Looking forward to Cannes
- April 17, 2023
In April this year, I was travelling in the US, for various reasons- speaking at the Cornell University, presenting Bawander at the Washington DC International Film Festival, helping out and shooting for, a short film for a close friend from Pakistan, looking for support for a project that I am writing and hoping to direct someday, and so on…and this is when I received the invitation to be on the jury of the Cannes Film Festival! Christian Jeune, the director of the Film Festival called me and gave me the good news.
And in two days I got a formal but a very warm letter by fax, from Gilles Jacob, the President of the Film Festival. Of course I felt honoured at being selected, but I was also truly surprised. I have to admit, that once the news sunk in, it was for me a validation of some choices I had made.
My decisions of doing selective films, and not just in Hindi, but in ‘regional ‘ languages, not living in the film city, but in Delhi, not living a life of an actress, etc were often seen as wrong choices, even by many of my well wishers. While I have always followed my heart and done what felt right, this news somehow reassured me in an external sort of a way. I have instinctively anchored towards projects that I could relate to, my choices have always has been influenced by my artistic and social commitment (although some of them have not quite turned out the way I had imagined or wanted them to be). But I was happy that I had at least made those choices for honest reasons.
I think it would be inappropriate for me to pretend to know why exactly I was selected. This is a question better addressed to those who made the selection. I am just looking forward to being part of the jury and getting an opportunity to interact with other accomplished and experienced artists and filmmakers, to see some of the best films made during the last one year from around the world and to get to know the different perspectives through which the medium of film is judged and evaluated.
Of course it is disappointing that there are no official entries from India. But it is certainly an opportunity to ask ourselves why this is so. While Indian films, bollywood ones in particular, are becoming increasingly popular among the Indian Diaspora and beyond, it is probably time that we explored the full range of cinema, both in its form and content. I think we should be brutally honest and ask ourselves whether our films are good enough for this level of international platform. Having said that, it must also be understood that there are of course some films that show sensitivity and an artistic expression and are overlooked or are unable to go through the processes that are required for submission and acceptance. But we know it is not lack of money, talent or stories that stops us from producing masterpieces now a days.
I am aware that Cannes is full of glitter and glamour, my focus is however, to take my responsibility as a juror seriously and not get bogged down by the other trappings and baggage that comes with the media attention such an occasion generates.
I am looking forward to a great learning experience and also having a wonderful time. An experience of a lifetime!
Looking back at Cannes
On the 9th of May I took a flight from Paris to reach the Nice airport, where Arnoud and Laure , two young members of the Cannes jury office welcomed me with genuine warmth and unpretentious hospitality. I was surprised that there were two cars sent to pick me up- one for me and one for my luggage! When I asked Arnaud why it was necessary to have an extra car just for my luggage, he informed me that most actresses coming to Cannes showed up with not less than ten suitcases! It became obvious to me that each of us inhabits a unique universe! The very next day, I discovered that my fellow juror, the amazing actress of Frida fame, (whom I later got to know and admire as a person), had arrived with no less than 16 suitcases! Soon enough, I became the butt of jokes in the jury office as the “lightest juror”…
I was driven to the Majestic Hotel at Cannes, located by the harbour opposite the Palais. As I looked at the view from my window I saw two distinct images. On one side, I saw the beautiful seascapes that reminded me of the nautical scenes from the French renaissance paintings and on the other the Palais, venue of the glitz and glamour of the festival. From my impressions of the Cannes Film Festival as a carnival of festivity, celebration and the excess and indulgence that goes with the gatherings of media and entertainment, the quiet languid beauty of my surroundings seemed like the hushed prelude to the extravaganza that was to come.
