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Indian cinema is finally getting attention at Cannes—for all the wrong reasons

Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Indian cinema wants to use the Cannes Film Festival to show the world that the industry is more than just the loud, garish genre known as Bollywood.

That mission might have backfired thanks to some odd wardrobe choices on the red carpet. Indian media outlets are still putting up slide shows of the worst offenders from this past weekend’s “circus,” as India Today dubs the lineup. Business newspaper Mint calls it a “costume catastrophe.” Beauty blogger Anubha Charan went so far as to pen a letter of apology to the film fraternity at Cannes. She writes:

It seems that all our Indian actors have missed the brief and mistaken the Cannes Film Festival for a kitschy, garish, … 2-year-old’s birthday party style costume drama.

Here’s what she means:

AP Photo/Todd Williamson
Actress and model Sonam Kapoor arrives for the screening of the film “Young & Beautiful.”
AP Photo/Joel Ryan
A sequined Amitabh Bachchan arrives for the opening ceremony and screening of “The Great Gatsby,” in which he has a small role.
AP Photo/Lionel Cironneau
And Bachchan chose stripes at a Gatsby photo call, or, in the words of one columnist, an “ill-fitting bathrobe.”

Fashion faux pas seem to run in the family. Miss World Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, the blingy elder Bachchan’s daughter-in-law, wore an outfit that drew all the wrong attention. From FirstPost:

We’re not quite sure what she’s wearing, but we just hope the Palace of Versailles doesn’t mind her having nicked some of their upholstery. Just to clarify: Rai Bachchan is not an Olympian from ancient Rome. She’s just Bollywood royalty.

Meanwhile, actress Sonam Kapoor’s enormous nose ring (in a different outfit than above) was likened to a “high-powered satellite” on FirstPost and prompted these comments on Facebook:

When she drinks coffee, does she push her nose ring aside with the cup?


The nose ring thing very desi but makes me want to sneeze.

This year, India’s actors actually coordinated their outfits for Cannes, which raises the question of whether the slew of publicity around the chintzier numbers was also planned. The stars agreed to dress up in so-called ethnic clothing (let’s set aside why they are calling their own garb ethnic) in honor of 100 years of Indian cinema.

Just how desi you should look is among desis’ favorite debates. The sari is donned in the kitchen and the boardroom, but also the Oscars and prestigious film festivals like Cannes. Slumdog Millionaire actress Freida Pinto has been criticized for not wearing more of them, but even traditional “ethnic” looks draw ire. This critique of actress Vidya Balan says her vintage jewelry, modest necklines, and the middle parting of her hair made her look too old and out of place. A Cannes jury member, Balan wore this getup for opening ceremonies:

Getty Images/Pascal Le Segretain/
Actress Vidya Balan greets the audience. Opinion is torn on this outfit—classy or ghost-like?

During another appearance, the actress donned a massive nose ring, prompting standup comedian Ashish Shakya to tweet:

But she also made up for it with sophisticated looks like this one. To be sure, some coverage has celebrated Balan at Cannes as “purist ethnic.” (Although there’s an argument to be made that the Kerala-born Balan in jeans would be more purist ethnic.)

Actors from all over the world are used to constant scrutiny of their clothing, but the critical mass of India’s fashion blunders at Cannes makes this group and this year especially noteworthy. As beauty blogger Charan writes: “we Indians embrace three signature looks—Fugly Fusion, Drab Dowager and Regressive Retro.” In Mint, Shefali Vasudev chastised the actors for sending the wrong message about India:

these appearances can be hardly ticked off as confused style statements of an enthused republic. They have been planned for weeks if not months to represent the new Indian narrative. Should they be so off the mark? Instead of challenging former notions that Indian fashion is largely about excess and bling or showing that at least some of our designers are now capable of creating global-local sophistication, these stars, their stylists and designers are reiterating notions about overdone looks being synomymous with Indian wear.

For all the lofty goals of the Indian contingent at Cannes, headlines as fashion misfits might be as good as the news coverage gets. The last Indian film that was even into contention for the top prize (the Palme d’Or or the Golden Palm) was in 1994. It is high time, as film writer Anupama Chopra tweeted, that “our films have to speak louder than our fashions!”

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