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An Enigma Called Cannes Film Festival

Cannes stage

Cannes stage

Not just cinema, Cannes can be daunting for a newcomer. People would stand in wrong queues and find that they have been chasing the wrong movie.

The Queen of all, Cannes Film Festival would have opened last evening with the inaugural movie playing out at the Grand Lumiere. The juries – several of them including those of the main international competition, A Certain Regard, etc – walking up the famed Red Carpet (that people die to be on!), followed by the cast and crew of the opening film. There would be other glamorous celebrities – the men smartly turned out in black-suits and bow ties (to me this always looked like a boring uniform) and the women in absolutely stunning designer wear, some of them were so daringly revealing that even the dozens of photographers assembled along the steps to the Lumiere would blush.

There was this after movie party, the opening night sit-in dinner with the choicest of French wines and lip-smacking four-course French food. The hosts were kind enough to accommodate strict vegetarians, but I am told that the fare was bland and uninteresting. So be it, but the cinema world's who's who gathered at the dinner were a bigger feast with people like Aishwarya Rai, Nandita Das, Angelina Jolie, Jane Campion and the like being there – not always though, for this list had to change. And Festival Chief, Thierry Fremaux, usually dined with the main jury and the inaugural film cast. But he went around the tables greeting and exchanging pleasantries.

Nobody could be a stranger at the dinner for long. For, those who sat around you at the table made it a point to introduce themselves. It was all pleasant and pleasurable. But I knew that the opening night would lead me and many, many others to 11-days of movies, more movies and still more movies. Sandwiched between them were the Press conferences – and these were held soon or a day after the film concerned was shown.No journalist worth his salt would like to be caught at one of these meets without having watched the movie. I have seen scribes being ticked off by the director or the star for not having watched the film in question. As for interviews, publicists made sure that only those who had seen the movie would be entertained, and how do they do this. These men and women would station themselves at the gates and mark the attendance of each journalist. No joke this is.

(And Press conferences could be so engaging. I remember one in which actor George Clooney replying to a question said with absolute conviction: There would not be a President Donald Trump. Mr Trump must have laughed aloud when he walked into the White House later.

There was another Press meet where Europe's enfant-terrible, Lars Von Trier, joked about his fondness for Hitler. Minutes later, the world pounced on the Festival, asking it to expel the man from Cannes. He was, but Fremaux being Fremaux , and the French being French, he asked Von Trier to come back the very next year.

This also happened in the late 1950s with Francois Truffaut, who was debarred from Cannes for being so vitriolic about French cinema. And his debut 400 Blows went on to win the Palm dÓr!)

But in India things are so different, casual, I would say. At the International Film Festival of India at Goa, there was one particular year when Adoor Gopalakrishnan's movie was shown. And a day or two before the screening, young and excited reporters and so-called critics crowded around him asking questions about the film. Some asked rank stupid questions like how do you like Goa. “But I have just arrived”, Adoor shot back. “How would I know”. He added, but are you going to watch my work. The group of journalists in answered in a chorus, yes sir. None watched, because the hours and days after his screening, he stood outside the Inox Theatre (the main Festival venue) with friends, not journalists. For, nobody, or just about, had watched his movie.

This is the sad state of India's cinema journalism. This is also true of India at Cannes. The India Pavilion at Cannes is the only one (and there are dozens and dozens representing different countries and production houses), that has an inaugural ceremony. The pavilion is opened on the second day of Cannes – which would have been today – and at 11am. There would be a huge crowd – men and women jostling for space, trying to listen to the 'bashan' of dignitaries, including the Secretary in India's Information and Broadcasting Ministry and even the Indian Ambassador to France. But the crowds are not there to hear the speeches, but for the food that is laid out after the function is over. There is free flowing liquor, and not just that day, but every evening – and the pavilion that would be deserted by the day would spring to life in the evening. Who wants to miss the lip-smacking snacks or the alcohol-- all on the house. And mind you, I have in my long years at Cannes noticed that it is only the India Pavilion that is open to all. Anyone can walk in and walk out.

But for die-hard critics like me and some others, there were other businesses to attend. Films, of course, for the competition movies were slotted at 7 or so every evening, and with the India Pavilion party beginning at 6, no way!

