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The saffron carpet: All is not well with India at Cannes

Is cinema just a placeholder for promoting soft power in the west?

The annual Cannes Film Festival is amongst the foremost international film festivals, and for its 75th edition, India is in the spotlight for being the first ‘country of honour’. India was selected as the country by Marche du Film, created by the film festival in the 1950s to allow producers, distributors, programmers and buyers to liaise and network. The country of honour feature will now be an annual event at Marche du Film, with different nations being under the spotlight each year.   

Indian cinema has intermittently made its presence felt at the Cannes Film Festival, with Aishwarya Rai Bachchan becoming the first female actor to be part of the international jury in 2002. Given the 2022 focus on India, an esteemed entourage of Indian ministers and Indian actors have landed at Cannes, accompanied by panel discussions and extensive lobbying of India as a filming destination. Little wonder the Indian social media and entertainment news has been buzzing with regular Cannes updates. 


Notwithstanding actress Deepika Padukone’s participation as a jury member and her regular Instagram reels update, the Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Mr Anurag Thakur, has a history of hate speech. He was banned by the Election Commission of India (ECI) in 2020 for 72 hours. If you look into the hidden shadows outside the radius of India’s spotlight, there is more than what meets the eye. 

2022 is when India and France commemorate 75 years of diplomatic relations. On May 4th, Indian Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi was hosted by the French President, Mr Emmanuel Macron, in Paris. The joint statement released by the countries states a list of strategic cooperation and development in defence, trade and cultural spheres. So coupled with the fact that France is where the Lumiere Brothers screened the first moving images, and India annually produces the world’s largest number of films, India’s selection as the country of honour was a strategic decision. 

Another aspect that needs attention is that the Indian government has instrumentally employed Indian cinema. This is not specific to the current ruling party. Historically Indian film industry has always toed the party's line in power. Under the current government regime, the film industry has been co-opted under the ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar’ campaigns. Specifically, under the Indian government’s Media and Entertainment initiative, the film industry has been constantly exalted as a sector with high employment opportunities post-Covid.


Further, Mr Anurag Thakur, the Union Minister of India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Industry, has stated that “Indian cinema is an instrument of soft power”. To that end, a perusal of the focus of the Indian pavilion reveals that the major linchpin is on advertising the incentives being provided by the Indian government for shooting foreign films in India. In addition, the buzzworthy phrase “India being the content hub of the world” betrays the lack of sufficient exhibition infrastructure. For a country that annually produces more than 2000 films, there are only 9500 screens, which means most movies do not see the light of the day. The entry of international and domestic streaming platforms in the past 5-6 years has diversified the distribution channels, but the audience is restricted to urban populations with a fixed and stable broadband connection. 

Adding to the above, only a handful of government instituted film and acting schools exist, and the National Museum of Indian Cinema was established as recently as 2019. So despite cinema being the most popular cultural export of India and its presence in Indian popular culture, no Indian government has implemented particular measures to improve the film industry's infrastructure. And while the current ruling government chooses to use cinema as a tool for bolstering its international image, on the domestic front, films have routinely come under censure from the Hindu right-wing, with tacit compliance from the ruling BJP party that has its allegiance to the Hindutva ideology. For Indian cinema observers, it is no news that mainstream releases in the past 5-6 years have increasingly become Hindu nationalist in their flavour.


To give some perspective, the Union Minister of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and BJP member, Mr Anurag Thakur, in his capacity as the Union Minister of State for Finance, is famous for his hate speech in 2020 during the Delhi elections when he egged on supporters at an election rally with the slogan “desh ke gaddaro ko, goli maaro saalon ko” (kill the traitors of the nation at gunpoint). The slogan was in response to supporters of protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act. He has also been in the news for the controversial Cinematograph Amendment Bill Act (2021), which gives revisionary power to the central government, and the film fraternity has opposed the bill. 

The image of Deepika Padukone sitting next to Mr Anurag Thakur at the inauguration of the Indian pavilion is also like a dark comedy. In 2018, Padukone’s film Padmaavat came under attack from Rajput caste organisations for purportedly showing the Rajput Queen Padmavati in a bad light, and the actress received death and beheading threats. Not only does Thakur belong to the Rajput caste and is a Member of Parliament in the Lok Sabha from Himachal Pradesh, but Indian states (Haryana, Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand) that banned the film were under the BJP rule. 

India’s prominent presence at the Cannes should be viewed with caution. While it is great to spotlight India and showcase the unique and diverse visual storytelling that the country offers, the decision is instrumental to the extent that it is one of the economic and soft power tools for the current ruling government. Indian cinema is like a cog in the wheel, like Yoga in the Indian government’s diplomatic arsenal. Ironically Indian cinema’s strength as a soft power has been that it has emerged organically since the 1950s due to socio-political similarities, without any push from the Indian government. The glitz and glamour of the Cannes hide the danger of Indian cinema becoming coalesced into a nationalistic soft power and instrumental economic agenda.

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About the author

When not overdoing her caffeine dose, Anubha Sarkar can be found teaching Global Cultural and Creative Industries. After a stint in the Netherlands, she moved to the unpredictable pastures of Melbourne to pursue her PhD in Bollywood and Soft Power. She binges on Kdrama and is currently learning Korean and Mandarin. She is South Asian Today's in-house Film and TV Expert and writes a monthly column, Anubhanama. Instagram: @anubhanama




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