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India at Cannes: Tracing Bollywood’s journey at the film festival

We look back at the films, people, and moments that have shaped the Indian film industry’s presence at the Cannes Film Festival

Ananya Kesh | Published 02.06.23, 07:53 PM
L-R: At the Cannes Festival 2023 — Sara Ali Khan in a traditional avatar; Rahul Bhat, Sunny Leone and Anurag Kashyap at the photo call for 'Kennedy', and Anushka Sharma in her debut look

L-R: At the Cannes Festival 2023 — Sara Ali Khan in a traditional avatar; Rahul Bhat, Sunny Leone and Anurag Kashyap at the photo call for 'Kennedy', and Anushka Sharma in her debut look


The 76th Cannes Film Festival wrapped up last week, and as always, the coveted French film festival saw the best of world cinema shine on an international stage. In the almost eight decades of its existence, Cannes has been a stage to showcase Indian cinema’s rich cultural heritage, dynamic storytelling, and an abundance of talent. From humble beginnings in the late 1940s to viral social media moments in 2023, Indian films, filmmakers and actors have captivated global audiences.

We look back at India’s journey at the Cannes, both on and off the red carpet.


The early years

India’s voyage at the Cannes Film Festival began in 1946 with the screening of Chetan Anand’s Neecha Nagar. The latter became the first Indian film to win the festival’s highest honour, the coveted Palme d’Or. Back then, the prize was known as Grand Prix du Festival International du Film and Neecha Nagar remains the only Indian film to have won the award till date. This significant achievement placed India on the global cinema map, paving the way for further recognition. Four years later, in 1950, Chetan Anand became the first Indian to feature on the jury of the festival.

In 1952, the fist of India’s regional films made its way to the French festival with V Shantaram’s Amar Bhoopali, which also competed for the Palme d’Or. The late 1940s and early 1950s saw the emergence of Indian New Wave cinema with directors like Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Chetan Anand and the next two decades witnessed a number of Indian films making it to the international stage at Cannes. Bimal Roy’s Do Bigha Zamin won the International Prize in 1953, while Raj Kapoor’s Awara was nominated for the Palme d’Or in 1954. The Parakash Kapoor directed comedy movie Boot Polish (1954) earned a Special Distinction Award for child actress Naaz in the 1955 edition of the festival. The next year, the oscar-winning Satyajit Ray classic Pather Panchali went to Cannes, reportedly with prime minister Nehru’s approval, and won the Best Human Document bringing quintessential Indian stories to the international stage. Ray’s Parash Pathar was nominated for the Palme d’Or two years later in 1958.

Parallel cinema continued to captivate audiences in the country till the 1990s and many of the films from the genre got the spotlight at the subsequent editions of the international film festival. Mrinal Sen's Kharij brought home the Special Jury Prize in 1983, while also being nominated for the Palme d’Or while at Cannes in 1983, while Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! received the prestigious Camera d’Or in 1988.

The special screenings of Satyajit Ray’s films at Cannes over the years, has continued to draw attention to India’s important contributions to international filmmaking through the years.

Making waves in the 2000s

Along with parallel cinema, the 2000s saw mainstream Bollywood making an entry into the Cannes stage. The early 2000s was also when the festival introduced what is now one its most popular categories, Cannes Classics, which screens restored versions of old films, and for the first edition, the Indian film to make the cut was cult classic Mother India. The category has since seen the screening of multiple movies from India, including regional cinema, such as Guide, Satyajit Ray’s Pratidwandi in 2022, the year India was celebrated as the Country of Honour, and Manipuri film Ishanou (1991).

Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Devdas featured in the Out of Competition section of the festival in 2002, before its worldwide release in July the same year. The next year, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan became the first Indian woman on the jury of Cannes. Udaan, Vikram Motwane’s coming-of-age drama, written jointly with Anurag Kashyap premiered in the Un Certain Regard category of the 2010 festival and received rave reviews, same as Kashyap’s gritty cult drama Gangs of Wasseypur, which was included in the 65th Cannes Film Festival's Director's Fortnight.

The last decade

Oscar-winning Guneet Monga’s production The Lunchbox, starring Irrfan Khan and Nimrat Kaur, made a significant impact with a screening during the International Critics' Week at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and won the viewer’s choice Grand Rail d'Or. The same year, Amitah Bachchan was chosen to open the festival, while actresses Vidya Balan and Nandita Das joined the international jury. Small and big films from the country were showcased in the French Riviera city in the next few years — Bombay Talkies, Monsoon Shootout, Titli, Masaan, and the magnum opus Baahubali: The Beginning in 2016.

In 2018, Nawazuddin Siddique-starrer Manto, written by Nandita Das, received a standing ovation. The following years saw movies like Sarabjit and Gully Boy, along with many recognised names from the industry make it to the festival and the red carpet.

India on the red carpet

As the country’s movies got the spotlight at screenings, India’s movie stars made equally bold statements on the red carpet. A part of the French film festival has always been the fashion that graces the red carpet every year, and Indian contingents to the festival have been part of the conversation for a long time.

From Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in 2002, to Sara Ali Khan in 2023, Indian actresses have taken the traditional saree to the red carpet in ever evolving forms. Vidya Balan, Nandita Das, Sonam, Kapoor, Deepika Padukone have all walked the coveted red carpet draped in their traditional best.

The red carpet has also given the chance for India’s rich craftsmanship and unique style to shine on an international stage — remember Vidya Balan and Sonam Kapoor’s nathni moments? Not that every walk has been a hit. From Mallika Sherawat’s white lehenga, and Aishwarya’s purple lipstick to Sonam Kapoor’s feathery gown, our celebs have had their share of facing the trolls.

Perhaps India’s biggest red-carpet moment was at the 75th edition in 2022, when we were ‘Country of Honour’. That year saw the largest Indian contingent walk the red carpet with names like R Madhavan, Ricky Kej, Vani Tripathi, Prasoon Joshi, Nawazuddin Siddiqui and Shekhar Kapurf, along with folk singer Mame Khan, led by the Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur.

2023: A new side of Cannes

The 76th Cannes Film Festival, which concluded on May 27, saw a new set of faces from India on the red carpet — content creators! Indian creators such BeerBiceps, Ruhee Dosani, Dolly Singh, Niharika NM, and Kusha Kapila being invited to the event and showcasing India’s diverse talent.

Over the years, Indian filmmakers, actors, and technicians have made a significant impact on the international stage, captivating audiences with their storytelling, artistic prowess, and their fashion. India's presence at Cannes has not only showcased the diversity of Indian cinema but has also opened doors for cross-cultural collaborations and co-productions, facilitating the exchange of ideas and expertise. Among the notable events of the 2023 edition was the screening of Manipuri film Ishanou at the Classics section, and the standing ovation that Anurag Kashyap’s Kennedy received during the Midnight Screening.

As India’s presence at Cannes grows, we can only look forward to how the country’s filmmakers, actors and artists will push boundaries and transcend expectations at the upcoming editions.

This is not a comprehensive list, and does not include information about the regional cinema from India that was showcased at the Cannes Film Festival.

Last updated on 02.06.23, 07:53 PM

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