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  • Joanne Tong

Cannes Diaries: The Business of Bollywood

Updated: Aug 2, 2020

Bollywood - Mod

The Tous Les Cinemas du Monde (World Cinema) program of the Cannes Film Festival was devoted to showcasing films from various countries. The year I attended, the featured countries were India, Lebanon, Poland, Kenya, Guinea, Angola, Slovenia, and Colombia.

The program wasn’t really on my radar because I was more focused on watching films in the Official Selection categories (see a detailed list of the programs here). After missing various screenings because they were full, I found myself with time to kill at the Cinema du Monde tent.

Looking back, that was a really lucky break, because it enabled me to attend the Indian Film Forum, featuring various directors from the largest movie industry in the world. While the panel focused on Indian cinema and the organization of their film industry, the trials that the Indian filmmakers discussed were pretty universal – art vs. commerce, how to repackage a film for international release, and the tradeoffs involved in making their work more accessible to a larger audience.

Bollywood* by Numbers

As the panel moderator explained, for the French, Indian cinema was both an enigma and an example to follow. He rattled off some impressive stats:

  1. Films produced in Bollywood last year: 1100

  2. Number of Bollywood viewers: 3.1 Billion

  3. Percent of American films in Indian theaters: 5% (In contrast, 45% of the screens in France show American movies)

Even with such a strong tradition of local cinema (this house certainly had many mirrors, to quote the discussion with Walter Salles), making films for the entire nation was not without challenges.

Finding a Universal Translation

A major highlight of the discussion was the diversity of the Bollywood films, and the quest of Indian filmmakers to find a universal translation for both national and international audiences to understand.

The films selected for the Bollywood Day at the Cinema du Monde tent were meant to represent the different regions, dialects, and styles of Indian cinema. I’d been previously unaware that Indian films were produced in 22 different dialects (probably because the films made in those dialects were usually restricted to their original regions). Like many in the audience, the dominant form of Indian cinema to which I had been exposed was of the Hindi song-and-dance genre. The directors lamented the loss of cultural nuances in homogenizing Indian films for the broader Hindi-speaking audience.

Though the popularity of a regional film could result in remakes or dubbing to make it available in other regions, cultural parameters often differed from one region to another. Much was often lost in translation with the remakes. The panelists cited Kashmir, a film about two Indians who couldn’t understand one another, as a great example of this phenomenon. As one Tamil director further pointed out, unconventional art films often failed to get wider release because they were hard to sell as remakes.

Someone in the audience asked about subtitling, which seemed like an obvious solution. The problem with that, one director pointed out, was that a large segment of the Indian population was illiterate. It was also difficult to standardize subtitles for domestic and international release. English subtitles were often done in slang that only English-speaking Indians would understand, and not the rest of the English-speaking world.

To Remake or Not to Remake

The directors delved deeper into the problems with remakes. The panel moderator felt that a remake was only the emulation of a concept in another language, and not the same piece of cinema. An audience member pointed out that films could be transposed and localized to another way of living, while retaining the basic themes, subject matter, and even the integrity of the original.

One director whose movies had been remade saw the upside in remakes; someone else’s interpretation of his film had solved problems that he couldn’t resolve in the original. Another director backed him up by saying that the soul of the original movie would never be lost, even if the cinematic language in which it was conveyed might differ.

The mention of cinematic languages set off another fiery round of discussion. A producer in the audience said that regular people think in their own languages, but that auteurs think “in and of the language of cinema” to reach a wider audience. A director on the panel challenged this notion of a universal language of cinema, saying that the movie-going public had come to accept Hollywood films as universal cinema, even if they only reflected a particular region [North America]’s cultural conventions.

Content vs. Stars

Aside from languages, the directors also argued about whether directors were doing content-driven projects as opposed to star-driven projects. In the old days, directors would create a script and attach talent to the project. Nowadays, funding only came from having big names attached to the picture. A director finally ended the debate by saying that removing the dichotomy between star-driven and quality films would be a good way to take cinema forward. “Art” and “commercial” classifications did not have to be mutually exclusive.

When asked about the future of Indian cinema, one director sighed in frustration. “Once an original idea becomes commercially accepted,” he sniffed, “the formula gets done to death, and everyone loses interest.” I took that to mean that if he had any predictions, he would keep them to himself to retain the element of surprise for his next projects.

The Language of Cinema

The subject of language came up quite frequently in the discussion. As I watched the speaker and the audience converse fluently in English, I spied the underused French translator sitting on the sidelines of the panel. Quite symbolic of the recent American domination over the global movie industry, I thought.

My Cinema Studies professor (who was French himself) had described the Cannes Film Fest as a means by which the French were attempting to restore their country as the rightful seat of world cinema, thereby reclaiming “the baby that Hollywood stole from them.”

Language was one of the prime levers that could be used to assert cultural dominance, which explained why most of the screenings that I had tried to attend (outside the ones at the Cinema du Monde) were either dubbed into French (VF – version française), or in the original language with French subtitles (VO – version originale).

I didn’t have any numbers on the composition of the crowd, or the percentage of films that were shown in English vs. French, but I noted to myself that adding English subtitles to majority of the movies would probably have benefited the international audience at the festival. Limiting the subtitles to French felt less like a blow to American cultural imperialism, and more like another way to exclude (albeit inadvertently) a significant chunk of the audience that wanted to watch films at the festival.

It will be interesting to see how this struggle to find a “universal language” (both visual and verbal) for cinema plays out in the years to come.

Credits: Indian Film Forum. Cinéma du Monde Tent. Cannes. May 20, 2007.


Note: For further reading, this article poses the question of why there have been so few Indian films in the main competition at Cannes (or even in the rest of the Official Selection programs) in recent years, despite the country’s producing more movies than any other country in the world. Some reasons considered include the lack of government funding for independent filmmakers, failure to preserve significant movies of the past, and the absence of marketing for non-commercial movies.


About the Cannes Diaries

In the summer of 2007, I did a study abroad program with my university’s Cinema Studies department at the 60th Cannes Film Festival. (Probably my favorite elective of all time, and the least painful A that I ever attained in college…)

While we snapped photos of celebs on the red carpet at several blockbuster premieres, our professors encouraged us to diversify our viewing beyond mainstream American flicks. To ensure that we watched a variety of films, course requirements included watching and writing about: 4 documentaries, 4 films that wouldn’t open theatrically in the US, 4 films from 3 countries from which we had never seen films before, 4 films by notable non-American directors, 4 debut features by American directors, 4 films directed by women, 3 retrospectives/classic films — one of which had to be a silent film… and a par-tri-idge in a pear tree. (I joke about it, but I’m glad we had to watch such an eclectic selection. It changed my whole perspective on movie-going.)

Apart from going to screenings, we attended a series of talks with various guest speakers from the entertainment community. I recorded notes from those talks and thoughts about the festival experience as a whole in my mandatory trip journal. While some entries are better-written than others (depending on how much energy I had left in me to write that day), they reflect the artsier, indie side of the festival not captured in my (star-struck) photo albums. Bon spectacle!

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