In 1947, India, a country under colonial rule for two centuries, broke away from the shackles of empire to become an independent nation. In that same year, miles away from India, another platform was born that would give voice to young, independent artistes to tell their stories to the world. Since 1947, the Cannes Film Festival, held in the picturesque coastal town in southern France, has been the marquee event for filmmakers from around the world. And 2022 was no different. For the first time in its history, the Festival had a Country of Honor in India at the Marché du Film, its international business centre.
In another first for the festival, India’s official delegation, led by Anurag Singh Thakur, Minister for Information and Broadcasting (MIB), walked the red carpet. They were accompanied by film director Shekhar Kapur, actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Academy Award-winning music composer AR Rahman, actor R Madhavan, lyricist and chairperson of the Central Board of Film Certification Prasoon joshi, music maestros Ricky Kej and Mame Khan and yours truly. Deepika Padukonethe official jury member from India, joined the India Pavilion at the festival to unveil the poster from the International Film Festival of India, Goa – an emerging hub for cinema in South Asia.
In the following days, there were a lot of meetings regarding the co-production market. There was a renewed thrust on bringing more films to Goa this year. Minister Thakur announced a plethora of incentives, including many subsidies under the aegis of the National Film Development Corporation’s Film Facilitation Office. From the bouquet of films we took to Cannes, in languages like Maithili, Marathi, Tamil and Telugu, young and independent filmmakers got a chance to be at a major platform – the Marche Du Film — and this will pave the way for many new independent filmmakers to reach Cannes in the future.
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Rocketry, actor R Madhavan’s debut feature as a writer, producer and director premiered at the Marche Du Film. Professor Nambi Narayanan, the scientist on whose life Madhavan’s film is based, was also present. The film got a standing ovation at the screening. We also had an “India Night”, hosted by Minister Thakur, where Mame Khan performed with Ricky Kej – a Grammy award winner. At the India Night, the minister hosted Jérôme Paillard, whose last year it was as the director of the Marche Du Film. He is hanging up his boots after many decades. Christian Jeune, director of the Film Department at the Cannes Film Festival, had conversations with the minister and the delegation.
All That Breathes, which was in the Special Screening segment, follows the lives of siblings Mohammad Saud and Nadeem Shehzad who, working out of their derelict basement in Wazirabad, a village in Delhi, rescue and treat injured birds, especially Black Kites. Shaunak Sen’s film won the best documentary award at Cannes. The 90-minute documentary was chosen as the winner by a jury comprising Polish filmmaker Agnieszka Holland, Ukrainian writer-director Iryna Tsilyk, French actor Pierre Deladonchamps, journalist Alex Vicente, and Moroccan writer-filmmaker Hicham Falah.The jury said: “L’ OEil d’Or goes to a film that, in a world of destruction, reminds us that every life matters, and every small action matters. You can grab your camera, you can save a bird, you can hunt for some moments of stealing beauty, it matters.”
I moderated a session on India being a global content hub where Minister Thakur delivered the keynote address. Shekhar Kapur, R Madhavan and Apurva Chandra, the MIB Secretary, were also present along with producer Philippe Avril who has produced a lot of movies with Indian filmmakers including Shaji N Karun.
Tham, a Malayalam-language film for which Karun has done the cinematography, was screened at the Cannes Classics section of the festival. Pratidwandi, Satyajit Ray’s famous movie was also in this section, as part of a tribute to the great filmmaker.
At the session, participants spoke about how India is an evolving story with more than a billion digital footprints across the country. Ritesh Batra’s Lunchbox and Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan were discussed during the session. As was Piravi, Karun’s film. It is the aspiration of Indian filmmakers to go global now because there’s a very large domestic market but globally the footprint is increasing very fast. Whether it’s the north, east or west, India, as one of the largest film-producing countries in the world, has the biggest story to tell. It is said in France that if you’re at Cannes, you have arrived. And India did arrive this year.
During the session, I mentioned that in 1946, Neecha Nagar, an Indian adaptation of Maxim Gorky’s play The Lower Depths, which depicted the gulf between the rich and the poor, caught the attention of everyone at Cannes. It was directed by the late Chetan Anand, who won the Grand Prix of The International Film Festival (later known as the Palme D’Or) – the top prize at Cannes for directing.
Neecha Nagar’s success at Cannes demonstrates that India has always been at the center of storytelling and is a land of kathavachaks. In the early years of its independence, the country’s cinema reflected the struggles of a just-born nation. Later, it portrayed the aspirations of the country’s youth grappling with the prevalent economic situation.
Today, India, after embarking on a 75-year-old journey, is at the cusp of a huge advancement again. It is the largest content hub and film-producing nation. For an industry that has a large domestic market, Indian cinema is aspirational and its aspiration, in turn, is to go global.
What made the India story unique at Cannes this year was the stellar delegation put together under the leadership of Minister Thakur. Film commissions from across the world congregated at Cannes to meet him and the Indian delegation. There were wide-ranging discussions on the changing face of content in India and how OTT platforms have given democratised content creation.
This summer, the French Riviera got colored by the many shades of India. As the French would say on va au cinema – let’s go to the movies!
The writer is an actor, producer and a member of the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC)