Aishwarya Rai Bachchan has presented your Devdas again at Cannes 15 years after it release. Your thoughts?
It fills me immense pride and amazing memories of the times when we made the film against all odds, and took it Cannes.Devdas was selected in the non-competition section of the Cannes Film Festival .It was not easy making Devdas. I suffered a lot.When the film was invited to Cannes it felt like my two-and-half years of penance has paid off. It was God’s way of telling me, ‘You’ve suffered enough. Now it’s time for the happiness to begin.’ I had to move at twice my original speed to get the film ready in time for Cannes. We were caught completely by surprise. We had sent them an almost-finished film on BETA video. But there was no time for fine tuning. Devdas was meant to be seen on the large screen. That the Cannes jury appreciated it on the small screen is a miracle. When the e-mail arrived from Cannes it was a very important moment in my life. I felt happy from deep down in my being. For the first time in two-and-a-half-years I was excited about something other than making the film.
How did this honour fall in your lap?
The Cannes festival’s directorate contacted us. They normally visit various countries to check out the interesting films being made. Theirs is a thoroughly researched and foolproof selection procedure. The Director of the festival Christian June came to India . He met a lot of filmmakers and saw a lot of Indian films . He knew exactly what was happening in our cinema . He told me to send my Devdas over to Cannes as soon as it’s complete.I remember the last date for entry was 31 March. We weren’t ready with the finished product. So breaking rules we sent a scratch tape for approval. They were most co-operative. The Selection Committee saw the rough tape and nothing happened for a long time. I waited and waited to hear from them . I had almost given up when I was told we we’re on. I felt all the suffering that I went through to make Devdas was washed away.
I believe Devdas was the first mainstream Hindi film to be selected for Cannes?
Yes it was the first film in the popular format. Cannes is more into the avant-garde cerebral non-mainstream cinema. It ‘s a platform for committed filmmakers who get a voice and a market in the festival. Devdas’ selection made me very happy. To me , it seemed like an opportunity for a completely new kind of audience to see our cinema. When you don’t plan success it becomes far more important to you than otherwise.
Like your earlier work Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam, Devdas also stressed exotic Indian culture. Do you think the earlier film prepared the way internationally for Devdas?
Not really . Hum Dil De Chuke Sanam did make a quite an impression in international cinema. But I don’t think that film would play any role in the impact of Devdas. The importance of the selection of Devdas for Cannes lay not just in it being a mainstream Hindi film but also its classical format of presentation. It was not about universal sentiments designed to cut across the world. My film’s sentiments and emotions were very peculiar and specific to a certain part of our culture and period in history. The songs, dances, costumes, performances and sets all revealed a culture that existed a hundred years ago.
We had Satyajit Ray’s cinema, then Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. Do you think these paved the way for your Devdas in the West?
Obviously an Indian film representing our country abroad which creates an impact, makes a difference to the way our cinema is perceived internationally . However when the Cannes representatives saw the film, Lagaanhadn’t become a big event outside India. Today when we look at Lagaan we feel it created a space abroad for Indian cinema. We now feel our content style and mood of moviemaking are being given a fair chance abroad. Satyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shahji Karun and Lagaan did get our cinema recognition. At the same if a new film is selected for an international festival it isn’t necessarily because of those other films and filmmakers who gained international recognition earlier on. Cannes opened up a whole new world for Devdas.
What aspect of our films do you think international audiences enjoy the most?
I think our cinema is being appreciated for its melodramatic warmth. Even in the West people are now eager to express themselves more openly . They aren’t abashed by open expressions of emotions. Indian films exude a lot of warmth. At a time when the world is clogged with bitterness it’s reassuring to experience a cinema where the smallest of emotions matter. Also Indian cinema is celebratory in mood. There’s a song for every occasion. That’s again a novel experience for Western viewers. Indian films have their own distinctive stamp and audiences out there find them great fun to watch. That why they goodhumoredly call us Bollywood . You and I may hate the term. But that’s how Indian cinema is going to be known for a long time. When I showed Hum DilDe Chuke Sanam in Berlin they called it a ‘dancycle’. They were thrilled to see the musical celebration of universal emotions. They find the novelty of it all very endearing . They ‘ve seen and appreciated other cinema from Asia . Now it’s our turn .