Though many from India will not be at Cannes this time, given the Covid-19 restrictions, three Indian films are part of Cannes Film Festival- Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons in the special ‘Cinema for the Climate’ section, Mumbai-based Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing in the Directors’ Fortnight 2021, and Suman Sen’s Eka in La Fabrique Cinema.
By Saibal Chatterjee
Travel from the subcontinent isn’t easy in the current situation, but three Indian filmmakers, two with completed films and one with a project on the verge of being greenlighted, will be in Cannes this year to share their images and ideas with the world.
After a year that saw the announcement of a full complement of films but no physical screenings, the Cannes Film Festival is back with its 74th edition with a slew of Covid-19 protocols in place. India is on France’s red list, which poses a logistical challenge to film professionals and scribes from this country who intend to make the trip to the French Riviera.
The subcontinent does, however, have a brace of titles in the Official Selection. Bangladeshi filmmaker Abdullah Mohammad Saad’s Rehanais in the Un Certain Regard sidebar. Indian documentarian Rahul Jain’s Invisible Demons screens in the special ‘Cinema for the Climate’ section.
Saad’s film has made history. It is the first-ever Bangladeshi entry to find a place in the Official Selection in Cannes. Tareque Masud’s Matir Moina (The Clay Bird) is the only film from Bangladesh that has screened in Cannes before – in Directors’ Fortnight, 2002.
Rahul Jain’s first documentary feature was the critically acclaimed Machines (2016), an austere, unflinching look at the grimly tortuous lives of workers in a textile mill in Gujarat. The film screened in Sundance and IDFA Amsterdam in 2017, besides numerous other festivals.
Invisible Demons, a 70-minute documentary about the grave repercussions of Delhi’s rapid urban expansion and the impact of polluted air and water on the most vulnerable segments of the megacity’s population.“It is high time that films about the realities of climate change are given a platform,” says Jain, who grew up in Delhi and acquired an MA degree in Aesthetics and Politics from the California Institute of the Arts.
“I do not, however, like being labelled. I see myself as a young filmmaker who is reacting to the world around me.” He is quick to add that he is excited that “the cat is out of the bag and the film is going to play in Cannes”.
He is now keen, Jain adds, to see how much Invisible Demons communicates with the audience in Cannes. The film pieces together stories of a few of Delhi’s inhabitants as they grapple with alarming levels of pollution.
The film germinated years ago. On his way to school when he was only six, he would pass the river Yamuna. “Is this a nadi (river) or a nullah, I would ask,” Jain recalls. Pollution in Delhi, he says, isn’t just a winter phenomenon. “In the heat wave, my brain shuts down,” he says.
“After Machines, I had a dearth of inspiration. I felt worthless. I wondered if anything I was going to make be of any use? I took a break and went to Bhutan. And when I returned to Delhi, I collapsed, strangled by the pollution,” the filmmaker recalls.
The parallel Directors’ Fortnight 2021 includes Mumbai-based Payal Kapadia’s first fiction feature,A Night of Knowing Nothing. Scripted by the director with Himanshu Prajapati and lensed by Laila Aur Satt Geet cinematographer Ranabir Das, the film is far removed from the Indian entries that the Quinzaine has programmed in the past decade (Gangs of Wasseypur, Ugly, Raman Raghav 2.0, all helmed by Anurag Kashyap).
The synopsis of A Night of Knowing Nothing reads: “A University student writes letters to her estranged lover while he is away. Through these letters, we get a glimpse into the drastic changes taking place around her. Merging reality with fiction, dreams, memories, fantasies and anxieties, an amorphous narrative unfolds.”
This isn’t Kapadia’s first appearance in Cannes. In 2017, the FTII alumna was at the world’s premier film festival with Afternoon Clouds, which featured in the Cinefondation short films competition.
Directors’ Fortnight has a history of selecting films that go on to win the Camera d’Or, Cannes’ prize for the best debut film of a director. On the list of winners are Jim Jarmusch’s Stranger Than Paradise (1984), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988), Jafar Panahi’s The White Balloon (1995), Naomi Kawase’s Suzaku (1997), Bahman Ghobadi’s A Time for Drunken Horses (2000) and Anthony Chen’s Ilo Ilo (2013). This year, our eyes will be on Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, one of several first films in the Directors’ Fortnight lineup.
Kolkata-born Suman Sen is the third Indian filmmaker in Cannes this year. His debut feature Eka (Solo) has made it to La Fabrique Cinema, an Institut Francais-sponsored mentoring programme for young directors. “We are now just one draft away from the shooting. The intention is to wrap up (the funding negotiations), so I’m staying over in Paris after the Cannes festival. The pandemic situation permitting, we want to start filming in mid-2022,” says Sen, who has been in the advertising industry for 15 years.
According to the synopsis, Eka, set in Kolkata, “explores the degeneration of the social fabric of India”. The filmmaker says: “The film reflects the time I have lived in for the last couple of years: a time of hatred, intolerance and violence.”
“I have a love-hate relationship with Kolkata,” says Sen, who moved to Mumbai five years ago. “I wanted to distance myself from the city and view it objectively. The move has given me a new reflective lens to view Kolkata from a different angle altogether.”
Sen recently completed the short film The Silent Echo, set in Nepal. Eka, an Indo-Bangladeshi-French venture backed by Arifur Rahman of Goopy Bagha Productions, is one of ten projects selected for La Fabrique Cinema.
Another La Fabrique Cinema inclusion is multiple award-winning Afghan filmmaker Sahra Mani’s documentary Kabul Melody, about two teenage girls who face family opposition and Taliban threats as they pursue their passion for music.
In her Statement of Intent, Mani, who made the widely applauded A Thousand Girls Like Me (2018), says, “Being a filmmaker in Afghanistan means being a social activist. In spite of it all, with Kabul Melody I want to show hope and the emergence of free will among the women who will create Afghanistan’s future.”
In the Marche du Film (Cannes Film Market), the National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) will present seven projects looking for co-producers and financiers. The slate includes Moving Bangladesh, a film produced, among others, by Arifur Rahman, who is also backing Eka.
The other NFDC projects in this year’s Cannes Film Market are Prantik Basu’s Dengue, Anjali Menon’s Rasa, Nepalese filmmaker Pasang Dawa Sherpa’s Kuhiro Pariko Sahar (A Hidden Tale Behind the Mist), Paromita Dhar’s Last Time on Earth, Rishi Chandna’s Ghol (The Catch) and Subhadra Mahajan’s Second Chance.