Bollywood at Cannes 2014: of Red Carpets and Gold Dresses

As the hoopla bubbled on over Sonam Kapoor and Aishwarya Rai standing on a carpet in France, Twitter/blog pal and general opinion-haver on films, celebrity, and glamor Bogey No. 2 and I had a chat about celebrity, cinema, and the world stage.

Bogey: Chalo, shall we begin our discourse into the Bollywood presence at Cannes 2014? 

Beth: Somehow this year, the hoopla around Sonam and Ash made me realize the difference between "walking on the carpet at Cannes" and "being part of a movie at Cannes," and I want to know what other people think about that. I don't mean to be curmudgeonly and I don't mean to under-value what "Cannes as world cinema stage" means (or could mean). I understand why ANY kind of presence is perhaps potentially useful, either to individual stars/directors/producers OR to a whole industry, but also I cannot pretend I think modeling is the same as acting/filmmaking, and it seems to me that Ash and Sonam were primarily modeling. So many people seemed more excited about THAT than they were that Uday Chopra was actually part of a big film at Cannes—a sucky film, I gather, but still.

Bogey: A good point about modeling—Sonam and Ash were there in a capacity as brand ambassadors for L'Oreal —but I think the red carpet glamor is a big part of the Cannes publicity blitzkrieg. And what is very interesting is how the fashion press saw Ash representing some kind of old school glamor that has been sorely missing from her Hollywood counterparts...and having maintained a stoic silence in the face of her critics with regards to her weight and absence from films (with the former being totally unnecessary and cruel).

Beth: Yes, that is awesome. She does have a delightful “F*CK YOU” attitude even in still images. She comes out in warpaint, basically, with one eyebrow up like "BRING IT." 

Bogey: Interestingly, in many of the Western fashion blogs, all make reference to the critique she received for her weight and seem to pick up on the “F*ck you. I am awesome” vibe she gave out…. And I guess in a time before the interwebs, a photocall at Cannes would have been the way to make such a powerful statement.

Beth: True. And of course Ash has in fact had a film at Cannes before, so that makes her a more relevant figure there. I feel that same “What is THAT person doing there?” way about…who is that bonkers Russian tv anchor who shows up wearing a hat made of hair? [Elena Lenina. See pictures here.]

Bogey: It is certainly a way to grab eyeballs when everyone is ready to pull focus in a heartbeat. I would be more inclined to question Sonam's presence: with no film to promote and in my opinion, an underwhelming contribution to cinema in her career so far, Cannes is certainly more of a brand building exercise than a promotion of cinema.


Bogey: Somehow though, Ash seems to be the confluence of cinema, celebrity, and Cannes all in a gold dress….

Beth: It’s interesting that brand ambassadors show up at Cannes, just in general. Is L'Oreal there because they're French?

Bogey: Yes, I think they pay healthy sums to promote there.

Beth: Like Eva Longoria. What the hell has she done lately? Yet she's always there for the same reason. What I noticed this time was the Twitter reaction to Sonam and Ash. They’re paid people who are there doing their jobs? Fine. But Twitter EXPLODED. This really mattered to people somehow, and I'm curious about that. It reminded me of when an Indian-American woman won Miss America this last year and there was a lot of hoopla on my Twitter timeline, and I kept thinking "Okay great, a community has 'arrived' at winning a patriarchal, completely outdated, completely shallow competition. Woohoo?" But clearly these things are signs of…what, of belonging? of having made it on a foreign or global stage?

Bogey: Ash and Twitter did seem like one of those moments that captured a zeitgeist of sorts—as soon as a pre-release picture of her standing by a pool looking a screen siren got retweeted, it did have that feeling of pride. “Here is this beautiful Indian woman on the world stage about to wow the world with her beauty and charm.”

Beth: Like Anna Vetticad said, "Our films r barely there bt our beauty is well represented." Ouch. 

Bogey: And no one could really try to bring her down as is so often the case as seen with the Miss America last year ("oh she's not really Indian/American etc"). Vetticad is right—I think this is more down to filmmakers who haven't got their act together. Last year, at least we did have Bombay Talkies, which I found a nice tribute to 100 years of Hindi cinema in that it showed how audience tastes had broadened and was more accepting of different themes. But in general, making the film, including Cannes as part of the promotional strategy, takes a Machiavellian cunning, especially in Hindi cinema. 

Beth: This begins to get at the much bigger topic of "the rest of the world does/does not have an interest in Hindi cinema," which is similarly fascinating to observe.

Bogey: Egjactly! To change things up a little, imagine for a second that Ash and Sonam had not been at Cannes. Would the fraternity then complain how there was no presence at Cannes?

Beth: Oh of course, despite the son of one of the most powerful families/studios ever being involved in one of the films! And there was an Indian film in one of the other arenas at Cannes [Kanu Behl’s Titli, a YRF/Dibakar Banerjee Productions co-project]. It's like people want a certain kind of Indian film there, not just any Indian film.

Bogey: And I also thought what of people who would have never heard of the films being shown at Cannes were it not for Ash turning up at the premiere? If one person makes the effort to watch it only because of Ash being there, however superficial that is a good thing, na?

Beth: Yes, good point—that is a good thing. If they actually bring attention to Indian cinema, whatever that movie is, that is probably inherently good.

Bogey: Again, it is this whole idea that India feels the need to assert itself on the world stage and doesn't want to be seen as the poor uncouth relation to everyone else. Hence all this focus on designers, hair, makeup...

Beth: That’s interesting. I hadn't linked the fashion/makeup/etc to fighting image of being uncouth etc. but that makes sense in an advertising sort of way.

Bogey: Precisely. For an Indian market, it is saying “Look, we have all the best brands in house and to the rest of the world, it is saying our snake charmers wear eyeliner by L'Oreal!” ;-)

Beth: I read some of the comments on Go Fug Yourself and Tom & Lorenzo about Ash and Sonam, and it was interesting that while most commenters didn’t know who they were they were very positive, particularly about Sonam overall and about Ash's beauty in general (though less about the dress and makeup). That’s perhaps getting to what you’re saying—people interested in fashion and celebrity may not know anything about Indian movies but they are appreciating certain kinds of beauty in this context.

Bogey: On Red Carpet Fashion Awards, the non-desi author is very familiar with Ash, Sonam, and even Kangana. Context is key here. Also, I think great style looks good everywhere—Denver to Dhaka, if it looks good, everyone responds to it!

Beth: Beauty is subjective in some ways and not in others, or at least in English-speaking press.

Bogey: BTW, I agree that Ash's dress was nice but not as fashion-forward as one would hope. You could accuse it of being boring but in fashion, that is better than worst dressed.

Beth: And it's showy, which is nice. Showy without being crazy or tacky.

Bogey: Didn't Vidya show up at Cannes last year doing the Sabyasachi thang and look at the flak she got for that!

Beth: What do you think that flak was about? Was it mostly from Indian press or world or both ? 

Bogey: Again, it was all context. Indian press were disappointed that everyone could look and point at the Indian lady with a curtain on her head and a nose ring as big as J-Lo earrings ("why didn't she wear a gown," "it's not appropriate") but that was true couture/high fashion where Sabya only cared about projecting his creativity which I liked. I think the Western press gave it a miss, even cropping her out of some pics….

Beth: I'm looking at some pictures….Sonam in her sari with jacket, which I personally thought was really cool, though what do I know about saris? Oh god and Mallika—nobody knows why she’s there. 

Bogey: Ha ha at Malika. But for the same reason, why was the supermodel Rosie Huntingdon Whitley there? Is it not acceptable for Amisha Patel or Mallika to turn up but for some supermodel/Hollywood starlet to do so?

Beth: You're exactly right. Nobody knows why Rosie is anywhere, do they?

Bogey: Ha ha, unless it is modeling or Transformers, nope!

Beth: And this is what I'm talking about in terms of crowd response: I think most Americans would go "Oh lord, Paris Hilton is at it again" where as I thiiiink the Indian response on my Twitter timeline is "SONAM IS THERE! WOOHOOOOO!" Though now that I think about it I did see only a very few people say anything about Mallika.

Bogey: I think the Indian press want to project a certain image and an Ameesha/Mallika are the batty Madhur Bhandarkar creations that escaped their chains and are spoiling the pretty party!

Beth: Heehee!

Bogey: So it is more a popularity contest then?

Beth: Oh yes definitely, and the idea that certain people count as representing India/Bollywood/whatever and certain people don't.

Bogey: I think Sonam has a huge fanbase amongst teens and they rule Twitter (all those bloody One Direction hashtags FTW).

Beth: (Aside: I didn't know Prosenjit Chatterjee was at Cannes last year.) That's a good point too: who is doing the talking?

Bogey: But on the mega fans, yes, I think they are the ones who worship celebrity over cinema and sadly, that is the way it is now—as time goes on, it is about the look and not the film.

