From left: Indian actress Chhaya Kadam, Indian actress Divya Prabha and Indian director Payal Kapadia arrive for the screening of the film
From left: Indian actress Chhaya Kadam, Indian actress Divya Prabha and Indian director Payal Kapadia arrive for the screening of the film "All We Imagine as Light" at the 77th edition of the Cannes Film Festival in Cannes, southern France, on May 23, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

Cannes: India's arthouse cinema is having its moment in the sun with several films competing in Cannes, including the first in 30 years to compete in the main competition on Thursday - showing there's much more to its industry than Bollywood.

The Indian film industry, which saw revenues of nearly $1.5 billion last year according to consultancy Ormax Media, rarely feels a need to cater to Western audiences.

But nor does it do much to support small-scale indie films that earn slots at arthouse-focused festivals like Cannes, which has not seen an Indian compete for its top prize Palme d'Or since 1994.

That changed on Thursday, as "All We Imagine as Light" - a poetic monsoon-set portrayal of two women who have migrated to Mumbai to work as nurses - received a glitzy red-carpet premiere at the Palais des Festivals.

But even this required support from France and other international investors to get made.

"The Indian industry is quite self-contained so a lot of filmmakers don't even feel the need to send their work to festivals," Payal Kapadia, the 38-year-old director of "All We Imagine as Light", told AFP in Cannes.

"But if you want to make a smaller film that's not so narrative-focused, or doesn't work with the industry set-up, it's difficult to find funds, so the French system really helped me a lot," she added.

Indian films were once a regular feature in Cannes.

Chetan Anand was a co-winner at the first festival in 1946 for "Neecha Nagar", and there were several entries through the following years, notably from the revered Satyajit Ray.

But then they dried up, with 1994's "Swaham" the last to get a slot in the main competition until now.

'Master class'

Kapadia's film portrays two women adrift in India's biggest city.

Prabha wonders what has become of her estranged husband, who migrated to Germany. Her younger roommate Anu risks disavowal from her family by secretly dating a young Muslim man.

It is not the only film to put India in the spotlight at Cannes this year.

"Sister Midnight", playing in the Directors' Fortnight section, follows a small-town misfit in an arranged marriage, while "The Shameless", in the Un Certain Regard section, follows a sex worker who flees a Delhi brothel after stabbing a policeman.

Some of the strongest reviews have gone to "Santosh", also in Un Certain Regard.

The story of a woman police officer facing misogyny, corruption and brutality in small-town India was praised as a "gripping and powerfully feminist crime procedural" (Time Out) and "a master class in subtlety" (IndieWire).

Director Sandhya Suri told AFP it may be a "difficult and complex" story, but her first concern was for "the cops I know - how they will watch this".

"To the best of my ability, this is a film which should feel real to an Indian audience, not just be a Western-facing film," she said.

The stars of "Santosh", Shahana Goswami and Sunita Rajwar, whose complex relationship drives the film, said India had many great filmmakers but it was often hard for them to find an outlet.

"In India, film is experienced largely as entertainment, so it's driven by economics. Independent films are very hard to make even though they're cheap," said Goswami.

She said her dream was to bring all the indie companies together in a more organised way, while Kapadia hopes they can follow the French example and channel profits from blockbusters into artier fare.

"If a small percentage was put into a fund that went back to independent films, it would so much help people," she said.