For the second time in three years, a film-school student from India will be competing at the Cannes film festival. The honour of being part of 16 directors from around the world in the film-school competition in Cannes rests with Pratham Khurana, who has just completed an undergraduate programme in film direction at Whistling Woods International, Mumbai. Khurana's entry into the elite club of film festivals points to a new direction for the future of Indian cinema.
While India is the Country of Honour at the Cannes film market this year, Khurana's 26-minute-long diploma film, Nauha, about an ailing elderly man and his caregiver, and Delhi-based director Shaunak Sen's documentary All That Breathes, which tells the story of two brothers saving the Black Kite from the national capital's polluted air, are the only films from India in the official selection of the festival along with two restored classics - Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (1970) and G. Aravindan's Thamp (1978).
"My film is about finding families in people who are not the traditional family," says Khurana, who was born and raised in Delhi. Nauha tells the story of Kishan, a 22-year-old man who arrives in the national capital from Uttarakhand to earn a living and becomes a caregiver for an elderly widower whose children live in the United States. "Urbanisation and migration are big themes of the movie," says Khurana. "People in metros are talking about moving to other cities and those in other cities want to go abroad."
Shot in the middle of the pandemic in Noida, Uttar Pradesh, Nauha is among 16 films selected from 1,528 entries from film schools around the world in the La Cinef category of the Cannes festival.
Nauha is only the third Indian film ever to compete in the Cannes film school section, launched 25 years ago. The first Indian film school entry at the festival was Afternoon Clouds by Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune, alumna Payal Kapadia in 2017. In 2020, another FTII alumna Ashmita Guha Niyogi won the film school competition's top prize for her diploma film, CatDog. Kapadia went on to win the Golden Eye Award given on the sidelines of the Cannes festival, for her debut feature, A Night of Knowing Nothing, which premiered in the Director's Fortnight parallel programme last year.
It is rare for the Cannes selection committee to include a film that is not a world premiere in the official selection. An example this year is Shaunak Sen's All That Breathes, which had its world premiere at the Sundance festival early this year.
"We were shocked. We didn't expect it at all. The festival said they really loved the film," says Sen, who took three years to film his documentary which, like Nauha, is also set on the outskirts of Delhi.
Part of the Special Screenings section along with The Natural History of Destruction by Ukrainian film-maker Sergie Loznitsa and Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind by Oscar-winning American director Ethen Coen, All That Breathes - a Sundance Grand Jury Prize winner - is the second Indian documentary to probe the cost of human progress after Invisible Demons by another Delhi-born director Rahul Jain, a Cannes official selection last year.
The Cannes festival will pay homage to Indian cinema on the occasion of the 75th anniversary of India's independence by screening two Indian classics -- Satyajit Ray's Pratidwandi (The Adversary) and G. Aravindan's Thamp (The Circus Tent) restored this year. Both Pratidwandi, restored under the Central government's National Film Heritage Mission, and Thamp, restored by the Mumbai-based Film Heritage Foundation and American film-maker Martin Scorsese's World Cinema Project, are part of the Cannes Classics which also has such movies as Singin' in the Rain (1952) and The Trial (1962) by Orson Welles.
"It was a screenplay on three or four pages by Aravindettan and the entire crew were working day and night," reminisces Malayalam director Shaji N. Karun, who was the cinematographer for Thamp.
"Cinema is timeless, and Cannes rightly discovered such films from India," adds Karun, the youngest to win the Best Cinematography National Award for the film aged 25. "The camera captured the wonder in the eyes of innocent villagers in the film. That is why cinema is magic," says Karun, whose Swaham (1994) was the last Indian film to compete for the Palme d'Or.
The Marche du Film, the trade platform of the Cannes festival, has named India as the Country of Honour this year to celebrate 75 years of India's Independence and the 75th anniversary of diplomatic relations between India and France. A slew of new Indian films and projects will be part of the Cannes film market, many of them by the young generation of Indian filmmakers. Hindi language feature project Starfruits by Gourab Kumar Mullick, a love story between a small-time gangster and his male friend set in Mumbai in the '90s, is among the 10 projects by young film-makers from emerging countries being mentored this year at La Fabrique Cinema programme at the Cannes film market. Last year, Eka by Kolkata-born Suman Sen, about a lone man's fight against a giant statue in the West Bengal capital, was the only Indian entry in La Fabrique Cinema.
Resilient world cinema
A strong line-up of films from celebrated directors like French film-maker Claire Denis (Stars at Noon), Japanese film-maker Hirokazu Koreeda (Broker), South Korean film-maker Park Chan-wook (Decision to Leave), Russian film-maker Kirill Serebrennikov (Tchaikovski's Wife), Canadian David Cronenberg (Crimes of the Future), Romanian Cristian Mungiu (R.M.N) and Belgian filmmaker-brothers Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne (Tori and Lokita) make up the competition section for the prestigious Palme d'Or, the top prize of the festival, this year.
Besides French director Claire Denis, there are four other female directors in the competition section: American director Kelly Reichardt (Showing Up), who has an Indian-origin producer, Anish Savjani (who also produced Ritesh Batra's Photograph), French filmmakers Léonor Serraille (Mother and Son) and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi (Forever Young), and Belgian actor-director Charlotte Vandermeersch, who has co-directed The Eight Mountains with compatriot Felix Van Groeningen.
"The global cinema had to reset itself. It will take a few years before we overcome the sadness and pain," says Cannes festival general delegate Thierry Fremaux about the Covid-19 pandemic and its effect on the world of cinema.
While the pre-pandemic attendance in Cannes was 45,000 film professionals, there will be 30,000 this year compared to 20,000 in 2021.
"The industry of the cinematic language is on track again," adds Fremaux. Over 2,200 films were viewed by the festival selection committee this year.
French zombie film Final Cut, by Michel Hazanavicius, who directed the Best Picture Oscar winner The Artist, will open the festival on May 17. "It is the story of a filming of a zombie movie," says Fremaux. "The film talks about the passion of making movies, about the collective effort." Final Cut is the second zombie film to open the Cannes festival after the Adam Driver-starring The Dead Don't Die by American director Jim Jarmusch in 2019.