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Losing my Cannes Virginity

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The observations of a filmmaker who went there for the first time and walked the red carpet in jeans and sneakers

I have a bittersweet relationship with the Cannes Film Festival. In 2002, my short film Birju almost made it to the festival. They loved it, and I was waiting for an official letter. Over the next few emails, however, they realised that my film had premiered at Sundance, their American rival. And Cannes believes only in premiere shows. So I stayed a Cannes virgin.

For me, Cannes still remains an aspiration. Although I attended the festival for my first time this year, and happened to walk the red carpet (undeservedly), no film I’ve worked on made it to the official selection. I was at Cannes because a film I had co-written was being showcased in the market section.

Since I had never been to a film festival abroad where my own film was not in the official selection, my understanding of a film festival was slightly skewed: you’re only taken seriously, I thought, if your film is in competition for a prize. But like my fellow Indians, I was at Cannes to network and have a dekko.

When I entered Bollywood in 2006, I got a sense that everyone wanted to meet me, but no one wanted to work with me. I found that being festival-acclaimed makes you a pariah, an outcaste; producers fear you will only make intelligent films. Birju had even got an Oscar nomination, but, to use Shekhar Kapur’s term, it was the ‘kiss of death’ in Bollywood.

By the time I left for Cannes, things had come full circle. Now, like others of the Indian film fraternity, I was attending a film festival as a guest, not an awards’ contender. My trip had come through literally at the last minute. The French visa officer had issued almost 300–400 visas for the festival, and by the time I reached his desk, he was exasperated. “Why do so many Indians need to go to Cannes?” he asked. Anyhow, I got my visa that afternoon, went home to pack for 45 minutes, and flew out.

It was an interesting question, all the same, given that there wasn’t a single Indian film in the official selection this year. A big part of Cannes is the market section, where people buy and sell international films. It has nothing to do with the actual festival, though it’s where all the commerce happens, big global deals are announced, and hordes throng to.

For Indians, clearly, Cannes is mostly about the perceptions they want to create back home. In that way, Bollywood has subverted Cannes. We’re not really in the market to buy and sell films and we don’t care about the official competition, so long as we can be seen and create a buzz back in India.

The Indians I saw at Cannes were an odd bunch. There were the famed eminences, the strugglers—the haves, the have-nots. Then there were the studio executives—vice-presidents, marketing heads, distribution heads. And how can I forget the hustlers—people who just talk big; although most film industries have people who specialise in talking big, Bollywood tops on this count.

Everyone sees pictures of Aishwarya Rai, Shekhar Kapur and Saif Ali Khan at Cannes. What they don’t see are the have-nots, the unknown filmy keedas (worms). I don’t know how they get the money to be there. I admire their zeal. They just hang about, waiting to hand you a DVD of their work, clueless about how things really work. At the Indian Pavilion, I got to meet many such naively—perhaps enviably—optimistic people, mostly NRIs.

Every country appeared to have a pavilion on the Riviera. Next door to India’s was Qatar’s, though the happening ones were the American and French. Apparently, the Indian Pavilion was very well managed this time, compared to the past few years. At the last minute (yet again), Anurag Kashyap asked me to come along for a panel discussion on how to get a film made. Apart from Anurag himself and me, the panel included Anusha Rizvi, and was chaired by Uma da Cunha. It was a small discussion, mostly with NRIs in attendance. The questions were largely basic. How do you get films funded? How do you meet a film star? How do you get them to read your script? Anurag served them a big reality check. He made them all pitch films to him, and rejected them all, except one. Anusha offered reassurance. She said she didn’t know how to pitch a film either, but had still got one made.

I saw Jude Law walking around a few times. But that was as close as I got to any Hollywood superstar. Just as you don’t meet Amitabh Bachchan walking down Juhu Beach, you don’t meet Hollywood stars walking around Cannes. I heard, though, of Mallika Sherawat roaming around with a publicist and photographer by her side; she patted Jude Law on his back, he turned around, and she had a photo taken.

Everybody loves Mallika. She was at all the big parties. Not because she was networking; she’s already networked.

Speaking of Indian actresses, I can’t understand why they only wear Western gowns on the red carpet in Cannes. On Indian stars, it seems forced.

Shekhar Kapur, my mentor, had been commissioned by the festival to make a film celebrating 100 years of Indian cinema. I had gone for the midnight premiere and he pulled me along—unsurprisingly, at the last minute—to join the crew on the red carpet. Shekhar Kapur, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and Ronnie Screwvalla were all rather well dressed in kurtas and jodhpuris. The ladies looked gorgeous in saris. And I had the good/bad fortune of walking the red carpet in a black shirt, sweater, dark jeans and sneakers. The next day, Koel Purie of Headlines Today confronted me over my clothes. She asked me why I was so badly dressed. I replied, arrogantly, that with 400–500 men wearing tuxedos, everyone looks like a waiter.

The red carpet is in front of a cinema called the Lumiere. Besides official screenings, it is also rented out to big brands and Hollywood for publicity. They make their ambassadors walk the red carpet, though it leads nowhere really. Still, this is where the paparazzi congregates.

Shekhar wanted some Bollywood dancers on the red carpet, but it couldn’t be arranged. So he asked a British Indian girl he met at the festival to dance. Dressed in a ghagra choli, she danced to UTV Productions’ numbers, since UTV was a co-producer of the documentary, and got a lot of media attention.

I walked behind the contingent. The red carpet can be quite a high, with its unending flash of cameras. It was a bizarre thrill. Before walking it, nobody knew who I was. After walking it, people still didn’t know who I was. But the people inside the theatre, especially the French, did take me more seriously. It was a magical moment, being welcomed with such loud applause.

After the premieres come the parties. Cannes isn’t just about fancy dos aboard yachts and in hotel bars, there is also an underground scene. I attended a party where people were imitating the playing of musical instruments in thin air.

It has now been a month since I returned from Cannes. Many people at parties and multiplexes have asked me how it was. Well, at the end of the day, it’s all about telling good stories. It is the good stories that win awards and get business. It is the good stories that get conversations going. Just the other day, the bank manager at my local branch had something to ask: “How was Cannes?” 

(As told to Shubhangi Swarup)