By the turn of the 20th century cinema started emerging as a very powerful art form for it combined audio visual depiction of human feelings unfettered by limitations of time and space. Russian Sergei Eisenstein and American D W Griffith contributed immensely to establish it as a powerful medium of expression to rival theatre and opera. Cinema took a quantum leap in 1927 once sound was added to its visual narration in the aptly titled film The Jazz Singer. Soon cinema would secure its place as the most powerful medium to engage attention both in terms of high artistic expression as well as mass entertainment.
Well into the 1930s, cinema had spread to large parts of the world with America and Europe leading the way. Great films were made for phenomenal entertainment as also for deep intellectual stimulation. That included films of Eric von Stroheim, Pudovkin, Chaplin, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Capra, Howard Hawks and John Ford. However, the release of Jean Renoir’s 1937 film La Grande Illusion stirred French imagination sufficiently to celebrate the medium in the style and scale only the French can do. The immediate provocation for France to organise its own Festival came from the Venice Film Festival that was blatantly manipulated by fascist forces of the time which ouraged the free spirited French. Thus was born the idea of a grand film festival in 1938 led by the then French Minister of National Education, Jean Zay to be hosted at the port and resort city on French Riviera town of Cannes.
However, the day it was to be inaugurated, 1st September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the postponed Festival was subsequently hit by the onset of World War II. It was only in September 1946 the inaugural Festival was launched to lift France out of the post-war gloom and trauma. And how well it did that! “The world threw itself into this first festival in a state of near-intoxication, under a sun that shone constantly until mid-October”, wrote Philippe Erlanger, the senior civil servant who as director of the French Association for Artistic Action had conceptualised the Festival to rival Venice during his train journey from the Venice Festival of 1937. Initially the festival was hit by overlapping competitor festivals until it was moved to the spring month of May from 1952 onwards. The Festival also adopted its motto of aiming to encourage the development of cinematographic art in all its forms, and create and foster a spirit of collaboration between all film producing countries.
Since its inauguration, the Festival has undergone momentous changes in its organisation, administration, selection of movies and awards and its global marketing. The initial system of the jury comprising entirely of French celebrities gave way to an international selection of jury members from 1954-55. The next important moment came in 1959 when Andre Malraux became culture Minister of the Fifth Republic and headed the Festival organisation. Malraux’s intervention opened new vistas for the Festival as also for French cinema that launched the French New Wave with Trufaaut’s Les Qutre cent Coups(400 Blows) bagging top honour in 1959. Cannes, under the guidance of Malraux, patronised bold and politically charged films like Hiroshima mon Amour(1959), Fellini’s La Dolce Vita, Antonioni’s L’Ventura(1960), and Bunuei’s Viridiana(1961), all breaking existing moral, cultural barriers. By inviting contemporary stars like Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, John Wayne, Kirk Douglas and Sean Connery, Cannes not only established innovative business model but also started assuming lasting values of freedom of expression, equality and diversity.
Quickly the festival moved forward from recognition of artistic achievement to become an international business engine in providing a grand rendezvous where art mingled with commerce to create a market place for practically everybody involved in the film business, directly or indirectly, to exchange ideas, enjoy screenings, and sign contracts. By inviting Hitchcock( a bigger star than his own actors) for the international preview of The Birds(1963), Cannes ushered in a new chapter in international marketing of films and Malraux ensured that the festival would be as much about the art of the cinema as a part of industry and business. And fittingly, Cannes now sits at the centre of global cinema in all matters of art, innovation, technology, film language and world wide commerce.
So where does India stand in this melting pot of Cannes Festival? To most Indians Cannes matters primarily in globalising Indian cinema through Satyajit Ray as his Pather Panchali bagged the best human document award in 1956. Many think this opened the door for Indian cinema to the world. Not many have cared to check that Indian cinema has had a very close connection with Cannes since Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar became the winner of the Grand Prix award, later named as Palme d’Or, together with David Lean’s Brief Encounters in the very 1st edition of the Festival and till date remains the sole Indian winner of the top prize.
Thereafter, V Shantaram’s Amar Bhoopali and Raj Kapoor’s Awaara got nominated for top prize in 1952 and 1953 respectively. After Pather Panchali, Saryajit Ray’s Parash Pather and M S Sathyu’s Garm Hawa got nominated for the top prize in 1958 and 1974 respectively. Mrinal Sen’s Kharij got nominated in 1988 and ended up winning Jury Prize out of competition. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay has been the next most successful film as it won the Camera d’Or Award in 1988. Since then a number of Indian films have made their mark in the Festival that include Shaji Karun’s Piravi, Deepa Mehta’s Sam &Me, Manish Jha’s A Very Very Silent Film, Gitanjali Rao’s Printed Rainbow, Ritesh Batra’s The Lunch Box, Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan, Payal Kapadia’s Golden Eye and Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes. Out of competition, many Indian films premiered at Cannes, Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas and Anurag Kashyap’s Gangs of Wasseypur being most notable. Others to premiere as part of competition were Salaam Bombay, The Lunchbox, Titli and Masaan.
As Indian Film Industry started growing to become the most prolific and vibrant in the world, Cannes’ relationship with it deepened beyond the screens of competitive entries. Soon Indians sat on the festival jury with Mrinal Sen becoming the first Indian in 1982, the same year Satyajit Ray became the first Indian to receive the prestigious Cannes Honorary Award. The jury has since included Mira Nair, Arundhati Roy, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Nandita Das, Sharmila Tagore, Sekhar Kapur, Vidya Balan and Deepika Padukone between the 43rd and 75th edition of the Festival.
India was declared the official guest country at the Festival in 2013. Then again in 2022 India was declared the Official Country of Honour, first of its kind, in 2022 to mark 75 years of diplomatic ties between India and France. Last year India erected a special pavilion to showcase the creative excellence of Indian Cinema and its growing connection with global movie business.
Cannes over the years has been helping Indian movie actors, directors and technicians to achieve breakthroughs in international arena. The Lunchbox premiere catapulted Irrfan Khan to international stardom before it was cut short by his demise. Similarly Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Deepika Padukone got to act in major international films following their Festival exposure. Bigger success was reaped by Sekhar Kapur and Mira Nair as their Cannes recognition helped them to direct major International productions.
Overall, the pomp, pageantry and prestige of the Cannes Film Festival has helped Indian Film Industry immensely over the years in showcasing our talent, creativity, diversity and technical expertise. It is continuously stirring our industry to push its boundaries in storytelling and adapting cutting edge technologies to create meaningful cinema. Exposure gained through multiple windows provided at Cannes has been helping our cinema to gain increased business opportunities in international marketing and distribution. As India continues to excel in producing diverse and compelling stories drawing from its rich cultural heritage, Cannes too continues to provide it exposure to latest innovations in film making and in expanding its perspectives and growth.