Aishwarya Rai Bachchan on the Cannes red carpet (Photo: AP)
If the Cannes Film Festival is the Resilience Olympics of world cinema, then much of India’s presence can be considered as a win. Sunny Leone, adult entertainment star between 2001 and 2013; Anurag Kashyap, filmmaker who has just got his mojo back with a noir thriller, Kennedy, in which Leone stars; Kanu Behl, whose film Agra in the Directors’ Fortnight was as unsettling as his last major movie, Titli, in 2014; and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, red carpet regular since Devdas premiered here in 2002, fresh from playing one of her most iconic characters in Mani Ratnam’s two-part epic, Ponniyin Selvan.
It has been a great ten days for Indian cinema on Boulevard de la Croisette. There were pizza parties thrown by producers; several requests from the international media for Leone; filmmakers such as Vikramaditya Motwane and Vignesh Shivan in ardent film fan mode; and some star-spangled visits to the India pavilion, including that of Michael Douglas. Along with a restored print of the Manipuri classic, Aribam Syam Sharma’s Ishanou, and Yudhajit Basu’s short film Nehemich in the Le Cinef section, the largest cinema producing country in the world took a step forward into the critically acclaimed universe after a long absence. After the flamboyant spectacle of RRR, which won the world with its mass appeal last year, it was the turn of independent Hindi cinema to shine. Kashyap’s thriller and Behl’s dramas interrogated the construct of masculinity, the idea of sexuality, and the darkness that can eat away a man’s soul.
Call them Covid-19 films, with both unravelling the monsters in our minds. Kashyap, a Cannes favourite after his ambitious and sprawling Gangs of Wasseypur in 2012, has dabbled in different genres, including the love story, most recently in Almost Pyaar with DJ Mohabbat. But in Kennedy, premiered at the Midnight Screenings segment, aided by the inspired casting of a chic Leone, one-time
TV star Rahul Bhat and production design borrowed from the aesthetic of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films and Jean- Patrick Manchette’s novels, he is back on familiar turf. Violence, physical and psychological, what drives it, and what impact it has on people.
Of late Cannes has become known in India for its red carpet fashion where luxury brands are launched and booked within minutes, the action mediated by the presence of paparazzi. If there seemed to be a surfeit of Indian beauties on the red carpet this year, from Mrunal Thakur to Mouni Roy, ascribe it to the brands, from Grey Goose vodka to Chopard.
Anurag Kashyap’s Kennedy and Kanu Behl’s Agra interrogated the construct of masculinity, the idea of sexuality, and the darkness within us
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Usually, they are the only representatives of India. Not this time.
Agra focuses on a family that is living in a crumbling house, and the impact of the intergenerational trauma on the son, Guru (Mohit Agarwal), who suffers from mental illness. The father, Daddyji, played with sad dignity by Bollywood has-been, Rahul Roy, lives upstairs with his second wife. Behl doesn’t glamourise the seediness of the surroundings or the jadedness of the protagonists, shooting mostly in available light, and in tiny spaces. He knows a thing or two about straitjacketed spaces, having lived in one room with his parents in Patiala till he was about ten. His parents, Navnindra Behl and the late Lalit Behl, were much respected actor-writer-directors who dedicated their lives to theatre. Behl assisted Dibakar Banerjee on Oye Lucky! Lucky Oye! in 2008 and co-wrote Banerjee’s Love Sex Aur Dhokha (2010).
Behl, who has completed his third feature film, Despatch, starring Manoj Bajpayee, is an outlier, just like his parents, and considers filmmaking to be a gift rather than an indulgence. Titli, which was produced by Banerjee, was nominated for Camera d’Or in Cannes in 2014 but after its success, he wasn’t interested in making the next Titli — he wanted to do something different. Agra, which takes its title from the city’s Institute of Mental Health and Hospital, which was previously known as the mental asylum established by the British in 1859, is all about the “secret spaces” one locks away inside oneself and which is different from one’s public and private self. This is the space of one’s sexuality, says Behl, which is something one doesn’t want to examine. Produced by Yoodlee Films, he made the film with utter honesty. “Sexual repression causes mental illness, chaos in one’s head,” he says. Festivals such as Cannes are important to nurture such conversations, to sustain this inward gaze, to make movies such as Agra and Kennedy the norm rather than the exception. “Otherwise we will have a hollow space where the inward gaze ought to exist,” says Behl.
It is important as a showcase of new talent as well. Basu’s short film, Nehemich, deals with another group of societal rejects, women “touched by the crow” or having their periods who are bundled in a hut, a far cry from the nomadic life they are used to. When the short ends with a scene of a young nomadic woman with a donkey by her side—we understand the metaphor. It is Basu’s first time at Cannes, and he is soaking it all in.
This year also provided an opportunity to put Manipuri cinema back on the world map. As filmmaker and film critic Utpal Borpujari says, Aribam Syam Sharma is synonymous with Manipuri cinema, having acted in the first Manipuri film Matamgi Manipur (1972). Since then he has been involved with the state’s filmmaking industry as a filmmaker and a guiding light. “What makes him special is that he has been equally prolific in both fiction and documentary genres. His cinema has always reflected the humane aspect of society and Ishanou (1990) is arguably the finest example of his craft,” says Borpujari. Ishanou has remained the only film from Northeast India to feature in the official selection of Cannes Film Festival (it was part of Un Certain Regard in 1991), and it is more than appropriate that the Film Heritage Foundation has chosen to restore it and the festival has showcased it in this year’s Cannes Classics section.
Kashyap, whose Gangs of Wasseypur, Ugly (2013, which also starred Bhat), and Psycho Raman (2016), have been to Cannes before, has been a prolific filmmaker, with great impact on younger directors and writers. Despite wearing his heart on his sleeve politically and cinematically, he had managed to make films he believes in. Kennedy, about a police officer thought to be dead, is a story he wanted to film for some time, and it is to his credit that he chose such unusual actors. It is the generosity of filmmakers such as him that has helped carve a new path for subcontinental cinema, something acknowledged by Zarrar Kahn, director of the Pakistani film, In Flames, also at Cannes this year. “In Pakistan, Bollywood films are banned but we love to consume them. They were so much larger than life that I felt we could never make those films. They are out of scale of what is possible,” he said.
Perhaps even Bollywood no longer makes that kind of escapist cinema. Instead its grittier version, closer to the dark times we live in, is coming of age.