An unassuming sleepy resort on the French Riviera caught world attention when it revived the famed Festival international du film or the International Film Festival in 1946. The world was weary after World War II and the cinema extravaganza was a sight for sore eyes. Since then, the invitation-only event held in the May — now called Festival de Cannes — has transformed filmdom with its expressions of delight and dissent.
The event has long been celebrated for its diversity and India has often found a place at its heart. The Cannes Festival is in its 70th edition this year and several Indian directors and films have been an integral part of the experience over the years.
It began with Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar which won the Grand Prix award along with David Lean’s Brief Encounters in 1946. The movie is widely regarded as the first such Indian film to attain global recognition. Starring Kamini Kaushal and Zohra Sehgal, it was an expressionist take on class differences in the Indian society. Chetan Anand also went on to become the first jury member from India when he was selected to be a part of the international jury in 1950.
The Grand Prix award has been renamed as the Palm d’Or now.
Amar Bhoopali, a period biopic about the Marathi poet Honaji Bala who inspired people to rise against the unjust foreign power, was directed by V. Shantaram and nominated for the Palm d’Or. However, its iconic music composition by Vasant Desai along with the Mangeshkar sisters’ rendition was what fetched it a Best Sound Recording award.
Raj Kapoor’s Boot Polish starring baby Naaz saw her receive a Special Distinction Award for her charming performance in 1955. But, it was 1956 that was a truly remarkable year for that was when Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali won the Palm d’Or for its poignant portrayal of poverty. Subsequently, Gotama: The Buddha , a documentary by Rajbhans Khanna, won the Jury Prize at Cannes in 1957.
The 1950s were a glorious period in India’s Cannes history, with several movies gaining global attention. The following decades were a relatively low period with no awards being bagged by Indian artistes and filmmakers. However, there was a steady screening of Indian movies, with directors like Ray and Shyam Benegal, Shahthayu and Bimal Roy making periodic appearances at the festival.
Mrinal Sen’s entered the international scene in late 1970s and he was made a member of the international jury in 1982. The next year, his film Kharij won the Jury Prize. Kandahar by Sen is worth mentioning here because it was screened out of competition in 1984, but was also a part of the Cannes Classics screenings in 2010. Sen’s connection with Cannes is strong, since it was where his socialism was influenced by a fellow juror, Pablo Neruda.
A span of a few years saw the entry of famed director Mira Nair with her film Salaam Bombay! which won both the Camera d’Or and the Audience Prize in 1988. The following year, Piravi , a Malayalam film that dealt with police brutality, received a special mention in the Camera d’Or category.
The Un Certain Regard is a parallel section of the Cannes Festival that has seen several Indian movies being screened. Primarily dealing with narratives that have non-traditional outlooks, the section had movies such Antrajali Yatra by Gautam Ghosh, Swaham by Shaji N. Karun, and Manipuri director Aribam Syam Sharma’s Ishanou showcased in the 1990s. A Malayalam film, Marana Simhasanam by Murali Nair, won the Camera d’Or in this section in 1999.
A Canadian movie made by an Indian-origin director, Deepa Mehta’s Sam & Me, won the Camera d’Or in 1991 for its charming presentation of life from the perspective of an Indian immigrant and his older Jewish friend, Sam Cohen. Asif Kapadia’s short film The Sheep Thief won the Cinefondation Award in 1997.
In 2002, Bollywood made its much-awaited grand debut with the screening of Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s magnum opus Devdas. Aishwarya Rai became the first Indian woman to be a part of the international jury at Cannes in 2003, ending a three-decade absence of Indians. AVery Very Silent Movie by Manish Jha, a short film, won the Jury Award in 2002.
Sharmila Tagore was part of the international jury at Cannes in 2009 and was followed shortly by Gitanjali Rao, who among the jurors for the 2011 Critics Week short films.
Veyil, a movie from 2006, was the first Tamil movie to be screened at Cannes. Aditya Motwane’s Udaan , a coming-of-age drama about 17-year-old Rohan, was screened under the Un Certain Regard category of the 2010 Cannes Festival. The following year, Chatrak, an Indian-Bengali drama by Lankan director Vimukthi Jayasundara was screened in the Director’s Fortnight section. In 2012, Miss Lovely, a movie set in the sleazy Mumbai underworld of the 1990s, premiered at Cannes while Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur was screened at the Director’s Fortnight. Peddlers , a movie that deals with destitute boys who are trapped in the narcotics trade and a young cop, was featured in the same year.
2013 was a breakout year with Amitabh Bachchan being chosen to open the festival after his cameo in The Great Gatsby . Vidya Balan and Nandita Das were also selected to be a part of the international jury in the same year. Bombay Talkies and Monsoon Shootout were screened out of competition while The Lunch Box was a part of the International Critics’ Week. The year 2014 was meagre in comparison with just Titli by Kunal Behl being screened under the Un Certain Regard category.
In 2015, Maasan, a movie that deals with the parallel lives of four people in Varanasi, was screened in the same category as Titli and received a standing ovation. The only other entry in 2015 was Chauti Koot that dealt with post-Operation Blue Star Punjab.
In 2016, six Indian movies including Bahubali : The Beginning and a psychological thriller by Anurag Kashyap, Raman Raghav 2.0, were screened at Cannes. However, no Indian film has made it to Cannes in 2017.