That evening all the jurors were hosted by the president of the festival, Monsieur Gilles Jacob. It was an elegant gourmet dinner, during which we were introduced to each other and to the main festival officials. The jury was an extraordinary mix of artists, intellectuals and film makers. It included Tony Morrison, the Nobel Laureate of Lit. , the former winner of two Palme d’Or, the Serbian director Emir Kusturica, the brilliant actor of extraordinary diversity, Javier Bardem from Spain, John Woo, the great action film maker of Mission Impossible fame, young and rebellious Turkish German director Fatih Akin, most known for his debut Head On which won him the Golden bear at Berlin, Anias Warda, the Benoit Jacquot, two eminent and very distinct film-makers from France and of course Salma Hayek.
Everyone in the group seemed to bond instantly and in a way that went beyond the individual public personas. It was evident that the chemistry within the group was so positive, easy and spontaneous that it later lead to easy, honest and non threatening communication and facilitate the execution of our responsibilities as jurors. And that is exactly the way it turned out.
On the morning of the 10th, the jury met for two hours, where the President of the Jury, Emir Kusturica set out a series of guidelines on how we should evaluate the films that we were going to view. He felt that it was important for us to select films that would be accessible to mass audiences but also have the artistic integrity and creative expression that a festival like Cannes upholds. He cautioned us that we were there to choose films that had a good balance of both form and content, and not get carried away by either extreme ( Michael Moore’s 9/11 winning the Palme d’Or last year must have made him cautious!) He also declared himself to be (in his humorous swaggering sort of way) the El Comodante of the group! And he remained so till the very end! Jokes apart, he was the quintessential benevolent dictator! He did not lay down strict criteria for judging the films as he felt that our choices would be more appropriate if they were influenced more by our heart than by our intellect. There were only two rules he emphasized- we were to see at least one film everyday as a group and were to meet officially every three days to deliberate…
The grand opening on the 11th of May was an extravaganza beyond compare, the scale of which cannot be described in words. You have to be there to experience it!
Although I had anticipated throngs of self conscious, glamourous, designer-clothed, jewel-studded celebrities walking up the red carpet persued by frenetic paparazzi and photographers, what was beyond my anticipation and comprehension was the overwhelming extravagance and the sheer opulence of the event. Cannes was not just another film festival, it was a lavish statement of glamour, fashion and media that the whole world was watching and fascinated by. Months of planning had gone into deciding what each celebrity would be wearing on this glamorous occasion. Enthusiastic designers had for months persued not only the stars but also the jury members trying to convince them that their particular fashion statements were the ones to be endorsed. Although I had felt pressured by many designers to represent their clothes, I chose to wear a simple red ‘upada’ sari from my own wardrobe. I felt I wanted to represent India in its elegant simplicity by wearing something that I felt naturally comfortable in. My accessories included jewelry from Chand Begum, (a little shop in Delhi that does beautiful gold and diamond traditional work with exquisite craftsmanship) and some of mine. I had arranged for a friend to bring fresh jasmine flower ‘gajras’. They arrived just in time and when I walked on the red carpet, their fragrance so permeated the atmosphere that everyone around me was drawn to this unusual and exotic sensual fragrance which seemed to overshadow the chanels and opiums that are part of the usual red carpet experience. Emir and Salma in particular couldn’t stop sniffing me all evening!
The jury was called to the stage and introduced to the audience. Then, the opening night’s film, Lemming, was screened, after which a lavish banquet was hosted by the President of the film festival….And the big night finally came to an end.
The next ten days were a flurry of activities and flashed by faster than I had imagined. We, in the jury, watched 2-3 films everyday and continued with our discussions and deliberations…at times it became rather exhausting. My husband, like the others escorting other jury members, seemed to have the best of both worlds! They could watch all the films with us without the burden of having to be vigilant and evaluative all the time. The jury office acquired a unique identity as we started to bond on many levels, emotionally and intellectually. On many afternoons, even when we could have been independently doing our own things, we found ourselves together in the jury office animatedly discussing films and life in general. Tony Morrison’s son, John Woo’s daughter, Salma’s friend, and my husband, Saumya etc. etc. also became part of this extended family. One evening Emir and his band gave a spectacular concert. The music was a mix of Serbian gypsy melodies, combined with the background score of his films and the rhythm of contemporary sounds. The El Comodante had transformed into a possessed guitarist.
