Sunny Leone in Anurag Kashyaps Kennedy
Sunny Leone in Anurag Kashyap's Kennedy

India at Cannes 2023: From Aishwarya Rai’s silver hood to Anurag Kashyap’s Kennedy

Depending on whom you asked, the memorable Indian moment on the Cannes red carpet was either Aishwarya Rai’s oversized tin-cone crown or the buzz surrounding Kennedy, the latest film by the reigning king of edgy indies, Anurag Kashyap, that had a near full-house midnight screening. This marked a departure from last year when India was featured as a special guest in the market section of the festival.

A large contingent consisting of tens of dozens, including the likes of Kamal Hassan and A R Rahman, flew into the Croisette as a show of collective strength of Indian film heavyweights. This notwithstanding the fact that Deepika Padukone was a jury member in 2022.

Yet what was absent in terms of star power was more than replaced with the promising lineup — two new feature offerings. Kashyap’s Kennedy, a cop drama, was screened in the Out of Competition section and Kanu Behl’s gritty socio-realist drama Agra lit up the screens in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar of the festival. Over and above the two feature films, Yudhajit Basu’s 23-minute short Nehemich about the societal taboo of women’s menstruation also found place in the La Cinef section short film section.

Ishanou-Manipuri film
Manipuri Film ‘Ishanou’ was India’s only restored film to be screened at Cannes 2023

Cannes Classics: A film from Manipur

But perhaps the most overlooked film in the festival lineup from India was also the most interesting one. The Manipuri film Ishanou (The Chosen One) by Aribam Syam Sharma, which was part of the Un Certain Regard section way back in 1991, was screened in the Cannes Classics section. It deals with spirituality and motherhood in the rural northeast India. An interesting study of how spirituality and mysticism intersect with day-to-day life in rural Manipur, watching Ishanou was nothing less than a gooseflesh-inducing experience.

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From personalities unrelated to the film festival like pop-psychology influencers to Sunny Leone, who is the star of Kennedy, it was hard not to bump into an Indian celebrity on the streets, spider-webbing around the film festival grounds.

Indian films screened at the Cannes festival, in addition to international recognition, also get to travel to other major global festivals and seek opportunities for sales in other markets. Kashyap has been a festival regular since 2013, when he was awarded with the Order of Arts and Letters at the 66th edition of the Cannes film festival. Though the Indian pavilion — the only stall among the 50 other pavilions that had the head of the state’s portrait on display — was brimming with meet-and-greet of festival regulars, conspicuously no celebrations were forthcoming for Kennedy or its makers.

Rahul Bhat in Kennedy
Rahul Bhat in Kennedy

The craze for Kennedy

Kennedy is Kashyap’s 27th feature film, a broodingly noirish thriller about an insomniac cop who goes off the rails and turns rogue. Up until the screening night, Kashyap and Leone were busy promoting their film with interviews, photo calls and generating content, capitalizing on the ever-hungry social media buzz Leone commands wherever she goes. When Kennedy premiered on Wednesday night, Kashyap fans — comprising world cinema fans and film students from across the world — lined up in the chilly midnight breeze to gain entry into the theatre.

Speaking on the sidelines of the festival, Pakistani filmmaker Zarrar Khan whose film In Flames was shown in the Director’s Fortnight section, said that as a south Asian filmmaker it was heartwarming to see the reception Kashyap got before the screening began in the hall.

Watch: Anurag Kashyap couldn’t contact Chiyaan Vikram? | Kennedy | Cannes

Kennedy sees Kashyap in his element, dealing with bloodthirsty corrupt ex-cops who co-opt the underworld to fulfill the psychopathic need for violence. It positions an unlikeable character in its central role and though it doesn’t seek audience sympathies for its protagonist, it doesn’t offer him multidimensionality either. Due to this lack of interiority to its lead character, essayed by Rahul Bhat with honesty and conviction — aided by his piercing eyes and lack of empathy — what emerges is an oddly disjointed film, yet nonetheless watchable since it’s punctuated with good acting chops. Sunny Leone is the goofy and sexy foil to Bhat’s stiff and brutally murderous lead.

It’s too early to tell when Kennedy will see the light of the day in India since Kashyap is now busy touring the festival circuit with the film, but it wouldn’t be all too surprising if a streaming service bags its rights.

Social realism of Kanu Behl’s Agra

Close on the heels of Kashyap, the only other Indian feature offering of the festival, Kanu Behl’s Agra is also his second feature. Agra, played in the Director’s Fortnight sidebar of the festival, was the only Indian film in a competition section. Not a Cannes newbie, Behl’s Titli played at the Un Certain Regard section of the festival in 2014.

This time around, the Titli director’s lens tightly focuses on a mix of social realism and domestic drama. It is populated by a mix of experienced and talented artists, with Mohit Agarwal playing the lead Guru. It also includes an unrecognizable Rahul Roy, who plays the father, Sonal Jha; Vibha Chibber, and an utterly convincing female lead as a differently abled woman, played by Priyanka Bose.

Kanu Behl-Agra
A still from Kanu Behl’s Agra

Behl’s film unabashedly revels in the horrifying realms of domestic abuse and sexual frustration, blending genre elements in it. In a lower middle-class household in Agra, Agarwal’s Guru spends his day and night hooked to his phone, looking for sex dates on internet chatrooms and without much success, left to contend with sexting. Guru is also hallucinating that the beautiful girl he’s working with is in love with him.

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Guru’s family is a classically dysfunctional one — a frustrated mother, who is abusive to her son because she takes out her husband’s disloyalty on him. Guru’s father is a womanizer who took a second wife but lives in the same house. Behl keeps his lens focused on the depressingly crammed interiors of the household with harsh lighting, amplifying the horror element. Hailing from the Dibakar Banerjee school of filmmaking, Behl takes no prisoners with his style that is unapologetically visceral and exposes taboo subjects like pent-up sexual frustration.

As a country that hosts one of the world’s largest film businesses in the world, India shares a mutually beneficial relationship with the Cannes film festival. This manifests in different ways — movie deals, promotions and content generated by the country’s entertainment media.

As the swish of the gowns and clack of heels on the red carpet of one of the world’s foremost film festivals settle, it’s not an exaggeration to say that the country has made its presence felt on the Croisette.

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