I have hardly missed a Competition title in all these 29 years, and my day would begin at 4.30 in the morning. Two hours of writing my daily story, and I had to do it then, because India was ahead of France by three-and-a-half hours. And I had to leave my hotel –Des Orangers, up the little hill – which has been my Cannes home for a good 20 years – at quarter to eight to get in for an 8.30 am screening, invariably a Competition entry. This was followed by Press meets, interviews, more movies that would all end with the evening show.

Boy, it was free time after that, and Cannes has the most exquisite food and restaurants – tiny places where men and women sat in very close proximity. (This might have to go if social distancing becomes the new norm). Total strangers became friends over food and wine. They were lovely and served with a finesse that only the French are adept at, but for an Indian like me, the prices could be steep. Imagine a pizza that would cost me Rs 1200! In India, I could buy three for the price, but the pizzas at Cannes (or Venice) were just out of this world. The Indian ones come nowhere close!

What is more, come night at Cannes, there is music and mirth, parties and playfulness. Lovely little bands would play along the streets, enriching the night that stretched on and on. The bars would be packed, and there was much dancing and merriment. Cannes was magic all right, the magic of cinema!

There was a young friend of mine who used to come to Cannes, and he never watched cinema. He would party-hop the whole night, or pub-hob till he was so sozzled that he would wake up the next day well past mid-day, with a heavy hangover. But when the sun set again, he would be rearing to go – and this kept happening year after year, till his wife stepped in and said, no more Cannes. You better take care of the babies!. He mailed me this year, and wanted to return to Cannes. But this time, the virus, not the wife, played spoilsport!

Over the years, I have made some very good friends at Cannes – like John and Wilfried from Reuters, Annalisa from Portugal, Oscar from Rome. I still remember my first brush with a lovely journalist, Tyrone Seal. He was from The Argus in Cape Town. This was my first year at Cannes, and together, we painted Cannes red, and those days, the Festival was no so crowded and the parties were more liberal. We could walk in without a formal invite. Not any more. No way.

Tyrone never returned to Cannes, and many others stopped attending the Festival on the Riviera. Annalisa, whom I still meet at Venice, told me that Cannes had become too expensive, and getting an interview was getting more and more painful – with publicists sometimes nudging you to talk to X if you wanted an interview with Y!

However, beyond all this glitter and gold, food and wine and parties (the lunch that the Mayor of Cannes hosts in a fort atop a little hill is just out of this world, and what a visual delight to see the town from high above), Cannes is serious business – despite the chaos and crowds. (Nobody queues up, and everybody is pushing everybody else to get into a screening and clinch their favourite seats. Social distancing, ha ha!) At street corners, in bars, at the eateries, people are talking films. There was a lot of debate on No Country for Old Men (many years ago), and there was a lot of debate on Parasite last year – a sleeper hit.

Cannes could offer gems like The Wind That Shakes The Barley, Naked, The White Ribbon, A Hidden Life, Sorry, We Missed You, Les Miserables and so on. But the Festival is also known to have thrown muck – Mektoub My Love: Intermezzo, Brown Bunny and our very own Devdas – and I remember Fremaux coming in for a lot of flak for picking this Indian work.

What in the name of Heaven was Brown Bunny all about. Or, Mektoub. As Xan Brooks The Guardian critic, writes: "I always think of the learned American critic who reeled out of the evening screening of Leos Carax's Holy Motors shouting, 'Will somebody please tell me what I thought about that?'

And not just cinema, Cannes can be daunting for a newcomer. People would stand in wrong queues and find that they have been chasing the wrong movie. “The first time I went, back in 2005, I stood in the wrong queues and walked miles to the wrong venues and vowed that one day I’d understand exactly how the place worked. But the key thing about Cannes is that no one understands how it works and they are largely making it up as they go along. Nobody knows anything”, avers Brooks.

In spite of all this, Cannes is fun, Cannes is beautiful people, splendid cuisine and, above anything else, masterpieces on celluloid. And as the frames flash by unfolding story after story, an excitement creeps inside all of us, one of expectation and longing.

Oh, how I miss Cannes!

(Author Gautaman Bhaskaran has covered Cannes Film Festival for years)