The most interesting part of the festival and a big learning experience for me were the jury deliberations. Each of us was asked to give our opinion, in detail, on the films that we had seen. It became obvious as we expressed our opinions about the films, we were also revealing ourselves; who we were and the cultural, social and historical contexts that we were bringing with us. We were not only describing and evaluating the stories that we were watching on screen, but we were sharing with each other our own life stories! While we all know that viewing an art form is a subjective process, it was astonishing to see how nine people could so strongly and vociferously disagree on certain aspects of a film. Many of the members were extraordinary filmmakers in their own right and yet could have completely opposing opinions when it came to evaluating the films. Despite some films at times polarizing our opinions, it was remarkable how we eventually ended up functioning as a cohesive group and came to a consensus.
On the morning of the final day of deliberations we were whisked away to a secret location- a beautiful villa! We were cloistered and hidden from rest of the world. We were not allowed to carry cellphones or communicate with anyone, including our family members! The final discussions became rather heated and contentious, as it was difficult to narrow down the choices for the winners. But, somehow we managed and it was a miracle that none of us were really unhappy with the final choices! As the evening arrived to an end we were whisked away yet again to the red carpet in our official flag bearing cars one last time. The final ceremonies were about to begin. The Palme d’Or was won by the Dardenne Brothers for their film Le’enfant, who had previously won it for their film Rossetta in 1999. After the post-award celebrations and the closing night gala dinner, there was a beach party with with great music. I let my hair down and danced like a maniac till three in the morning along with all our jury friends.
In Cannes, it was amazing to see film lovers, star struck film goers, waiting patiently for hoursto have a glimpse of anybody who was glamorous or famous. Many a times, on my way to the Palais, I was surprised by strangers calling out my name with unusual familiarity. Being under the scrutiny of photographers and the public all the time, there was a pressure to be constantly glamourously dressed. But I have never been someone who has yearned for or worn ‘designer clothes’ (partly because I can’t afford them and partly because it’s just not my style!). This time around, I found myself generously helped by my designer friends, like Ritu Kumar, Namrata Joshipura, Anuradha Vakil, Muzzaffar Ali and stylist Priyanka Singh. Some of them in turn introduced me to other designers like Rohit Bal, Rajesh Pratap Rathore and Sabyasachi.
As I had not seen most of these designers’ clothes in the past, even this experience was quite enlightening to say the least! I ended up primarily choosing those clothes that I felt instinctively comfortable in and that were somehow more me; and not really by the brands. My final wardrobe still consisted of mostly my own clothes. I wore lots of crinkled skirts, jeans and Indian tops, chudidar kurtas, sarees and whatever I usually wear! While I do not mean to undermine the talents of designers, we cannot forget our weavers, our craftsmen (and women) and our artisans who have for years given us a variety of handspun cloth, exquisite weave and intricate embroidery. I am glad that I have got an opportunity to share some of it with a world that knows so little about it.The jewelry was all the little silver trinkets that one collects over the years, and some from Aakar, a silver shop I often go to. My gold and diamond collection needed much more help and that was provided by Chand Begum! While the clothes, the jewelry and the glamour are a big component of the festival, somehow, I felt that it enjoys undue emphasis. After all, the Cannes film festival is much more than a fashion show!
I look back on the Cannes experience as an important milestone in my understanding of film as an art form that fascinates more people in the world than any other. However, the Cannes film festival is more than just a film festival. It’s a ‘mela’ (carnival), where the rich, the famous, the powerful, the opportunist, the struggler, the aspiring, the dreamer all come together to exploit, to learn, to make deals, to network, to indulge and to also have a great time! I will remember this experience as a moment in my life where my perspectives on film, life in general and the world in transition all shifted to a broader understanding. Cannes was truly a microcosm of sorts.