When French President Francois Hollande met President Pranab Mukherjee here on Thursday he presented him a special gift. It was a collection of six short films made by Lumiere Brothers that were showcased at Watson Hotel on July 7, 1896. “We know exactly what happened in Bombay. We have in our archive the list of the six films projected that day. So we made a copy of each on 35 mm film,” said Thierry Fremaux, the man behind the project.
Mr. Fremaux is the Director of Institut Lumiere at Lyon and General Delegate of Cannes Film Festival where India is the guest country this year. The films that have been gifted to Mr. Mukherjee include The Sea Bath , Entry of Cinematographe , Arrival of a Train , A Demolition , Leaving the Factory and Ladies and Soldiers on Wheels .
Rewinding to the good old times, Fremaux said: “The team came in June and stayed till August. The team was led by cinematographer Marius Sestier. He was young and coming here was a great adventure for him. But they came during the monsoons. So they could not make any film, which is a pity because we have films from Africa, Mexico, Japan and Vietnam but not from India. I am sorry for that.”
The entire programme, he said, was about 20 minutes long as each film had to be uploaded. “The team included a couple which used to sing a song with the films. It was a military song.”
Mr. Fremaux gave us an idea of the stirring tune. He shared that the institute had 1,564 films of Lumiere Brothers and out of them only four have disappeared. “Looking back, I could say their films were not just about mechanics, they were about modernity. Very much like the cinema of Satyajit Ray, Imar Bergman and Akira Kurosawa where technique always remained in the background.”
Talking about selecting India as the guest country at Cannes, he said: “The decision was taken two years ago keeping in mind the Centenary Year of Indian cinema.” The Festival will focus on history of Indian cinema as well as contemporary works. “Indian cinema gave us some of most important film-makers in the history of cinema. People should know what happened in the ‘50s that directors like Satyajit Ray, Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor emerged on the scene.”
Also, according to Mr. Fremaux, India is one of the most “generous cinema” in the world today. “The tradition of going to theatres is still very strong here while in some European countries theatres are closing down. Cinema must be seen in theatres and I am glad I am in the country of theatres.”
He has already received restored prints of Ray’s “Charulata” and “Nayak” and promised that Sholay’s 3D version will also be showcased. Does he consider Guru Dutt and Raj Kapoor fit in auteur category? “From our perception, yes. We know they were popular but Hitchcock was also a very popular film-maker but he was also an auteur.” However, Indian film-makers should not expect any leeway from Mr. Fremaux as far as the official selection for the main event is concerned.
“We have got 1,700 entries and out of these only 60 will make the cut to the main event. Cannes is tough!” he exclaimed. Over the years not many Indian films have made it to the main section and Mr. Fremaux said it was because they were not good enough. “What we expect from Indian cinema is to be cinema and to be Indian. One should try to get one’s position in the world of cinema without losing track of the Indian stamp. My job is not to say this is good and that is bad. The question that I ask myself is do I have to take this film.” He agreed that India doesn’t need to sell a single ticket outside. “But at times it becomes a problem,” he smiled.
On the charge that the West views Indian cinema as only song and dance, Mr. Fremaux said ten years back the perception was Indian cinema was only about auteurs like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen but in the last ten years the tide turned to the opposite. “Now, it is largely about Bollywood and we are forgetting the great tradition of the 50s and 60s. It’s time to balance it. I am serious, I have done my homework.”
Mr. Fremaux pointed out he strove for this balance since he took over in 2001. “If I introduced Raj Kapoor to French people, I also made sure that ‘Devdas’ make it to the event. Also in the last few years we have many Indian personalities on the jury.” Mr. Fremaux said he was focused on the current Indian generation.
“I don’t want to take names as it makes people jealous but last year ‘Miss Lovely’ and ‘Gangs of Wasseypur’ impressed with their novelty in script and energy. ‘Miss Lovely’ seemed like Martin Scorcese’s first film.” Of late Cannes seems to be giving too much space to commercial cinema and celebrities but Mr. Fremaux felt that the red carpet at the festival was a democratic space where Brad Pitt and Angeline Jolie rubbed shoulders with a rank newcomer.
“Big films help in pushing small independent cinema. More often than not the media line up to catch up with a celebrity but by the end of the day the news is that a new star is born at Un Certain Regard section.”