When the Cannes Film Festival unveiled its 2017 Official Selection, the lack of a single title by an Indian director marked the second year running that the biggest film industry in the world has been unrepresented in the main lineup (the last Indian movie in the Official Selection was Neeraj Ghaywan’s “Masaan” in 2015’s Un Certain Regard section).
Indian cinema has never been a complete non-entity at Cannes; ever since Chetan Anand won top honors with “Neecha Nagar” at the inaugural festival in 1946, Indian filmmakers have enjoyed some degree of exposure at Cannes, in or out of competition. In the last decade alone, screenings have included features and shorts from close to 30 Indian filmmakers, including Vikramaditya Motwani, who wowed audiences with “Udaan”; Ritesh Batra with his Grand Golden Rail-winning “The Lunchbox”; and Anurag Kashyap, whose “Ugly,” “Gangs of Wasseypur” and “Raman Raghav 2.0” all opened to applause at various Directors’ Fortnights.
But this year’s omission, even if unintentional, is puzzling, given that despite the formulaic Bollywood fare, more filmmakers than ever are offering alternative content that push the boundaries on style and subject matter. We’re highlighting our picks for ten Indian directors that the Cannes selection committee should be taking note of for the future.
After a bumpy start in direction (including an ill-received sex comedy), Hansal Mehta seems to have found his groove in the last five years, tackling thrillers and biographical dramas that teeter between commercial cinema and subjects usually considered grounds for indies in India. His 2012 “Shahid,” following the tragic true story of a human rights lawyer, earned him the Best Director title at both the New York Indian Film Festival and India’s National Film Awards, and his 2014 “CityLights,” an adaptation of the British thriller “Metro Manila,” also screened at South Asian film festivals across the U.S.
But it was his 2015 “Aligarh”— the heart-wrenching and alarming real-life story of a college professor suspended for his sexuality— that caught global attention, fetching critical and audience applause from Dallas and London to Vancouver, and Busan. Regardless of whether his films are works of fiction or inspired by real events, Mehta’s unflinching perspective of contemporary India gives him a unique credibility that should pique festival juries’ interests for his 2017 release, “Simran,” the story of an Indian housekeeper in the United States whose pursuit for the American Dream goes awry.
Shrivastava isn’t a total stranger to Cannes or filmmaking — she was the associate director on the star-studded Bollywood political drama “Raajneeti,” which showcased at the 2009 Film Market, and made her debut film, “Turning 30,” in 2011. But the writer/director popped up on everyone’s radars this year with her second feature, “Lipstick Under My Burkha,” not just thanks to the awards it scooped up at virtually every festival it played, but also because of the off-screen drama it triggered when denied certification by India’s unofficial censor board for being “lady oriented” and “sensitive about…a section of society.”
Funnily enough, that’s just the sort of subject matter a Cannes jury might love. “Lipstick”s world premiere at last year’s Tokyo International Film Festival may have cost it eligibility for Cannes (watch it at the New York Indian Film Festival’s opening night this month); however, Shrivastava’s fearless take on female sexuality, individual expression, and India’s conservative cultural norms falls right in line with some of the France festival’s favorite themes, and proves that she’s a filmmaking force to keep an eye on.
In 2012, Sircar captured an entire nation’s attention when he made socially taboo issues of infertility and sperm donation acceptable topics of discussion with his comedic but sensitive touch in 2012’s “Vicky Donor.” He changed tracks completely, to an unabashed yet non-gratuitous depiction of wartime brutality in “Madras Café” in 2013, then moved on to a quietly powerful and character-driven look at a father-daughter relationship in 2015’s “Piku,” which made rounds at several international film festivals.
His subject matter may not be predictable, but Sircar’s consistent daring to be different is precisely what makes his films so highly anticipated. Taking on stories that other mainstream filmmakers would consider way too risky, he manages to give them a disarming poignancy that makes the viewing experience not only entertaining, but eye-opening, too. Sircar’s directing slate is currently empty, but there are reports of future projects in development, including a freedom fighter biopic that could be right up Cannes’ alley.
Call Imtiaz Ali’s brand of movies Bollywood Romance 2.0. Ever since serving up fresh humor and spunky protagonists in 2007’s “Jab We Met,” the maverick writer/director has reinvigorated the genre with films that incorporate more substance into a framework traditionally reserved for one-dimensional narratives throughout much of Bollywood’s last three decades.
From the heartbroken, aspiring musician in “Rockstar” and the abducted young woman with a secretly dark past in “Highway” (which screened in Berlin in 2014) to the rudderless anti-hero caught between following his passion and complying with social norms in “Tamasha,” Ali doesn’t etch stock characters defined solely by their love stories; instead, they’re all beautifully flawed, grappling with identities, carrying hefty emotional baggage, and undergoing discernible personal arcs. Consistently demonstrating an ability to balance an arresting cinematic aesthetic with a confident grasp of the modern Indian youth’s newfound value for realism, Ali’s work is a cut above the typical fluff. If his 2017 release, tentatively titled “The Ring,” follows suit, it’s likely to have crossover appeal with global audiences, too.
