Why India can't be at Cannes
While other Asian countries make their presence felt, why are Indian filmmakers no longer in contention for the Palme d’Or?
On a hot April afternoon in 1994, filmmaker Shaji N Karun and his friend from the Film and Television Institute of India, Sukhwant Singh Dadha, lugged a heavy steel box to the Mumbai customs office in Santa Cruz. The box contained eight reels of Karun’s Malayalam film, 'Swaham', which had to be flown to Cannes where it was selected for the prestigious Competition section of the film festival.
“We took the film print from the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) lab in Vashi to the customs office for clearance,” recalls Karun, who had won the Camera d’Or Mention (in Un Certain Regard) at Cannes five years earlier for his debut feature film, 'Piravi'. “My friend G Rajamohan, who was the head of Hindustan Latex, paid for my flight ticket to France,” says Karun, who had exhausted all his savings producing the film, in the absence of any financial backers. Karun stayed in a tiny room on the fifth floor of a budget hotel at Cannes for four days until the NFDC checked him into a bigger hotel. He went to the red carpet in a white dhoti and a white shirt for the world premiere of 'Swaham'.
That was the year when a tall American came to Cannes: Quentin Tarantino with his film noir, 'Pulp Fiction'. “At the filmmakers’ club in Cannes, I would sit and chat with (Iranian director) Abbas Kiarostami and Mexican director Arturo Ripstein who were with me in Competition. We all came from developing countries and bonded,” laughs Karun. “I was proud when the Indian national anthem played before the screening of 'Swaham'.” Three days after that, Tarantino won the Palme d’Or for 'Pulp Fiction', famously or infamously beating Krzysztof Kieslowski’s 'Three Colours Red'. Twenty-five years later, Tarantino is in Cannes with his new film, 'Once Upon a Time in... Hollywood.' But Karun’s 'Swaham' was the last time an Indian film made it to Competition.
For the largest film industry in the world, in terms of the number of films made, that is not good news. “Many Indian films were submitted. Four were considered until the final discussions. But at the end, you have to make choices, independently of nationality, and other films were chosen,” says Christian Jeune, director of film department and deputy general delegate, Cannes Festival. “Let’s remember we have to select around 40 films from over 1,700 submitted,” adds Jeune, a big believer in Indian cinema, who discovered such films as Neeraj Ghaywan’s 'Masaan' and Gurvinder Singh’s 'Chauthi Koot', both of which were part of Un Certain Regard, which awards young talent and encourages promising works.
Among the films that were considered by Cannes this year was Gurvinder Singh’s new production, 'Khanaur', a migration story set in the hills of Himachal Pradesh. “It is difficult to say why our films were not selected in Cannes this year,” says Gurvinder.
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A Class Apart
This year Indian films are missing not just in the prestigious Competition section but in other important segments of the festival as well — Un Certain Regard, Directors’ Fortnight and Critics’ Week. “It is true that this year, there is no Indian film unlike in previous years, but I don’t think it is a problem of quality at all. It is more a year ‘without’,” says Jeune. “There is no Japanese film this year, or Australian,” he adds.
The long wait for an Indian film to be in contention for the Palme d’Or is in stark contrast to the long list of Indian movies that have competed before 'Swaham' became an undesirable landmark — 22 films between 1946, the year Cannes Festival was founded, and 1994. Satyajit Ray’s films were in the Competition section four times and Mrinal Sen’s thrice.
Karun says Indian cinema must assume responsibility for its failure to present a film at Cannes Competition in the past quarter century. “We have lost the soul of our cinema after Sen and Ray. We need producers to back our filmmakers like they supported Ray and Sen,” he says. Others locate it in the kind of cinema Cannes often demands and the lack of contacts, information and infrastructure available to many indie filmmakers.
Pan Nalin, director of 'Angry Indian Goddesses' and 'Faith Connections', which were premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, says: “Cannes insists on ‘auteur cinema’ that makes it nearly impossible for any Indian film to be selected because the competition is very tough. Auteur-stamped movies are rare in India. Even our so-called new wave or indie movies are ‘realistic’ or have shades of Italian-style neo-realism, but still they don’t earn an auteur-cinema status. It seems, for Cannes, personalised cinematic writing is a must.”
The missing sales agent is as much responsible, says Derek Malcolm, former director of the London Film Festival and former film critic at The Guardian, who has also been a mentor at the NFDC Film Bazaar in Goa. “Indian films are too long and too diffused. Principally, there are not enough good films and the good ones often don’t have professional backing from sales agents,” he says.
