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From classy to brassy

Amala Shankar, now 93, returned to Cannes after a lapse of 81 years and “walked the red carpet” because her film, Kalpana, was shown at the festival on Thursday night.

The memories came flooding back for Amala Shankar even though she was 11 when she was last on the Cote d’Azur in 1931 and danced in Uday Shankar’s troupe. He was her senior by 19 years, but they were eventually married in 1942.

“I feel excited — just like a little child,” she admitted.

Kalpana, a Hindi dance drama made by her husband with both husband and wife in the lead roles, was released in 1948. A print of Kalpana, restored by the World Cinema Foundation, was shown in Salle Buñuel. The audience was overwhelmingly non-Indian, save for 10 or so Indians.

Shankar had walked practically unaided up the red-carpeted steps, determined to savour every moment of her night to remember.

“This is the film’s rebirth,” she said. “I first met my husband-to-be in France — in Paris — when I was 11. I was a simple village girl. For this film to be shown now in France is not a coincidence, it’s a miracle. I was crying when I saw the audience reaction.”

With Shankar was her dancer and choreographer daughter-in-law, Tanusree Shankar, who was married to her late son, Ananda. Also in the party was her actress-daughter, Mamata.

So was Shivendra Singh Dungarpur, the man who supplied Martin Scorsese, the chairman of the World Cinema Foundation, with a copy of Kalpana which the American director had seen and wanted to restore.

Mamata added: “We have Uncle (Ravi Shankar) to thank. He said, ‘I will write to my friend, Martin.’ He (Scorsese) had already seen the film.”

While the Bengali women looked graceful in their silk saris, the new generation of Indian actresses, led by Freida Pinto, sought to attract attention by “walking on the red carpet”, dressed by their minders in a variety of Western designer outfits, some more coquettish than elegant. Freida represented raunch with one slit along her thigh.

The number of Indians who flood into Cannes for the film festival has been growing year on year. One does not wish to be unkind but the likes of, say, Mallika Sherawat, have slightly lowered the tone of what still remains the most glamorous film festival in the world despite their presence.

Anyone with a ticket can “walk on the red carpet” — every evening, some 2,500 men and women in black tie and evening dress do so for the gala screening of the main films in competition that are shown in the Grand Théâtre Lumière.

This is quite different from “walking the red carpet” by virtue of having a film in competition, which India hasn’t had for ages. Aishwarya Rai was the first to spot that a short walk on the red carpet in Cannes got her many column inches of uncritical coverage back in India. To be fair to her, she and Shah Rukh Khan did walk the red carpet in 2002 when Devdas had an official screening but “out of competition”.

Like Aishwarya, both Freida Pinto and Sonam Kapoor are ambassadors for L’Oreal, the French cosmetics firm which is one of the main sponsors of the festival. Hence, it is easy for L’Oreal to scatter tickets around even for family members. However, it does allow Indian actresses and bit part players to pretend they are somehow blessed by Cannes.

The festival, the 65th this year with an evocative picture of Marilyn Monroe on the poster, works mainly because the big names from Hollywood are persuaded to come to Cannes. This invariably involves a compromise: irrespective of quality, a number of American movies and the top stars have to be included in competition for the main prize, the Palme d’Or.

Freida Pinto in Cannes

Bollywood films never make the cut — not because they are bad, which quite often they are — but because the definition of what constitutes good cinema is very different in France and in India. Whether Beti B comes to Cannes with Aishwarya and Abhishek is not a cinema story that will greatly exercise the 5,000 journalists who have come to Cannes. Some of the Indian journalists who come to Cannes — especially the TV networks — are forced to ignore the best films from across the world and instead stay camped outside the Martinez Hotel in the hope that Aishwarya will give them a sound bite.

This year the Indian focus will be on her post-birth figure.

The Indian pavilion on the Croisette is bigger and better this year, according to Vikramjit Roy, of the NFDC, who is masterminding India’s push at the festival.

“We have six directors, panel discussions, Incredible India promotions and an India party,” he enthused. “The pavilion is one step up from last year.”

In the category, Un Certain Regard, Ashim Ahluwalia’s Miss Lovely, which is “about people making a living from Mumbai’s struggling soft-porn film industry”, is in competition. The Indian to watch out for at Cannes this year is Anurag Kashyap. His two-part Gangs of Wasseypur, which tells “the story of three generations of a family in the coal mining region of Dhanbad”, will be shown at the Director’s Fortnight. Peddlers, produced by Kashyap and directed by Vasan Bala, will be shown as part of Critics’ Week and compete for the Camera d’Or.

All in all, it should be a classy Cannes this year — unless, that is, Mallika Sherawat and her like turn up and tweet, “I’m walking the red carpet.”