The 75th edition of the Cannes Film Festival has just concluded and, as ever, that waxing question has arisen. Why didn’t India have a winner in the competition section, which had Indian actor Deepika Padukone as part of the jury this year? Why does a nation which makes the maximum number of films fall so far behind on the metrics that decide the winners?
As ever, the answer is complex. It lies hidden under the collective self-belief of a film industry whose innate robustness has prevented significant penetration of cinema from any other part of the world. Thirty years back, Hollywood’s presence counted for a mere three to four per cent of the market. Even today, despite a huge leap in appetite for dubbed-and-subtitled globalized content, Hollywood’s best bet in India remain those familiar tentpoles, the “creature features” and superhero shenanigans. But no Batman or Superman or humungous dinosaur is about to give Indian filmmakers, with a RRR and a KGF under their bulging box office belts, sleepless nights. In India, Indian films, with their penchant for spectacle, song-and-dance, melodrama, are invincible, so who cares about the Croisette?
What those asking “why-not-India-in-the-competition” tend to forget is that India is not known for the kind of cinema which appeals to the selectors-cum-gatekeepers to that coveted section. This is not to say that other countries like South Korea or Romania or Belgium (each of which had an entry this year) make their movies solely keeping a possible Cannes birth in mind. These are not countries that can claim as established a film-making tradition as India, but what films like Park Chan-wook’s Decision To Leave, Cristian Mungiu’s RMN, and Lukas Dhont’s Close reveal is a fierce commitment to stories set in very specific locations, with characters who can only come from those milieus, yet whose situations are gloriously universal.
Look at Swedish director Ruben Ostlund’s riotous black satire, Triangle Of Sadness, which has just won the Palme d’Or. The film is a savage, merciless send-up of the mega-rich, as well as the proliferation of “influencers” and their greedy adjuncts in the billion-dollar beauty industry. Each stroke of that film has a profound truth that cuts across linguistic and cultural borders. With a very few exceptions, this kind of filmmaking has proved financially counter-productive in the Indian context. A combination of audience preference, which has been fed on escapist cinema for decades as the sole “entertainment” option, and a fear of rocking the boat has kept Indian filmmakers far from the kind of realism that leads to finding a Cannes competitive pew.
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Between 2010-2015, Vikramaditya Motwane’s Udaan, Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs Of Wasseypur, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan premiered at Cannes sidebar sections. Each film came from the lived experience of the directors of these films, and each felt like a marker for New Age Bollywood. What happened after that? Are there no takers for realistic cinema anymore, or is hewing close to the truth even more unprofitable in today’s Bollywood, struggling with pandemic-and-censorship woes?
But if our fictional outings haven’t made the cut, our documentaries have more than made up for it. Shaunak Sen’s brilliant All That Breathes, about Delhi’s frighteningly foul air and the love of fowls that that two brothers exhibit, has won the Golden Eye, the top documentary award. The film is a cogent examination of the ecosystem that nurtures both man and beast: Why are kites, those magnificent predatory birds, falling from the skies in increasing numbers, becoming prey themselves? And how will the humans who live and work in one of the world’s great capitals, survive the twin blows of pollution and polarisation? The film is sharp and moving, balancing dystopia with shards of optimism, its ecological and political concerns clearly visible.
Sen’s film derives power from its authenticity. It is the kind of film that spoke to official selectors at Cannes, as it did to the Sundance film festival jury, which also gave it a top award earlier this year. It might even appeal to an Oscar jury, if the Indian selectors are smart enough to nominate this film if, of course, it finds a theatrical release.
Are Indian producers ready to back even a handful of independent, truth-seeking films, those that may give us a chance to compete with the best at Cannes? Till then, we will have to be content with flaunting our wares on the red carpet, or in sections where we can buy our way in.