Deepti DCunha, part of the programming team of Directors’ Fortnight, which has screened Indian films like 'Gangs of Wasseypur', agrees. Independent filmmakers are the ones who mainly send their films to Cannes and these filmmakers have no support or funding during the process of making the film, which results in them having to make many compromises,” says DCunha. These compromises affect the film when it has to compete with the best in the world, “where talent is nurtured, encouraged and supported”. “If during the making of independent films, there is no Indian support, why should we be ashamed when results are announced that no Indian film is selected?” she asks.
The disappearance of Indian cinema from Cannes' Competition coincides with the emergence of other movie power houses in Asia. Says Jean-Michel Frodon, former editor-in-chief of the prestigious film magazine Cahiers du Cinema: "Actually, it was since the mid-1990s that Asian cinema began to really blossom in the main western festivals, mostly thanks to the New Taiwanese Cinema (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Edward Yang, Tsai Mingliang), the Fifth Generation in Mainland China (Chen Kaige, Zhang Yimou, Tian Zhuangzhuang), the discovery of Hong Kong elegancy in action movies and the graphic style of Wong Kar-wai, the rise of modern Iranian cinema under the artistic leadership of Kiarostami, and the creativity of South Korean cinema, from Park Chan-wook to Hong Sang-soo and Kim Ki-duk."
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Almost 25 years later, the landscape hasn't changed much, except for the addition of a few excellent filmmakers from the Philippines (Lav Diaz, Brillante Mendoza) and the Thai master Apichatpong Weerasethakul, he says. However, he cautions about the term "Asian". "It seems a bit too vast. Only certain parts of Asia have made a consistent breakthrough on cinema-as-art scene in the West. One should mention a brief spring in several countries, like Kazakhstan, Tajikistan and Malaysia, but then followed by long winters, still going on."
The Asian films vying for the Palme d"Or this year - along with those by Tarantino, Pedro Almodovar, Terrence Malick, the Dardenne brothers and Ken Loach - are Diao Yinan's 'The Wild Goose Lake' (China), Bong Joon-ho's 'Parasite' (South Korea) and Elia Suleiman's 'It Must be Heaven' (Palestine). In other sections, too, Asian films are present in this edition. 'The Orphanage', part of Directors' Fortnight, is directed by a young Afghan filmmaker, 29-year-old Shahrbanoo Sada (Read below, "All of Afghanistan is a Big Fan of Bollywood"). She is competing with celebrated filmmakers like Japan's Takashi Miike.
“All of Afghanistan is a Big Fan of Bollywood”
Shahrbanoo Sadat has a wish. One day, very soon, Afghan filmmakers will share their stories just the way they want to tell them. Twenty-nine-year old Sadat, who saw her first film in a movie hall when she was 20, is part of Directors’ Fortnight, which runs parallel to the Competition section at Cannes Festival. Her sophomore film, 'The Orphanage', tells the story of a 15-year-old boy in Kabul in the 1980s — a Bollywood fan who sells movie tickets in the black market. “All of Afghanistan is a big fan of Bollywood,” says Sadat. “Afghans know by heart the lyrics of Hindi films from the 1960s to ’90s. They speak Urdu very well, having picked it up from watching Bollywood movies.” A song from the 1982 film 'Shakti', “Jane kaise kab kahan iqrar ho gaya (I don’t know how, when and where we made a promise to each other)”, has a significant place in the film.
“In Kabul — whether you are walking around, eating at a restaurant or getting into a taxi — it’s impossible not to hear Hindi film songs,” says Sadat, who is tracing the history of her country over the past 40 years through memories, like the unpublished diaries of her friend and Bollywood fan Anwar Hashmi.
Sadat first came to Cannes in 2010 with a project at the Cinefondation, a foundation that supports young international filmmakers. Her plan was to make five films inspired by Hashmi’s diaries. The first film, 'Wolf and Sheep', premiered at Directors’ Fortnight in 2016. 'The Orphanage' is the second. She is now working on the third and fourth films.
Even the Cannes Festival's Cinefondation Atelier programme, which invites young filmmakers and gives them an opportunity to meet producers, has film projects from Pakistan, Nepal and Myanmar. 'Wakhri' (One of a Kind), a project by Pakistani director Iram Parveen Bilal, is inspired by Qandeel Baloch, a social media star who was murdered by her kid brother. Incidentally, Kareena Kapoor's character in Sriram Raghavan's 'Agent Vinod' was named after Bilal. 'Kangling' ('Bone Trumpet') from Nepal is about climate change in the Himalayas threatening lives in the subcontinent. The project draws its strength from the extensive research of its director, Fidel Devkota, who holds a PhD in environmental anthropology. A Myanmar project, 'The Women', tells the story of four young women workers sharing a dormitory in the big city of Yangon.
As Tarantino searches for yet another Palme d'Or this year, India would do well to prepare for a better future. As Cannes' General Delegate Thierry Fremaux told me during the NFDC Film Bazaar in 2013, "You have to create your own masters."