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Festival films: How the world sees India

Ahead of Cannes, leading curator and festival consultant Meenakshi Shedde gives us her view on how Indian cinema is perceived by the arthouse circuit

‘Salaam Bombay!’made it to the Cannes Film Festival in the late 1980s.
‘Salaam Bombay!’made it to the Cannes Film Festival in the late 1980s.

Let’s start with a rapid-fire question: In which section did Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas play at Cannes? Answer: the clumsily named Out of Competition section in 2002, playing alongside George Lucas’ Star Wars: Episode II—Attack Of The Clones, Brian de Palma’s Femme Fatale, Woody Allen’s Hollywood Ending and Fernando Meirelles’ Cidade De Deus. Feel free to turn apoplectic or faint gracefully if you wish, but there it is. The truth is, this business of dissecting in which festival section a film was selected is more for film-makers and festival insiders than the public. Bhansali will forever legitimately be Cannes royalty, and no one can take that away from him.

India in world cinema

As the Cannes Film Festival (17-28 May) nears, you will hear the familiar annual whine about why India has not got top festival prizes or even been selected in the competition section of major festivals for decades. It is true, and India has only one short film at Cannes this year, Payal Kapadia’s Afternoon Clouds, from the Film and Television Institute of India, in the Cinefondation section for film schools. But it is also peculiar that while in sport, even a ragtag national team will usually get the unstinting support of Indian fans, local critics and audiences are often the harshest critics of films at international festivals, despite the films being feted abroad. This happens in many nations, including India. Despite securing 10 Oscar nominations, and winning four Oscars and two Golden Globes, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon had Hong Kong audiences giggling at the swordplay in the bamboo grove that the rest of the world found achingly poetic.

Indian cinema has earned substantial laurels on the international film festival circuit, of which it can justly be proud. Its festival debut came over 80 years ago, when Debaki Bose’s Seeta, starring Durga Khote and Prithviraj Kapoor, won a prize at the Venice Film Festival in 1934, soon after sound came to Indian cinema. The credibility of Indian cinema at film festivals has been firmly established by a solid body of arthouse films that have made various festival line-ups, including Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar, which won the Grand Prix in 1946, and Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (Cannes), Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Charachar (Berlin) and Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Mathilukal (Venice), as well as more recent films, including Anurag Kashyap’s Raman Raghav 2.0 and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan (Cannes); Avinash Arun’s Killa, Jayaraj’s Ottaal and Amit Masurkar’s Newton (Berlin); and Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court and Shubhashish Bhutiani’s Mukti Bhawan (Venice).

A number of mainstream films have also been selected at A-list festivals, including Devdas at Cannes, Om Shanti Om and Nagraj Manjule’s Sairat at Berlin, Delhi-6 at Venice, and Kabhi Alvida Naa Kehna at Toronto. Arthouse film-makers, who depend on film festivals as their lifeline in finding audiences, feel festivals are their jaagir, their fiefdom, and savagely resent the incursions of Bollywood and other mainstream cinemas into the festival circuit.

It is a legitimate concern that Indian films have not been in top festival competition sections for about two decades, or won an Oscar in ages, but there is no need to froth at the mouth. As a festival insider who has been South Asia consultant to the Berlin Film Festival for 20 years and has served on 20 international film festival juries, I can safely say that a Vedantic attitude is best: Do your duty, your best, irrespective of the fruits of action. If we are selected at festivals, I’m proud; if we’re not, it’s not the end of the world.

Let’s get the Oscar out of the way first. While the Oscar might appear the greatest film prize, your film is eligible only if it is theatrically released “in Los Angeles county". So the Oscars are essentially the American national awards, mostly giving their own films awards in all major categories, while the rest of the world goes hysterical after one mingy category, Best Foreign Language Film, pleading for crumbs at the table of the rich and mighty (Oscar voters until very recently were 93% white and 76% men with the average age of 63). International film festivals such as Cannes, Berlin and Venice are more egalitarian, acknowledging artistic talent from wherever it comes, with juries composed of the best multinational talent.

‘Piravi’ made it to the Cannes Film Festival in the late 1980s.

Out of competition, still in the game

It’s true, there have been few Indian films, if any, in the Competition section at Cannes since Malayalam cinema veteran Shaji Karun’s Swaham in 1994, in Berlin since Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Charachar in 1994, and in Venice since Dasgupta’s Uttara in 2000, when it won Best Director. Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding, which was not selected at Cannes but went on to win the Golden Lion at Venice in 2001, was an international co-production. The fact is, a lot of the credibility Shaji Karun enjoys worldwide and in India comes primarily from Piravi, which was not in Competition at Cannes but in Un Certain Regard, and for which he won a Caméra d’Or Honourable Mention for best debut feature, and from Vanaprastham, which was also in Un Certain Regard. But Swaham, his weakest film of the three, was up there in the Cannes Competition in 1994, alongside Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Trois Couleurs: Rouge and Nanni Moretti’s Caro Diario. Even Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which won the Grand Rail d’Or or Critics’ Week Audience Award at Cannes and sold in 50 territories worldwide, was nowhere in the Cannes official selection, but in the Critics’ Week, a vital parallel section at Cannes.

Anurag Kashyap has also said he prefers being at Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes—his films there include Raman Raghav 2.0, Gangs Of Wasseypur 1 and 2, and Ugly—rather than the Competition section. It is not a question of sour grapes: “In the Competition section, you can get hammered by critics if your film is not appropriate to that section, whereas the critics expect different things from films in Directors’ Fortnight or Critics’ Week," he told me in an interview in Mumbai last year. Moreover, the “official selection" at film festivals includes a raft of different sections, of which Competition is only one. And it is no mean feat to get selected for any of these sections: The Berlin Film Festival receives well over 6,000 film entries on average, so even selection is a tremendous achievement.

One nation, many cinemas

With a population exceeding one billion, India also has a huge domestic market—like the US and China—and this remains the backbone of our film revenue; overseas theatrical earnings are less than 10%. Traditionally, Indian cinema has been inward-looking, not really anxious to reach out to the world. More importantly, Indian cinema is a powerhouse in itself: It is the only market globally where Hollywood has less than 10% of the market. So it’s all right if our film-makers are not selected at a specific film festival; most indie film-makers who need festivals, in the end hope to use them to find audiences at home and abroad.

What could have made it easier to programme Indian films is if we had a distinct identity. The world has some idea what to expect from an Iranian, Hong Kong, Korean or French film; whereas Indian national cinema is like a mirror-ball, reflecting multiple identities. That’s because Indian cinema is unique: We make films in 42 languages and dialects (according to the Central Board of Film Certification), all in a single country! That’s incredibly rich and diverse, and can be confusing to the outsider. It is not important to have a single, pan-Indian voice, because that would be a fake voice; it is more important to be ourselves. And that immediately makes us distinctive. For instance, in Tamhane’s Court, a debut feature that won two prizes at Venice in 2014, you hear the patois you would hear in Mumbai, a mixture of Marathi, Hindi, Gujarati and English.

Once a famous mainstream film-maker had his secretary call me to say he had made a new film, and was determined to walk the red carpet at Cannes; he was willing to pay me any fees I quoted if I would “arrange" this. I told her he didn’t need to pay me any fees; he simply had to make a film that Cannes couldn’t refuse.

The writer tweets at @MeenakshiShedde

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