ritesh Batra’s Photograph), French filmmakers Léonor Serraille (Mother and Son) and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Forever Young), and Belgian actor-director Charlotte Vandermeersch, who has co-directed The Eight Mountains with compatriot Felix Van Groeningen.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

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