Between Reviews: The Croisette Conundrum

Posted on May 23, 2009


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Do film festivals still matter in the age of the Internet and the DVD? Plus, remembering Prakash Mehra.

MAY 24, 2009 – THE DISPATCHES FROM CANNES HAVE BEEN TRICKLING IN, and a typical opening sentence goes something like this: “The premiere of Spring Fever saw Aishwarya Rai in an Elie Saab Spring 2009 gown paired with an ivory Swarovski clutch.” The curious mind, inevitably, is rife with concern. With the rippling trains on these outré creations, how does Aishwarya Rai hunker down to watch a movie? How does she negotiate the dangers of soft-drink spillage? How does she accommodate the hapless viewer in the middle who, struck by the urge to empty his bladder, has to squeeze past on tiptoe? But more pressingly, what does the purse on the person of an actress representing a cosmetics company have to do with a festival celebrating the latest and greatest of world cinema?

There are times Cannes appears a congregation not so much of art lovers as astronomers, with telephoto lenses breathlessly trained at glittering constellations of stars. Even the lineup of directors, in competition, is stellar – Pedro Almodóvar, Michael Haneke, Lars von Trier, Ken Loach, Jane Campion, Tsai Ming-liang, Johnny To, Alain Resnais, Gaspar Noé, Park Chan-wook, Quentin Tarantino and Ang Lee. With this bunch, who but the most austere cinephile is going to take note of, say, Fish Tank by Andrea Arnold? The irony, of course, is that an Almodóvar or a Chan-wook doesn’t require the affectionate attentions of the Croisette crowd – these directors could announce the filming of the proverbial phone book and a legion of devotees would slaver at the prospect – while the career of an Arnold or a Lou Ye (responsible for the aforementioned Spring Fever) is frighteningly contingent on festival word-of-mouth.

But then again, is it really? Do film festivals still matter – at least to the extent they did when the gods of the art-house pantheon went by the names of Fellini and Bergman and Antonioni? In the early days of non-mainstream cinema – when the only way to watch movies from distant lands was to line up at an equally distant theatre, with a bespectacled buddy whose idea of a beach read was Kierkegaard – a Grand Prix at Karlovy Vary or the Palme d’Or at Cannes was the key to international distribution. These coveted prizes facilitated continental crossovers. They still do – but with organisers pitching up tents everyplace from Sundance and Telluride to the Middle East International Film Festival Abu Dhabi, does the prefix “festival award winner” still carry the cachet it did when Rashomon won the Golden Lion at Venice and catapulted Kurosawa into the stratosphere?

The Dardenne brothers, for instance, walked away with the Palme d’Or twice in recent times – for Rosetta in 1999, and L’enfant in 2005 – but who, apart from the most fanatical art-house squatters, would squeeze their names into a conversation today? Could the reason be that art-house cinema was, earlier, a specialty carefully practiced by a few, whereas today, there are thousands who operate on the fringes of commercial cinema, and therefore the non-mainstream has, in its own way, become mainstream? Has it become difficult to keep pace with all these purveyors of non-formulaic films? Or is it just that the advent of home viewing and the Internet have forever altered the dynamics of engagement with art-house cinema, with the cinephile no longer needing to undertake pilgrimages to far-off theatres (or festivals) in order to connect with other worshippers of the medium?

Perhaps, there exists a corner of the blogosphere where, unknown to us, every frame from every film of the brothers Dardenne is lovingly dissected by fans who’ve just finished viewing Rosetta from their Netflix queue. Perhaps that’s where the truly passionate film lover can be found anymore, the fraternity of the faithful congregated around their computers. (The two great assets of home viewing are that you get to watch the film when you are in the mood, and later, you can effortlessly arrange for the second viewing that these films often demand.) And perhaps the people in attendance at the festivals, these days, are primarily the producers and the paparazzi, determined to attract eyeballs across the world with, if not images from the cinema, at least pictures from the red carpet, of the Elie Saab gown and the Swarovski clutch.

AMITABH BACHCHAN, IN THE SEVENTIES, was truly fortunate. If there was a Yash Chopra teasing out his theatrical talents – especially his facility with the monologue – in a loose trilogy of angry-young-man sagas (Deewaar, Trishul, Kaala Paththar), there was also a Manmohan Desai, who slapped on him a clown mask and let him loose in many a zany cinematic carnival. Prakash Mehra straddled a bit of both these worlds – the solemnly theatrical (Zanjeer, Muqaddar Ka Sikander, Laawaris, Sharaabi) as well as the unabashedly cinematic (Hera Pheri, Namak Halaal). Of these, Zanjeer remains Mehra’s (and in many ways, his leading man’s) finest hour – for it forged the persona of not just Bachchan but also the Bollywood hero, who, till then, was painted largely in monotonous swatches of white. Zanjeer, ever so coolly, nudged Vijay from righteous cop to ruthless vigilante. A thousand smouldering antiheroes were subsequently born.

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