AS THE chatter from the Croisette, that most photographed stretch of the South of France, winds down after 12 May days of films, fabulous frocks, frantic partying and hard-headed deal-making, India — the nation which makes the maximum number of films — is left asking a familiar double-pronged question: why is all the action, for Indian film stars, restricted to the red carpet, and, in that equally dismal corollary, why is the screen so bereft of Indian cinema?
As we grope for answers, the 70th edition of the Cannes film festival, which got over this Sunday, has thrown up a couple of brand-new whammies of its own: it has become the first premiere film festival to have opened (and closed, with panicky alacrity) its doors to an online operator with gargantuan ambition like Netflix; and it has awarded a woman (Sofia Coppola for The Beguiled) the top director’s prize for only the second time in its long glittering history.
While there is much to celebrate in Coppola’s win (the first woman to win a directing Oscar was only seven years ago; Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker), the kneejerk reaction — a mix of welcome and confusion — to the Netflix entries proves that cinema will never be the same again. Pedro Almodovar, as the jury president of the Competition section and Cannes darling, may have scoffed at the online giant, but there was no denying that this festival belonged to Bong Joon-ho’s sci fi fantasy adventure, Okja. Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz Stories has such famous stars as Dustin Thompson, Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller, in a year when no big-ticket Hollywood studio film played at Cannes. Both films were produced by Netflix.
The significance of the Netflix invasion, even if it is as short-lived as it appears right now, cannot be emphasised enough. Movies were always meant to be played out on giant screens. It is only in the last decade that we have been able to see them on our laptops and phones, because of such players like Netflix, Amazon, iTunes and so on. But because big movies made with big money need to play safe, we have been awash with anodyne sequels and prequels and franchises. Yes, an edition of the squelchy Pirates of the Caribbean has shown at Cannes, because who doesn’t want to see the very sexy Johnny Depp stride up the Palais steps? But a Pirates is invited for its red-carpet quotient, not for its cinematic artistry. The sharp, edgy, smart stuff, the kind of art-house cinema that Cannes truly celebrates, is no longer being looked upon favourably by the big studios, because, well, where are the returns? No visible ROI, no studio moolah. That is just the kind of film that Netflix has thrown its weight behind: a pro-environment, anti-corporate film like Okja would never have found big-corporate-owned studio backing.
This is precisely the conundrum film production the world over is struggling with. And that brings us to the thorny fact of the lack of Indian cinema in Cannes. Actually, the question misses the point. A film festival like Cannes prides itself on its non-stop parade of glamourous beauties; the three or four female Indian stars head-turners—Aishwarya Rai, Deepika Padukone, Sonam Kapoor — are simply doing the Cannes thing, providing glamour. They are walking the red carpet on behalf of their sponsors, not of their films. Why? Short answer: because the kind of films that these actresses star in, are not on the Cannes selectors’ radars at all.
Could Priyanka Chopra’s Hollywood outing in Baywatch have been shown at Cannes? Potentially, yes (anything can happen in out-of-competition). Had that happened, it would have been part of the usual circus of starry photo-calls and a series of hand-on-waist poses. The real question, from a why-no-Indian-film-in competition perspective would be: would a Priyanka or Deepika or Sonam star in a film like Masaan (which showed in Un Certain Regard) or The Lunchbox (which was screened at the Critic’s Week), both films which won accolades at the festival? That question doesn’t even arise, because in India, stars do not appear in arthouse films, and those are precisely the films which are selected to compete in such festivals.
Till such time as that happens, and who knows if and when that happens, the buzz around India in Cannes will stay on the red carpet. Take the beauteous Nicole Kidman’s example, who won a special 70th anniversary Cannes prize. She wowed the red carpet in her frills. She also had four, yes four, films in the festival, and won over hard-nosed critics in both The Beguiled and The Killing Of A Sacred Deer.
It’s pointless asking: why only the red carpet? The pointed question should be: when do we start making more and more non-formulaic films with unique storylines, and outstanding performances? Style and substance. That’s what it is about.