Gautaman Bhaskaran
an indian journalist
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INDIAN CINEMA

Cinema In General

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Pans & Tilts…Cannes Festival…

Aishwarya Rai was at the 60th Cannes Film Festival (May 16-27 2007) this year in a different avatar. As the new bride of Bollywood’s first family, Bachchans, Rai had donned several roles at the French Riviera, as juror, as the face of L’Oreal and as the glamorous heroine of “Devdas”, in a Special Screening in 2002.

Rai was part of a mostly Bollywood brigade that included her own husband, Abhishek, her mighty father-in-law, Amitabh Bachchan, models John Abraham (seen in Deepa Mehta’s “Water”) and Bipasha Basu, and director Ashutosh Gowariker (whose “Laagan” – Tax -- was short listed for the 2002 Oscars in the foreign picture category).

But India’s presence was confined to glamour, and Cannes’ plan to celebrate its 60th edition along with India’s six decades of Independence did not succeed when the Festival found nothing suitable for Competition, and had to be content with seven movies in an unimportant sidebar, “Cinema of the World”.

Despite the 1000-odd films India makes every year with Bollywood contributing a fourth, the country’s cinema is still not universal enough with nuances and mannerisms frighteningly foreign to the global audience that gathers every May at what is the biggest date in cinema. In 1994, when Kerala director Shaji Karun’s “Swaham” (Self) competed at Cannes, most people walked out. Not because the movie was bad, but its idiom and language were too alien. Since then there has not been another Indian film in Competition, though Cannes included in its other sections a few pictures from Bollywood and elsewhere, but with little success. While “Devdas” exasperated viewers with its length, and was ripped apart by Cannes critics, Rai, proved to be the darling of the Riviera crowds and parties.

Her latest work, “Jodhaa Akbar”, where she plays the 16th century Hindu Queen of India’s Mughal King Akbar, was shown in a promo form at the Festival Market, and so was her “Guru” (the completed version), where she is the wife of a wealthy industrialist. However, Cannes is not Rai alone: for the first time, a Tamil movie, “Veyil” (Sunlight), showed how a young man’s passion for cinema creates turmoil in his life. And Bengal’s “Dosar” (Companion) on extramarital affair hopefully added sizzle to surf and sand.

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“Dosar” director Rituparno Ghosh was seen strolling on Cannes’ beach front in his trademark kurta (full of colour) and churidhar. But he had completely tonsured his head. Was that for his special appearance at the French Riviera? “This is my first time to the Festival”, he quipped, and seemed mighty happy about being at Cannes, traditionally the haunt of the rich and the famous. Also a spot where some great people met and fell in love. The Hollywood legend, Grace Kelly, met the Prince of Monaco, Rainier III, during the 1955 Cannes Film Festival, and soon they were in love that led to a great fairytale wedding. I wonder what Mr Ghosh’s trip to Cannes will lead to. We will wait and watch.

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But the Tamil star, Prakashraj, had his plans all firmed up. At a party to celebrate the inauguration of the Cannes Market, undoubtedly the biggest in the world, he told me that he would return to the Festival next year with a 50-member contingent from South Indian cinema. This sounded like a challenge for Bollywood bigwigs, such Amit Khanna and Bobby Bedi, who had been monopolising Cannes for several years now with Bollywood and its Big Bang. If that was not enough, Prakash also said he would have the entire works at Cannes, including Saravana Bhavan, the icon of South Indian food, headquartered in Chennai.

Prakash was seen watching movies early in the day, and partying late into the night. The only problem was that none seemed to recognise our man from Kollywood, and he was often seen on the galleries of a theatre, far, far away from the plum seats reserved for celebrities. Maybe, it is not such a bad idea to bring the South Indian brigade next summer. At least, Prakash will have audiences, admirers and, who knows, cheerleaders. And to top all this, there will be “dosai” and “dahi vada”, garnished with sambar and chutney. What more can Prakash ask for at Cannes?

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The India Pavillion on the Cannes Croisette, set up for the Festival, often appeared like a free-for-all. Everybody could walk in, and sit down for a bottle of beer or just plain chai. The Indian Ambassador to France, Ranjan Mathai, flew down from Paris to cut the ribbon, and along with Amit Khanna and Bobby Bedi, he told the Press that Indian cinema was going from strength to strength. The country was now planning co-productions, which will give Indian films greater visibility at places like Cannes. Personally, I could not understand what co-productions had to do with getting into the Festival’s official sections, such as Competition and A Certain Regard. None who addressed the Press that day were inclined to believe that Cannes and quality went hand-in-hand. And, India does not make good cinema, at least largely, and unless it can do that, Cannes will be strictly out-of-bounds for Indian movies.

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Tailpiece: After a long time, there were two great Indian parties at Cannes. The first was an official one at the Majestic Beach Hotel with some decent food, but terrible music. The second was by the Hindujas, the Indian businessmen who have a fabulous villa at Cannes, and their party dished out some delicious Indian fare, all vegetarian and home cooked by the family’s womenfolk. People got all sozzled at both places, but I do not know whether this was the reason why the chef at the Majestic was passing of chicken curry as tandoori chicken!

(Webposted May 23 2007)