On the jury panel for the 2006 Barcelona Film Festival and 2015 Mumbai Film Festival, a multiple National Award winner for her roles in “Mr. and Mrs Iyer” and “Omkara,” and starring in “arthouse” films that have premiered everywhere from Sao Paulo to Locarno since the early 2000s (including Alankrita Shrivastava’s “Lipstick Under My Burkha”), Sen Sharma is already something of a festival darling. She’s also the daughter of Aparna Sen — one of few female filmmakers at the center of the Indian parallel cinema movement since the early 1980s — and writer Mukul Sharma, so some may say that storytelling runs in Sen Sharma’s DNA.
But her first writing/directing venture, 2016’s “A Death in the Gunj,” introduced a new reason for her to be recognized on the festival circuit. A coming-of-age period drama of a teenager exploring his family’s murky past, the film had a solid reception at its Toronto International Film Festival world premiere, The Hollywood Reporter describing it as “assured debut feature that leaves a haunting air of melancholy in its wake.” Going on to receive awards in both Mumbai and Busan, “A Death in the Gunj” may have been Sen Sharma’s first project, but the writer/director’s art-house sensibilities could hint at an auteur in the making.
On the next page, five more picks for filmmakers deserving Cannes’ attention.
Kagti is widely known as one-half of the Reema Kagti/Zoya Akhtar screenwriting duo, responsible for penning commercial hits like 2011’s “Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara” and 2015’s “Dil Dhadakne Do.” But as a director in her own right, her short filmography has a distinct indie slant; her 2007 debut feature, “Honeymoon Travels Pvt Ltd” was a quirky look at newlywed relationships and driven almost entirely by character and conversation over a conventional three-act plot, while 2012’s “Talaash” blended beautifully layered lead roles into a twist-filled thriller.
Thanks to her astute observations of the human condition and her ability to extract layered performances from her actors, all eyes are on Kagti’s next project, “Gold.” The story of India’s first post-independence Olympic medal, it may not be the “high art” fare that makes it to Cannes’ competition lineup, but might eventually be worth a look for the Un Certain Regard section.
Cannes loved the narrative nuances and emotional textures that won Ritesh Batra’s “The Lunchbox” a Grand Golden Rail for in 2013, so it’s surprising that debutant feature director Shubhashish Bhutiani’s 2016 “Hotel Salvation,” with its similarly understated yet compelling syntax, didn’t make it to any part of the program this year. The story of a son who reluctantly obliges his aging father’s request to spend his remaining days in the holy city of Varanasi, “Hotel Salvation” caters well to Cannes’ proclivity for low-key, family-focused dramas soaked in cultural contexts, where the city plays as much of a role as the characters.
Bhutiani won a UNESCO award at Venice for the film, which also had well-received screenings at the Busan, Dubai, and Vesoul film festivals, among others. Combine that with the successful run of Bhutiani’s first short, “Kush,” which also won at Venice and was shortlisted for the 2014 Oscars, and the director is undeniably a rising star.
At a festival where biopics tend to fare well, Ananth Mahadevan’s work would be a natural fit. A veteran in the filmmaking and television industries, Mahadevan has found much of his recent success directing dramas and true stories that shed light on notable national issues and figures, from an unrecognized freedom fighter in 2015’s “Gour Hari Dastaan” to the holes in India’s education system in 2016’s “Rough Book.”
His 2017 Marathi-language feature, “Doctor Rakhmabai” — centered on India’s first practicing female doctor — incorporates several ingredients of a Cannes-friendly film, combining a real-life tale and a historic backdrop with themes of female empowerment and challenging social conventions. His credibility is further boosted by the fact that all three of his latest films have starred actress Tannishtha Chatterjee, one of the most well-known and respected Indian faces on the international festival circuit.
Given Kukunoor’s reputation as one of the pioneering modern indie filmmakers in India, his 1998 “Hyderabad Blues” becoming the most successful independent film in the country, it’s almost inconceivable that Cannes hasn’t yet highlighted his work. His preference for modest budgets and penchant for anchoring his simple but crisp stories with emotional cores, as seen in later films like the coming-of-age tale “Rockford” and the cricket-centric “Iqbal,” cemented his national following; but Kukunoor really burst onto the global festival scene in 2014, when “Lakshmi,” a real life-inspired story on teen prostitution, premiered at Toronto and won the Best Narrative award at that year’s Palm Springs International Film Festival.
His 2015 follow-up, “Dhanak,” was an even more resounding festival favorite, charming juries from Berlin to Montreal with its pint-sized leads and life-affirming optimism. While the writer/director’s auteurist tendencies should have been on Cannes’ radar long ago, his upcoming “Daak Ghar,” based on Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s novel of the same title, could be a particularly suitable fit for the festival, appealing to its roots in highbrow material.
Sharma cut his teeth as an assistant director on unorthodox filmmaker Anurag Kashyap’s sets, working on festival favorites like and “Dev D.” and “Gangs of Wasseypur” (which screened at Cannes in 2013). Kashyap’s gutsy, irreverent spirit clearly rubbed off; Sharma’s debut feature last year, “Haraamkhor,” made its own festival waves as the boldly-told taboo love story between a professor and his student.
His next feature “Zoo,” currently in post-production, is a Cannes magnet if there ever was one: depicting the intersecting lives of several youth of varying social classes residing in the heart of Mumbai. If the film lives up to its promise of painting urban realities from unlikely perspectives, it may establish Sharma even further as a filmmaker to keep following.
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