It might seem a bit provoking to start an argument about the films which were not at Cannes this year. But in the case of India, the burgeoning superpower which makes more movies than any other country in the world, the argument rages. Why have there been so few Indian films either in the competition or the other major sections in recent years?
This year there were none at all, though it is true that two days were devoted to the Indian cinema in the ancillary Tous les cinemas du monde programme. But few visited that event and the large contingent of Indians present at Cannes felt genuinely aggrieved.
Of course, the vast majority of Indian films are of the Bollywood song-and-dance variety, which rules them out straightaway. Most of them are awful. But there have always been a precious few Bollywood movies worth seeing each year, and one of them, Mani Ratnam’s long but impressive Guru , was on the Cinemas Du Monde programme.
There have, however, always been serious independent directors who would rather follow in the footsteps of the great Satyajit Ray than put themselves in hock to Bollywood, and it is those directors who feel neglected.
In the seventies and eighties these film-makers made a series of what was given the generative title of the Parallel Cinema and which caused a considerable stir. Among them were Shyam Benegal, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Kopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Ketan Mehta, Mani Kaul and at least a dozen others.
The movement, sustained by financing from the National Film Development Corporation and by healthy fees for showing the films on the Government’s equivalent of the BBC, eventually petered out, largely because there is no art circuit in India and government support became more difficult to get. This was a huge disaster for independent film-makers in India . And an even greater one is the fact that so few of the prints of these often remarkable films seem to be available.
I recently tried to mount a 20-film tribute to the best of the Parallel Cinema at the National Film Theatre in London . But, having chosen the films, we could find only five or six of the prints and had to cancel the season. Instead we tried to find some good films from more recent years. But, even then, we could find no prints of many of them.
There must be few other major film-making countries which deal with their heritage so poorly and that almost certainly means that the marketing of anything but obviously commercial movies is lacking too. So one has to say it is as much the fault of India as of Cannes that Indian films are ignored.
Now, however, something is at last stirring with the formation of the All-India Independent Film-makers Association, lead by Ketan Mehta. The new body held a party at Cannes and generally put themselves about. So far there are around 60 members but there will soon be a lot more.
It is absolutely essential that they can convince festivals that there is something else bar Bollywood, that they will eventually be able to help with financing and distribution and that they make sure that prints are available not only of new films but some of the Parallel Cinema’s classics too.
There are still fine film-makers in India, struggling against what must sometimes seem like insuperable odds. It is made worse by the fact that India’s independent directors come from so many different parts of the country, make their films in different languages and have little contact with each other. But then independent films everywhere have a hard task. It is made much easier when festivals can show their films with confidence.
Mehta says that things will be very different in two or three years. We must hope that he is right. There were claims made this year that the Cannes programmers were in some way racist about India. That is not true. But having myself tried hard to help and been largely unsuccessful, I can see what festival organizers face when they try to mount the better Indian films. I suggest they get in touch with new association in the future. It might actually answer their e-mails!
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