Beth: And that is true of all the mega fans. Probably a zillion Rajni fans right now are screaming at Raja Sen for hating Konchidaiyaan. Or the Salman fans who attack SRK movies and vice versa. So tiresome. My favorite are the Rajesh Khanna mega fans (Kaka Cuckoos) who will go looking for blog posts about his movies that aren't 100% positive and write nasty things...40 years after the fact.

Bogey: I think the fan thing has not only killed the whole film thing but on Twitter as well, where we could previously have debates, now I can't critique a Katrina without being trolled.

Beth: Yeah, the fan thing is is very nasty and shallow and weird.

Bogey: It seems they don't understand that constructive criticism is necessary. I think that is the fine line between many serious filmi bloggers and fan bloggers.

Beth: It is! And being able to combine seriousness and fun—and appreciate both in many places. 

Bogey: Exactly! Forming a community with shared values—not everyone agrees but the respect to listen to someone with a different POV and accept as part of the cosmos—is soooooo underrated these days!

Beth: On a somewhat different note, I am very very tired of the tendency of both us amateurs and the professional critics of conflating beauty with acting ability. Ahem Sonam. This is true for the men too of course—6-pack abs aren't the same thing as acting either. Film is a visual medium and all, of course, but that only goes so far—the beauty needs to be employed in some kind of relevant way. 

Bogey: Precisely.

Beth: I think that's why I get so eye-rolly-y at the red carpet fandango: "Okay, they are walking around looking pretty. Where are their films?" But clearly there's stuff about what "red carpet" means that I'm not aware of or thinking about.

Bogey: It is a very grey area, isn't it? On the one hand, it is an effective marketing tool—you will get more attention with a beautiful woman on the red carpet than without. But now celebrity has overtaken what a red carpet means. It was meant to be about the film being shown in public, but instead, it means photo ops and brand-building.

Beth: I wonder if that's true once one is inside the screenings? I hope not.

Bogey: From what I understand, most stars don't stay for the screenings. Lucky, then, for Akki when I went to the premiere of Chandni Chowk to China, who got away before I could thrash him for such a godawful film!

Beth: I have never been to a premiere! Must remedy!

Bogey: Yes, you must— if only for the priceless look on other people's faces when you walk down the crimson carpet and wave to them! (Yup, I did!)

Beth: I read after the fact that a desi blogger from New York was walking around the IIFAs in Toronto a few years ago with sunglasses on and getting his friends to come rushing at him like he was someone. A surprising number of people fell for it, but I can see why. I hung out in the hotel most of the stars were staying at and every few minutes there'd be a rush towards a door, and I bet most people probably couldn't really see who was at the center of the rush—they just rushed too!

Bogey: People are ridiculous around celebrity. I work in television and used to work at major TV studio where we would get all the stars in and see how people would push and shove—and for what? The poor star was normally jetlagged, bored, and couldn't care less that some poor girl had stood outside since 8:00 a.m. just for this moment. It was quite sad.

Beth: It's a very weird system we've developed.

Bogey: I guess as celebrity is a necessary evil for cinema, no?

Beth: I guess? Does it comes from advertising? Cinema is a business as well as an art, and businesses need to advertise.

Bogey: Oh yes, it is a system, there is no doubt about that.

Beth: That’s a thread I’ve seen in Anne Helen Petersen's series "Scandals of Classic Hollywood" all about the old film stars. The stories could be from right now and really illuminate this need we see seem to have to read about celebrity drama and tragedy. The” build them up, tear them down” thing. Studios want publicity and it hardly matters for what, and of course the print media were in on it too.

Beth: What do you think of the Bollywood red carpet scene in London? Is it the same kind of vibe of Cannes at all (scaled down, maybe)? Or very different?

Bogey: Very different. It is INCREDIBLY cliquey, “see and be seen,” with little or no regard for the film unless it’s masala and fits into a “how weird and wonderful Bolly is” remit. Sometimes, you'll even see people on their phones during the film. It doesn't exactly inspire one. The exception is London Indian Film Festival, which deliberately tries to keep things classy, but is also cliquey with some people who think they are very smart but are just vacuous.

Beth: Ugh. That's just as bad.

Bogey: A shame, really. I went to a Sci Fi film festival a few weeks ago and there was a similar vibe where there was not a collective sense of belonging but a pecking order - if you were not a filmmaker or with the in crowd, it was easy to get ignored and be left out. For me, a successful film festival should be about a like-minded, progressive community coming together. Same principle applies to the London Hindi scene in my experience.

Beth: Especially in something like sci fi that for so long was relegated to the side as "weird.” Insecurity run amok. Let's all rise above it, people! let's enjoy this thing together!

Bogey: Yup! I guess it is nature of the beast, na?


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