Cannes Film Festival: More From India Than Just Bollywood

For the first time in 30 years at the Cannes Film Festival, an Indian film will compete for the Palme d’Or in the main competition, alongside new movies from Francis Ford Coppola, Yorgos Lanthimos and Andrea Arnold.

The dry spell might come as a surprise for a country with film industries in multiple regions producing hundreds of films per year, including international sensations like last year’s Oscar-nominated “RRR.”

But the inclusion of “All We Imagine as Light,” directed by Payal Kapadia, reflects a growing recognition of the independent cinema made in the shadow of the country’s mainstream hits.

Thierry Frémaux, the artistic director of Cannes, noted the new generations of filmmakers in India when he announced the lineup in April. These movies offer what the critic Namrata Joshi calls “a young, probing, and provoking gaze at Indian reality.” Indian publications have celebrated the country’s prominent presence at the festival, whose inaugural edition in 1946 included a film from India, Chetan Anand’s “Neecha Nagar,” in its grand prize category.

“All We Imagine as Light” joins a generally notable selection of Indian stories and storytellers across this year’s edition, which begins on Tuesday. Santosh Sivan will be the first Indian filmmaker to receive the Pierre Angénieux prize for career achievement in cinematography, and in the Un Certain Regard competition, Sandhya Suri’s “Santosh” follows a widow who takes on her husband’s policeman post.

In Directors’ Fortnight, a parallel program during Cannes, Karan Kandhari’s “Sister Midnight” portrays a defiant newly married woman who seeks vengeance. And in ACID (Association for the Distribution of Independent Cinema) — a parallel program at Cannes devoted to independent film — an Indian feature will screen for the first time, “In Retreat,” directed by Maisam Ali.

“It’s great because quite often we don’t have so many films from India represented in this way at Cannes,” Kapadia said in an interview from Paris where she was putting finishing touches on her film.

Centering on two roommates, “All We Imagine as Light” is, Kapadia says, “about women who’ve come to Mumbai to work.” She returns to Cannes after winning best documentary in 2021 for her university-set reflection on love and protest, “A Night of Knowing Nothing.” But independent Indian productions can face a long road to screens at home because of domestic funding challenges and markets more accustomed to mainstream fare.

“If you want to do something that’s a little experimental, it becomes challenging to find funding,” Kapadia said. “There are a few funds, but it’s a really big country and there are a lot of people.”

Despite the obstacles, Indian films of modest budgets and artistic ambition have won awards abroad recently in major festivals like Sundance, “All That Breathes” in 2022; Rotterdam, “Pebbles” in 2021; and Venice, “The Disciple” in 2020.

The Museum of Modern Art in New York opened a 2022 showcase of independent movies from India by proclaiming: “Indian cinema’s diversity has been energized by a growing number of impressive independent works.” And documentaries have especially garnered the spotlight recently with Academy Award nominations, including “All That Breathes” and “Writing with Fire,” despite having no consistent theatrical distribution within India.

“I think the spirit of independent films in India has always been strong,” Deepti DCunha, artistic director of the Jio MAMI Mumbai Film Festival, said. “But very few people have the access and they can find it difficult to get their movies seen anywhere.”

What’s helped many Indian filmmakers are co-productions with European countries, and the chance to get exposure to potential producers at the annual Film Bazaar, an event in Goa with a curated market for Indian films, producers and programmers visiting from abroad, and work-in-progress labs. But another nexus for a recent generation of independent filmmakers is film school. The Film and Television Institute of India (F.T.I.I.) in Pune, which Kapadia attended, is one such bastion, as is Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi.

“The F.T.I.I. has provided an indefatigable supply of not only technicians in terms of editors, sound people, D.O.P.s [directors of photography] and so on, but also directors,” Shaunak Sen, who directed “All That Breathes,” said in an interview from Delhi.

Sen counts himself lucky: his film about two brothers running a bird clinic in Delhi went to Sundance, Cannes and the Oscars, and was picked up by HBO. But he sees what independent filmmakers can face in India, “where you know you’re staring at this mammoth industry of Bollywood, working in a tiny nook, and trying to will a film into existence.”

Kapadia’s film was in development since late 2018, taking time to find funding. She was writing the script for “All We Imagine as Light” while she was still making her documentary “A Night of Knowing Nothing.” The F.T.I.I. was central to Kapadia’s career, and where she met her partner, whom she also works with, and other “go-to film companions.”

But an international connection was important: She worked on both films with a young French company, learning together as they moved from small documentary production to a sometimes 80-person crew for “All We Imagine as Light.” (“Big crew, small film!” she said with a laugh.) The French co-production also had support from the Netherlands through the Hubert Bals Fund of the International Film Festival Rotterdam, which supports filmmakers across the globe at various stages of creating their movies.

“The independent film industry in Europe is really well designed. They support you at every stage,” Kapadia said, listing off grants for script writing, production, postproduction and distribution.

She mused what it would be like if India could adopt the French system of levying taxes on ticket sales that can be used to support independent filmmaking. (She’s not alone in wondering: An editorial in the Indian Express said Kapadia’s inclusion offered “an opportunity to introspect on why it has taken three decades for a film from one of the world’s top film-producing nations to once again make it to this eminent stage.”)

These are the challenges that filmmakers like Kapadia must master, not just to make their movies but to find audiences. Programmers at international festivals can help with encouraging independent voices, viewing works in progress in India or through links.

In the case of the ACID selection, “In Retreat,” the filmmaker Ali (another F.T.I.I. graduate) submitted the film, which was one of hundreds considered by the programming team. Shot in the high-altitude Ladakh region, it’s the story of a middle-aged man trying to return home to a mountain town for his brother’s funeral.

“I didn’t know the director was young, because when you see the film, it’s incredibly deep, really mature,” Pamela Varela, one of ACID’s programmers, said, before bestowing the highest auteurist compliment. “This is really a film by someone. You see it from the first sequence, which is amazing.”

The up-and-coming generations of Indian independent filmmakers share a willingness to experiment formally and, outside of the demands of a studio and mass market, might have more freedom to confront political issues of inequality or caste, for example. “Especially if it’s a French co-production,” Kapadia said with a smile. “They are very much for free speech, so they are quite supportive of whatever you want to do.”

These filmmakers find kinship both at home and abroad. Kapadia compared making films to “making a quilt, a craft” and mentioned the Indian filmmakers Yashaswini Raghunandan and Ekta Mittal.

Like cinephiles globally, filmmakers are in tune with directors from across the world, though Sen also cited the particular “neighborly” bond with other South Asian cinemas that reflect a postcolonial modernity.

When it comes to the independent “new wave,” though, don’t call it a comeback: By all accounts, the talent was always there. Cannes just presents a dazzlingly bright spotlight and opportunity.

“I don’t think it is that we have recently seen a new wave in talent,” DCunha said. “It’s more that now Europe is paying attention, or America’s paying attention.”

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