Bollywood is at Cannes again? Oh yay
I consider myself a cineaste (French for “Woah that sounds important because there’s a slanting line on the e”). Once, when I was in college, I watched a film that was not in English or Hindi. I think it was Russian, and it was about really depressed people.
I have no idea what they were depressed about because I fell asleep, and when I woke up the next morning, none of them had moved. The film may just have been my screensaver, but that’s not what I said in my 9,000-word blogpost. I used words like “self-reflexive meta-textuality”, “auteur”, and “tour de force”. I have no idea what any of those things mean, though I’m certain at least one of them is a bicycle race.
As a cinephile, every year, my eyes turn to France. No, not just because Julie Delpy is beautiful, but because the country plays host to the Festival De Cannes, one of the world’s most prestigious film festivals. Getting a film into Cannes is important to filmmakers, because then they can put those little olive-branch brackets on their poster. These olive branches are called “laurels” and they’re crucial because when your film flops, the branches tell people that your movie didn’t die because it was rubbish, but because nobody “got it.”
Cannes, over the last few years, has been beset by several problems. People have questioned the fest’s commitment to avant-garde cinema, the growing presence of American studio blockbusters, and the fact that it involves being nice to French people.
All of those problems are pertinent and worrying, but I’d like to talk about another one; the charge of the Bolly Brigade. In the last decade, Bollywood has swarmed to Cannes in a way that would make Biblical locusts look lazy. In a better world, that’d be a point of pride. But sadly we seem to have worked out a travel package where with every one of our best movies sent, so are ten of our most embarrassing people.
In fact, most Indian cinema at Cannes (e.g. Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, which played at the Un Certain Regard section in 2012) is made outside of the mainstream industry. Our Cannes conundrum is this: not enough Indian cinema, too many Bollywood people. Among the Indians to walk the red carpet this year, we’ve had Sherlyn Chopra, Ameesha Patel and Sonam Kapoor, all of whom were at the festival because “Oooohhhh, shiinneyyyyy.” Mallika Sherawat was also present, because they accidentally packed her up with the set last year and found her during setup this year.
Making us proud though, is Bollywood’s finest actress, Vidya Balan, who is on the festival jury. She’s received this distinction because she can act with the best of ’em, and also because she’s from South India, which means she probably finished school. But from what we’ve seen at the festival so far, her presence and demeanor suggest another, peculiarly Indian problem I’ve noticed with some desis in the global spotlight; the need to exude “Indian-ness” 24/7.
You don’t see Nicole Kidman driving around in a kangaroo, striving to be the Aussie jury member, or Christoph Waltz proving he’s the German jury member by throwing money at all the other Europeans there. In contrast, there’s Miss Balan, in a new, gaudier-than-yesterday sari or ethnic outfit that looks like its fabric is a mixture of cotton, nylon and a Sanskrit dictionary.
Am I saying it’s a crime for her to be in a sari every day, or that she must necessarily wear an Oscar De La Renta (thank you female friends) gown? Nope, but it speaks to a strange obsession with shoving our desiness in people’s face when we’re outside India. Take pride in your culture, sure, but it’d be comforting to see that you have an identity outside of it. The only way Vidya Balan could be more desi is if she shows up on closing day on an elephant that accidentally tramples jury president Steven Spielberg (whose film Lincoln was remade in Bollywood as Hum Hai Raahi Car Ke)
That said, I’m proud of her, unlike the Bolly Brigade who’ll party on, and come back crowing about how their films showed at Cannes, and our press will be too busy filling column inches to recognize that they showed at the Marche (marketplace), a sub-section that anybody (you included) with enough cash can send a film to. In the end, I’d like to say congratulations to Ritesh Batra, whose film Lunchbox won the Viewers’ Choice Grand Rail d’Or at the parallel Critics’ Week event. You probably haven't read about that in the papers, but that’s largely Ritesh’s fault, because he looks rubbish in a Sabyasachi.
Rohan Joshi is a writer and stand-up comedian who likes reading, films and people who do not use the SMS lingo. You can also contact him on facebook.com/therohanjoshi