Cannes 2021 curtain raiser: India at the French Riviera

India may not have found a place in the prestigious Competition and Un Certain Regard official sections but for two of the strongest films in recent times featured in the sidebars at Cannes this year

A still from ‘Dengue’
A still from ‘Dengue’
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Namrata Joshi

Filmmaker Rahul Jain describes Invisible Demons, his second feature length documentary, as a “survival response”. Born and raised in Delhi and having stayed away for higher education in the US, he found his health giving way while on a long visit back home. He had to deal with a bad bout of asthma and his lungs were on the verge of collapse.

“I felt mortally threatened… It is like when a child suddenly sees blood in its hand and is scared and paralysed. The film was made out of that sense of fear,” he says. He was terrorised by how, despite his privileges, money and access to modern conveniences, he could still not go out for something as simple as a morning walk in the fresh, clean air. The film, on the impact of climate change, global warming and pollution on the daily lives and health of 30 million New Delhi residents, will have its world premiere on July 12 at the mecca of cinema, Festival de Cannes (Cannes Film Festival), in the newly established “Cinema for the Climate” special section. It’ll mark the Cannes debut for Jain.

The graduate of the California Institute of the Arts, Jain made the critically acclaimed debut feature Machines that cast an eye on the human consequences of industrialisation and was set in a factory. “In Invisible Demons I had to work with the city of Delhi as a unit. From a space of 500 square metres [in Machine] to about 1200 square kilometres,” says Jain

Like his previous film, Invisible Demons also promises to be experimental and strong on both visuals and sound, but Jain wouldn’t want to ascribe any specific form to it. “There’s not any aesthetic denomination. You could call it poetry of terror,” he says. It promises to be a visceral, immersive and experiential look at a city in crisis.

The film was researched on and written in 100 days in 2018 and shot over 100 days through the entire 2019 when the camera replaced the pen and paper as Jain’s tool of research. “It provides the whole gamut of biospherical conditions we go through in a year. It’s not about a scale, a measure or a number but a feeling,” he says. His goal was to produce a project that went beyond the headlines.

For Jain, Cannes’ setting up of a new section dedicated to climate change is a great step forward. “It’s high time we started a relevant aesthetic to express our disconnect with nature,” he says.

The Indian filmmaker has a global backing behind him. Invisible Demons has been executive produced and co-financed by Participant. It is produced by Toinen Katse and Ma.Ja.De. Film Produktions, with support from FFF-MDM-YLE-AVEK. The film’s producers are IikkaVehkalahti, who previously collaborated with Jain on Machines, and Heino Deckert.

Jain is not the only young Indian filmmaker this year at the French Riviera. India may not have found a place in the prestigious Competition and Un Certain Regard official sections, but word of mouth has it that it has two of the strongest films in recent times featured in the sidebars at Cannes this year.

Cannes 2021 curtain raiser: India at the French Riviera

The loudest buzz is around Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing, that has its premiere in Quinzaine des Realisateurs (Directors’ Fortnight) and is in competition for the Camera D’Or award.

While Kapadia is busy with the post-production work in Paris on the film that is about a university student in India, writing letters to her estranged lover, the official synopsis states: “Through these letters, we get a glimpse into the drastic changes taking place around her.” What is most interesting is the “hybrid” form—documentary and fiction—that she has ostensibly mixed to push the envelope of the narrative further. “Merging reality with fiction, dreams, memories, fantasies and anxieties, an amorphous narrative unfolds,” says the synopsis.

Mumbai-based Kapadia is one of the brightest of recent graduates from the Film & Television Institute of India (FTII), Pune where she did a course in film direction. She was at Cannes in 2017 with her short film Afternoon Clouds that premiered in Cinefondation, the students’ films section of the festival. Drawn from the relationship of her own grandmother with the young house help, it was shot entirely indoors and on film instead of the preponderant digital mode.

Her short And What Is The Summer Saying that makes spectacular use of the soundscape premiered at Berlinale. Set in Kondval village in Bhimashankar, Maharashtra, it worked with a unique visual form wherein primacy is given to the sound, making viewers form their own visual associations through the sounds. While A Night of Knowing Nothing has everyone curious, Kapadia is already working on her next project, All We Imagine As Light, for which she has received support from Ciclic and Hubert Bals Fund.

Cannes 2021 curtain raiser: India at the French Riviera

Meanwhile, NFDC Film Bazaar, South Asia’s largest film market that takes place annually in Goa, parallel to the International Film Festival of India, may not be able to pitch a tent at Cannes this year. However, it is collaborating with the Marché du Film (Cannes Film Market), the biggest film market in the world, in organising NFDC Film Bazaar Co-Production Day, an online event, slated on July 9.

It will showcase seven under-production projects looking for Co-Producers and Financiers. These include Dengue by Prantik Basu (India, Netherlands), Rasa (Immerse) by Anjali Menon (India), Kuhiro Pariko Sahar (A Hidden Tale Behind The Mist) by Pasang Dawa Sherpa (Nepal), Moving Bangladesh by Nuhash Humayun (Bangladesh), Last Time On Earth by Paromita Dhar (India, France), Ghol (The Catch) by Rishi Chandna and Second Chance by Subhadra Mahajan (India). Co-Production Day will give the selected participants the opportunity to connect and do one-on-one online meetings with co-producers and financiers at Marché du Film.

While technically not a part of the film festival Suman Sen’s debut feature Eka has been selected for La Fabrique Cinéma de l’Institutfrançais 2021, a programme tailored for young filmmakers across emerging countries to network with distributors and agents across the world during the Cannes Film festival. The socio-political drama set in Kolkata, Solo, currently under development, centres on the issue of the spirit of resistance of the common man and is among nine other projects from around the world, made by first and second-time feature filmmakers. It was part of NFDC Film Bazaar’s co-production market in 2019 and was also selected by Torino Film Lab Next (TFL).

Meanwhile, as we go to press, Invisible Demons looks set for bigger things ahead. According to a report in Variety, Participant and French sales agent MK2 Films will jointly represent the film’s worldwide rights. While Jain is hoping his India crew—director of photography Saumyananda Sahi, sound recorder and designer Susmit Nath—can join him at the Cannes premiere despite the Covid-induced restrictions, he is thrilled that his favourite Italian filmmaker Alice Rohrwacher whose film Lazzaro Felice won the best screenplay award at Cannes 2018, will be attending the film’s premiere.

Says Jain: “Now I can worship my gods in person”. Right there on the famous red carpet at the Palais des festivals.

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