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Lessons From Cannes

With a billion minds and opinions and numerous detractors, much could be, was and will be said about India’s presence at the recently concluded Cannes Film Festival.

Could India’s participation and presence be any stronger? For sure. But then, was it watered down? Absolutely not! Like all things, there will always be scope and room to have done things differently, better and perhaps even grander. But all said and done, we did leave a mark this year, a year when Indian cinema completes 100 years.

The spotlight this year was on India and those who needed to be there were, in full attendance. Here’s my account of all that was Cannes and the journey of our films and our company Sikhya Entertainment while there:

Having arrived there on the 16th in time for the screening of Ugly on the 17th and our film Monsoon Shootout selected to be screened in the Midnight Screening section of the festival, I felt for the first time unprepared. Having done this drill numerous times for previous films, this experience felt daunting.

To know that the film would premiere there to a packed hall at the main Lumiere Theatre was nerve-wracking. Even though the entire Sikhya Entertainment team had reached there on the 14th to ensure all arrangements were well taken care of and with a sales agent like Fortissimo backing the film, I was still nervous with excitement and was thinking of the drill for The Lunchbox too, which was premiering in the Critics Week section a day later on the 19th.

Our directors Amit Kumar and Ritesh Batra had arrived, as did our film’s actors Irrfan Khan, Tannishtha Chatterjee, Vijay Varma, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, Nimrat Kaur and music composers Raghav Sachar and Gingger Shankar. Everything had been planned. Anurag Kashyap was in Paris and was meant to be reaching Cannes to present our films. His film Ugly was premiering in the Directors Fortnight section. I was in touch with Zoya Akhtar and Ashi Dua for the Gala screening of Bombay Talkies and was aware of their travel plans too.

Madhu Mantenna and Vikas Bahl from Phantom were also there with their cast from Ugly. Everyone knew everyone and it was literally like one huge family watching out for the other and being of assistance wherever possible. Of the studios, Disney UTV, Viacom 18, Eros, Reliance Entertainment, Ultra Distributors etc too made their presence felt, as they do every year.

Amid all this family-hood were protocol meetings with the festival to ensure that everything was in order, official dinners, press interviews and a jam-packed meeting schedule. It was the same for most others and we had been in touch trying to catch up when time permitted.

The 17th saw the premiere of Ugly by Anurag Kashyap in the Director’s Fortnight section. Anurag, the cast and team beamed as they presented the film. The moment was surreal as Gangs Of Wasseypur had been presented in the same section last year. This was the first of India shining in full force at Cannes.

On the day of the Monsoon Shootout premiere, Anurag, our team and myself were flooded with requests for tickets, as they had been sold out. With a few being allotted to us by the festival, began the race of handing them out to our invited guests. While our team was taking care of that, we were ushered into a formal dinner thrown by Fortissimo. This was followed by the festival car taking us to the red carpet for the premiere. The funny thing about this day, which I will always remember more than ever, is the fact that it poured all day, literally like it was the monsoon!

Everything was a breeze until this moment. Pride struck when we landed on the red carpet. To see our entire cast, crew and team in attendance and knowing that the film we put our hearts and souls into was being screened, hit me then. I turned ecstatic when I saw the smile on our director’s face. This was a film, I sold my home to make and this was the best validation I could ever get. Everyone I knew and who had travelled from India was in attendance. I remember the applause when the screening concluded, the theatre boomed in applause. I cried.

We were done at 3 am and soon I was pulled into a meeting with my team to go over the protocol for The Lunchbox screening the next morning at 11 am. On the 18th, The Lunchbox team was busy with interviews and I hardly got to see them. At 11 am sharp, on the 19th, I saw them, each looking stunning and every bit the stars they are. It was a double bonanza as that morning the reviews on Monsoon Shootout were also all praise. Screen magazine praised it, while The Guardian called it ‘an entertaining popcorn film with a twist’ and Hollywood Reporter called it ‘cunningly intricate, combining the elements of Mumbai cops and gangsters well’.

Back at The Lunchbox screening, Charles Tesson, the director of the section, introduced us on stage and, once again, I was awestruck. What ensued was a thunderous applause that lasted well over 10 minutes. Thanking each one, we made our way to the Arte yacht, where they hosted a private lunch for us in honour of the film. As lunch ended, we made our way back to the theatre to present the film once again. Déjà vu. The same response as the morning followed. I was completely overwhelmed.

Right after the morning screening, I received a call from The Match Factory, our international sales agents for The Lunchbox, stating that buyers had walked out of the screening. Before I could speak further, my phone battery died. My heart sank. I grabbed a team member’s phone and called back and then got the news of the walkout being solely because of the fact that they had raced out to buy the film.

‘Unheard of’ is what they told me. By the evening screening, 12 territories had been sold on MG’s and by the next day, the world was sold. Sony Picture Classics picked up the film for North America, Artificial Eye for the UK and the list they gave me was endless. Even the reviews were all raving about the film, with Variety stating that it had the ‘crossover appeal of a monsoon wedding’ and Filmbiz Asia stating it was a ‘hugely impressive debut’ and rating it 9/10.

On the 20th, Bombay Talkies was screened and was touted as ‘India Day’. After attending the Inside Lelwyn Davies premiere with The Lunchbox team, we made our way to the Gala screening of Bombay Talkies. Once again, I was consumed by happiness. India had arrived. People cheered and clapped. It was a phenomenon I was not aware existed in Europe, let alone France. Following the screening, we made our way to the Agora tent for the official dinner hosted by the festival and Ministry of Information & Broadcasting of India. It rained stars there.

In addition to our cast including Irrfan, Nimrat, Tannishtha, Vijay, Nawazuddin, Amit Kumar, Ritesh Batra, Raghav, Anurag and myself, there was Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Anushka Shankar, jury member Vidya Balan, Karan Johar, Zoya Aktar, Dibaker Banerjee and a host of other dignitaries. Exquisite food and the who’s who at Cannes had made it. Thierry Fremaux, Christian Jeune and the entire festival team along with ministry officials played perfect hosts.

Over the course of the evening, the gracious two, Vidya and Aishwarya, shared their happiness for Monsoon Shootout and The Lunchbox and said they wished to watch the film, as did Karan who was sweet to share my excitement and happiness. It was humbling to see everyone unite over Indian cinema and the fact that we were where we were.

The days that followed passed only in anticipation of The Lunchbox winning an award. In between meetings and dinner outings among friends, were pangs of nervousness. Everyone I met assured me that the film was a strong contender for an award. The day it bagged the Audience Choice Award is when I breathed normally.

From the 22nd, I got back into the regular routine of meetings and getting back to the top of the sales of the films. Over lunch and dinner meetings, people I would be with would only state how India had made its way into the hearts of people at Cannes and proved that the perception so far was built on baseless stereotypes.

India has made its mark. Bombay Talkies, Ugly, The Lunchbox and Monsoon Shootout had people take notice of the diversity we have in our films. People can choose to say and do as they please. I say, let them.

I am already gearing up for next year. What you can achieve and the sort of networking opportunities and knowledge that is presented at festivals like these is unreal. We need to learn to get off our high horses and be willing to learn a thing or two.

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