Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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Cannes 2008: Zero for India

Strange but true. And sad indeed, India has gone unrepresented at the Cannes International Film Festival’s Competition for almost 14 years. In 1994, Shaji N. Karun’s, Malayalam work, “Swaham”, competed at what is undoubtedly the

The poster of the Festival de Cannes 2008 is a photograph by David Lynch, with a graphic design by Pierre Collier, a cinema poster artist.

This tribute to the talent of David Lynch provides  the tone for the 61st Festival

world’s most important and popular movie event. It is another story that the film was hardly understood by an essentially Western audience and media. Most people at the screenings walked out, and “Swaham” exposed an inherent weakness in Indian cinema, lack of international flavour. This year will be the fifth in a row when no Indian entry will be seen in the main categories, Competition A Certain Regard and Outside Competition.

Despite India being the single largest producer of movies -- a thousand-odd a year that is twice as many as Hollywood turns out – the country has made little impact on the French Riviera. While Indian curry is threatening to push aside the fish-and-chip from the British dining tables in an attempt to be part of the island nation’s national cuisine, Indian cinema that is certainly as appetising with its colour and vibrancy has been relegated to the back and beyond realm.

This summer, we will see no Indian film at Cannes’ official sections. There is nothing in Competition or Outside Competition or in A Certain Regard. Nothing at all even in the Directors’ Fortnight or the Critics Week, which are, in any case, not quite part of official Cannes. At least nothing till this issue was put to bed. Yes, Vijay Anand’s 1965 classic “Guide” will screen at the Festival’s Classics Section. Based on an R.K. Narayan novel by the same name, “Guide” was probably one of the last memorable movies of Dev Anand. Who will be at Cannes this May, and I am sure he will wow the crowds with his delightful charisma.

But I am not happy with just this at Cannes. And nobody in the Indian cinema fraternity ought to be either.

However, what are the reasons for this abysmal showing at Cannes? A recent story in “The Hollywood Reporter” may well be our first clue. Here is what it says: ”Indian film specialist Rohit Sharma has formed the Shingle i-Dream Pictures International with the aim of bringing a new wave of Indian-themed film to the world's burgeoning Indian diaspora -- films with Indian themes and locations but with an international flavour”. He gives one example, apt enough: ”Though Bollywood output remains popular in cinemas, the burgeoning Indian diaspora is hungry for movies that aren't all singing and dancing when it comes to scenes of a sexual nature, Sharma believes”.

Obviously, the world has moved away from the coy state. Even in India, the sweeping sexual revolution has made the desi cinema sound like nursery rhyme. The question of our rigid censorship rules is not something that global audiences would care. If erotic sculptures in various sexual poses can adorn Indian temples, why cannot Indian films show a man and a woman kissing or making love is what the West may ask Indian cinema.

There are other reasons why the nation’s cinema has not been able to get into the Cannes Palace for a while. A cinema can be local to the core. It can talk about region-specific themes. It can use very Indian symbols and signs. But the style of narration must be universal. There has got to be a certain flavour that will uniformly appeal to viewers at Cannes or Locarno or Fukuoka or Marrakech. Indian producers and directors must learn this and put it into practice. But most of them make little effort to do this. The last Indian entry in Cannes was Murali Nair’s “Arimpara” (The Mole). Part of A Certain Regard in 2003, it was panned for being amateurish and too specific, and hence incomprehensible.

In the 20 years that I have covered major international movie festivals in just about every corner of the globe, I have but only occasionally come across an Indian actor or a director or a producer out there to just watch cinema. If Indian films have to go beyond its shores and make a mark, the movie-men must watch, understand and savour cinema from elsewhere. It pays little to be a frog in the well.

And, despite the credit India takes at being the largest producer of films, it falls far behind the rest of the world when it comes to original plots. Let me take “Paruthiveeran” as an example, which screened at Berlin’s Young Forum. I have no quarrel with this Tamil movie being rooted firmly in the local culture. After all, Satyajit Ray made brilliant cinema with Bengal as his base and inspiration. But “Paruthiveeran”, apart from lacking in a certain global flavour, deals with a hackneyed plot that resembles Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet”. I fail to understand how India’s rich folk and classical history and literature have not been used more often in cinema.

Perhaps, the reason boils down to taking the easiest way out. Long ago, a leading Bollywood director advised a young fledgling helmer to get hold of the VCD of an American or European film and make an “Indian” movie with Indian characters and situations! As the respected British film critic, Derek Malcolm, once quipped, why showed Cannes be interested in showing copies?

There is yet another important cause of India’s failure to get into Cannes. It is imperative to understand that Indian cinema is not synonymous with Bollywood. Of the 1000 or so films, the Hindi cinema accounts for just about 200-odd. The Tamil cinema industry makes as many, and there is some engaging work being done in Kerala and Bengal, for instance. Probably, Bollywood, much like Hollywood, pushes out the “other cinema” with its money and muscle power.

And, yes, who knows whether the right kind of films were sent to Cannes, and if they were, were these seen at all by selectors inundated with thousands of DVDs. Once, Thierry Fremaux, who was then Cannes’ Artistic Director, rued that he was almost in the dark as far as Indian films were concerned. “I do not have enough information”, he added. But does Indian cinema care?

(Webposted April 29 2008)  (Read Cannes' selection)