He had been asked why he chose an Indian to play the part of a Jewish American. This pivotal role is Gatsby’s smooth-talking, fashionably debauched gambling associate Meyer Wolfshiem. Luhrmann said, “I would have Bachchan play any role, Jew, Buddhist, whatever.”
Amitabh played this one to the hilt and had clearly won over cast, crew and, on the morning’s showing, the media as well. He won a round of applause even as he rose to speak. He said he had admired Luhrmann’s Strictly Ballroom, Romeo and Juliet, Moulin Rouge. The size of the role in which he had been cast did not matter. As an aside, Amitabh decried the term Bollywood. He felt that this suggested that Hindi cinema was unfairly put down as an imitation of Hollywood.
The first day of Cannes went with its usual excitement. There was the festival’s inaugural press conference for the opening film with its extended high-battery star power -- Leonardo DiCaprio alongside Tobey Maguire, Carey Mulligan, Joel Edgerton, Isla Fisher, Jason Clarke, Elizabeth Debicki, Jack Thompson and of course Bachchan. The press queued up for as many as 90 minutes to get in. The film, which opened five days earlier in the US, seems to have an assured box office return, despite mixed reviews.
Luhrmann has made a faithful but pretentious interpretation of F Scott Fitzgerald’s famous 1925 novel. Set in the roaring ’20s, the film follows stockbroker Nick Carraway who rents a house in New York next to the mysterious and somewhat shady millionaire Jay Gatsby. Gatsby’s super extravagant Saturday parties are attended by hordes of social climbers -- today’s yuppies. Gatsby uses Nick to reconnect with his past flame, Daisy, Nick’s cousin and now married to the wealthy, brutish Tim Buchanan. With that comes Gatsby’s downfall.
Three earlier attempts to make the film (the lost 1926 silent version starring Warner Baxter; the 1949 version with Alan Ladd, and the ambitious Jack Clayton 1974 production on a screenplay by Francis Ford Coppola (it starred Robert Redford and Mia Farrow) -- all had left something to be desired. Luhrman’s production is razzle-dazzle and in-your-face, with many special effects. Yet there’s a certain humanity shows through. It is the graceful and commanding DiCaprio who holds the film together, even with marks of greatness, projecting the folly and foibles of the era. However, Luhrmann’s use of 3-D, Beyonce music and techno-enhanced party scenes are a distraction and a strain.
The International Jury press conference presented the wonderfully well-balanced panel that it is. Each member is a star in his or her firmament, many major prize winners at Cannes. The chairman, Steven Spielberg, was particularly laidback and approachable. He said that he had no qualms at all about judging other films and directors. “We give our views and make choices all the time – this is our time to do so.” Spielberg said that Cannes is perhaps the most prestigious place for cinema, where film as an art form is a celebration beyond the contest and competition for awards.
The beauteous Nicole Kidman said she had been invited to be a juror before. But this time, the talent and appeal of the jury was too strong to resist.
Ang Lee was the most out-spoken in his quiet, restrained manner. Cannes, he said, was respectful of the director and the film, not the lobbying that accompanies the Oscars.
Vidya Balan said it was as much of a delight as an honour to be on the Cannes jury. She was certain that the jury discussions and extraordinary line-up of films in competition would transmit many lifetimes’ experience to her work.