The 30 year gap: why did it take so long for an Indian film to play in Cannes competition?

Although India is the world’s biggest film producer, All We Imagine as Light is the first Indian film to compete for the Palme d’Or in 30 years. What explains this blindspot?

All We Imagine as Light (2024)

Based on output alone, you might think that Indian cinema would be a prominent fixture at most major international film festivals. Often considered to have a de facto ‘national film industry’ in Bollywood (or more accurately Hindi cinema), India is actually composed of many film industries with different languages and based in different states throughout the country. They all have their own labels playing off the Hollywood name (Tollywood, Kollywood, Lollywood and so on), but it’s better to refer to them by their language: Tamil cinema, Telugu cinema, Malayalam cinema, Punjabi cinema, Bengali cinema, Kannada cinema, Marathi cinema – you get the picture. 

To get an idea of how many movies are made in India each year, consider that Hindi cinema alone has nearly double the output of Hollywood, resulting in an average of 4 billion ticket sales. If you add in all the other regional industries, the sheer volume is mind-boggling. Yet, Indian cinema remains a rarity on the prestige film stages. 

On 11 April this year, when Cannes announced its participating films, an amnesty was broken: an Indian movie, Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light, had made it into the official competition – something that hasn’t happened in 30 years. The last time a movie from India made it into the race for the Palme d’Or, Margaret Qualley, star of two Cannes competition films this year, The Substance and Kinds of Kindness, wasn’t even born yet. It was back in May of 1994 when Shaji Karun’s grief drama Swaham competed alongside heavyweight favourites like Krzysztof Kieślowski’s Three Colors: Red and Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction, the eventual Palme winner. 

Swaham (1994)

Karun wasn’t some newbie though. His debut film Piravi won the Camera d’Or at Cannes back in 1987 and he was a prolific cinematographer, often working with legendary Malayalam auteur Govindan Aravindan, whose own films played recently at Cannes Classics. That year, Sandip Ray’s (son of the legendary Satyajit Ray) film Uttoran also played in Un Certain Regard and Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen screened in Director’s Fortnight.

But for three long decades after Karun’s film, the main competition became an India-free zone. Since then, the country has most prominently featured in Un Certain Regard, with seven selections. When confronted with the numbers, or lack thereof, Cannes programme director Thierry Frémaux has been vague and elliptical in his responses. In one interview from 2017, he seemed surprised that India did not have a single film represented that year and then suggested “India is a great cinema culture, but it is the situation which dictates the choices.” 

He has given these kinds of non-answers to other underrepresented cinema as well, saying of the lack of sub-Saharan African films that “it takes time for cinema to come into its own.” He also professed frustration with the obsession with individual country representation, saying “it’s silly to say I am from such and such country and why is my country not represented. It’s ridiculous. We’re there to talk about cinema, not national flags.” 

The frustration is understandable if these are questions he’s repeatedly having to field. But it seems disingenuous to suggest nationality doesn’t play a massive role at the festival when Cannes makes it a point to note the nationality of its films in all advertising, and even to present a Country of Honour at the industry market Marché du film every year (India was selected for it in 2023).

The West’s general approach towards Indian cinema is laced with an inability to know how to juggle the diversity of cultures and languages within the country. It’s easy to say ‘Indian cinema’, but the reality is that you could just as easily treat its individual states as having their own national cinema. Tamil filmmakers like Karthik Subbaraj or Mani Ratnam have a distinct cultural difference in production, stories, music and promotion to Marathi filmmakers like Umesh Vinayak Kulkarni and Chaitanya Tamhane. 

While there isn’t much to fear regarding Indian films box-office prospects – the industry still has the single most popular film star on Earth in Shah Rukh Khan and makes tons of money in Asia, the Middle East and Africa – the West has historically had a noticeably difficult time seeing Indian cinema, outside of Satyajit Ray films, on the same sort of formally accomplished terms it reserves for European, Japanese or some South American films. 

Bollywood musicals are inappropriately seen as ‘camp’, when in fact the musical and melodramatic elements should not be seen as stylistic choices but rather as inherent and culturally rooted in the history of Indian performance. The crossover success of RRR in 2023 was particularly striking in the way that much of the writing on it by Western critics hardly talked about the bold camerawork or deliberately incongruous cross-cutting in action sequences. Instead, the emphasis was often on how wacky and exotic it was.

RRR (2022)

Some of the blame can be put on the greater Indian culture’s views on cinema and art as well. While things have shifted considerably in the 21st century, art and cinema are still generally considered hobbies rather than realistic career paths and there is a societal stereotype that people only go into arts because they fail the engineering and doctors exams. While India’s film history is one of the richest in the world, film preservation and film criticism haven’t been given the sort of importance that they deserve and government neglect is a key factor. Most of India’s classic films rely on third-party preservationists like Shivendra Singh Dungarpur’s Film Heritage Foundation (whose restoration of Manthan is playing in Cannes Classics this year) or even freelance Youtubers to keep them accessible and in good quality to view. 

The world of film in India is just as celebrity-obsessed as in America, and stars and mainstream films take up pretty much most of the space in promotion and money. Many artists – especially those who don’t have the riches and fame to make movies on a consistent basis, and who rely on festivals as showcases – lament the way Cannes flies in random Indian celebrities who have zero connection to the films actually being presented. It’s worth asking how one can expect the history and cultural importance of cinema of a nation to be taken seriously when the nation treats its culture with neglect at worst or fleeting and consumerist enthusiasm at best.

Manthan (1976)

There is a clear growing respect and attention for Indian film artists across the globe however, and it’s reflected in the rich selection at this year’s Cannes. In addition to Payal Kapadia’s All We Imagine as Light taking centre stage in competition, Sandhya Suri’s Santosh and Konstantin Bojanov’s The Shameless are playing in Un Certain Regard, Chidananda S. Naik’s Sunflowers Were the First Ones to Know in Cinéfondation, Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1976) in Cannes Classics, Karan Kandhari’s Sister Midnight in Quinzaine, Maisam Ali’s In Retreat in the ACID section, Shuchi Talati’s Girls Will Be Girls in Cannes Écrans Juniors, and Sajeed A. Raman’s Vadakkan as the Fantastic Pavilion Gala. 

As Rehana Nurmahi wrote about the success of RRR, we await the impact of these strides forward with baited breath. Let’s hope these films open doors to explore India’s vastly diverse filmmaking culture, and that they’re not treated as the exceptions. There’s no reason it should take another 30 years.