The 75th Cannes film festival, scheduled from 17th-28th May 2022, is on its conclusive run this week and has already made headlines in the Indian media forum for reasons other than fashion and red carpet looks! India has become the first ‘Country of Honour’ at the Marche du Film or Cannes Market, an event that runs parallel to the festival.

Apart from the Cannes’ official selection, which is Shaunak Sen’s documentary All That Breathessix Indian films were selected by the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcast to be screened at the Market, including two digitally restored works of Satyajit Ray. Additionally, Actress Deepika Padukone has been in the spotlight for being a member of the 8-member international jury panel awarding the prestigious Palme d’Or to the best motion picture at the end of the festival. 

As much as being the ‘country of honour’ is a precious title for India, given our centennial film industry, it was equally controversial on many fronts. First off, the international media weren’t so pleased with the decision of the Board about India being in focus because of our current political stand on Russia in terms of the Ukraine war. As it happens, Cannes had earlier made clear that it would not welcome any movie or director, or journalist connected with Russia. So naturally, India’s ambiguous political stand came into question.

Secondly, many Indians were not happy with the way Deepika Padukone responded to questions asked to the jury. They found it superficial and lacking any clarity of thought, awakening a storm of memes on Twitter. However, the more controversial part of her speech was at the inaugural function of the Indian Pavilion at the Marche du Film, where she said, “I truly believe that India is at the cusp of greatness. This is just the beginning. There will come a day when India won’t have to be at Cannes, but Cannes will be in India.” Rather than having the intended deep impact in terms of the importance of cinema in India and bringing that sensibility to the world, her statements, unfortunately, sound nothing more than a dialogue recital from a typical Bollywood movie.

Padukone’s words sitting next to Anurag Thakur, the Minister of Information and Broadcast who allegedly shouted out Islamophobic and genocidal slogans at the Delhi rallies in 2019 and 2020, we find it hard to believe that Indian cinema could have the pull to bring the world together looking at the current landscape of extreme islamophobia and erasure politics practiced by the current government at the Centre. 

‘The cusp of greatness’ that the actor is referring to is a little hard to digest because from press freedom to gender violence to caste discrimination to inflation, India has been performing horribly at all scales. In fact, just this month, India slipped to 150th rank (out of 180 countries) in the 2022 Press Freedom Index. Last year, India ranked 148th (out of 170 countries) in the ‘Women, Peace And Security Index 2021’.

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Apart from this, the instances of rape against young girls rarely reach any recourse despite being reported. Moreover, marital rape has not yet been criminalised, and multiple rounds of court hearings still end with a split verdict, not decriminalising the offence. Living in such harsh realities, hearing the Indian panel talk about being ‘proud’ to represent India is laughable, to say the least.

Not to say that Indian films are not breaking the barriers of creative storytelling, but one must acknowledge the amount of censorship carried out by The Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), which is a statutory film-certification body under the same Ministry of Information and Broadcasting that Mr. Thakur is currently the Minister of. We do live in a country where films that have some sort of social commentary and female agency are told to cut out multiple scenes from the film (such as Haider (2014); Angry Indian Goddesses (2015); Udta Punjab (2016); Lipstick Under My Burkha (2017)), but a clearly propagandist film (such as Kashmiri Files (2011) gets an immediate pass from the Board which portrays an exaggerated account of the Kashmiri Pandit Exodus as a genocidal act, and that led to a strong anti-Muslim sentiment in the country.

Another reason Padukone’s words sound hollow is that she has personally faced multiple death threats for her film Padmavat (2018) and, of course, the numerous instances of internet trolling. Despite being a top-rated film actor in the industry, she has had to stand up against the taboo of mental health; she has had to address the pay gap disparity for which she eventually turned down a film because her male co-star was getting paid more. When Deepika went to extend her support to the JNU students and met with Aishe Ghosh, the young Left leader in JNU who had faced violence by the ABVP in 2020, she was heckled by the government authorities and later ridiculed for not addressing the crowd.

As a woman who has made it big in the industry on her own, along with the fact that her every move is commented upon and meticulously criticised, no wonder she chose the diplomatic position of “just enjoying the creative process” of exceptional filmmaking at the Cannes. 

That said, it is probably braver than it is naive of the Indian Pavilion to openly call the Indian government to back homegrown talent with “conviction”. Also on the panel was filmmaker Shekhar Kapur who echoed Deepika Padukone’s sentiments about Cannes coming to India. He reiterated, “The next Cannes is in India. We are the land of stories…”. Netflix’s Sacred Games actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui brought up the disparity between how films that get international success are received back at home and expressed that “the government should extend support to these films too.” But of course, “India has a long way to go” as Padukone herself says during the speech.

We only hope that these remarks didn’t fall on careless ears and that sometime in the near future, our republic may be able to embrace and promote the country’s artists and art.

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