India has won 20 times at the Cannes over the years

While we cross our fingers for the 2024 nomination 'All We Imagine As Light', we look back on some of the films that won.

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Lights, camera, accolades! Hindi cinema has not just shown up but dazzled on the global stage at the Cannes Film Festival. From Chetan Anand’s groundbreaking Neecha Nagar in 1946, a stark portrayal of social realism, to Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox in 2013, a delicate dance of epistolary romance, these films have showcased Indian storytelling at its finest. Here's a list of the frames that lauded glory for the Indian cinema. 

1.    Neecha Nagar, Chetan Anand, 1946

Neecha Nagar
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A debut at Cannes, global representation of Indian cinema, and a legend! Forever a groundbreaking moment in cinematic history, 1946 witnessed India make its debut at the Cannes Film Festival with its social realist film, Neecha Nagar. Not only is it the first Indian film to ever compete at Cannes along with 10 others, but it also is the only film that won the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film (the precursor to the Palme d'Or), the festival’s highest honour. Despite never being released in India, the film paved the way for innumerable Indian directors to create realist films through its expressionist portrayal of the economic chasm in the Indian society. The film featured Uma Anand, Kamini Kaushal, Rafiq Anwar, and Zohra Sehgal in the lead role and addressed the issues of poverty, class struggle, and exploitation, narrating the story of a wealthy sarkar who faced a revolt from poor villagers opposing his malevolent schemes. 

2.    Do Bigha Zamin, Bimal Roy, 1953

Do Bhiga Zamin
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A story of triumph and turmoil, a farmer’s journey that stunned Cannes. Claiming the celebrated title of Prix International at the Cannes Film Festival in 1954, the movie narrated an eventful, yet futile journey of a deprived farmer who ventured on a quest to save his land from a greedy zamindar. Contributing to the neo-realistic cinema in the India panorama, Bimar Roy garnered accolades on a global scale by mirroring the grim reality through his fermented art, which offered a critical take on the atrocities faced in the post-independent Indian Society. Starring Nirupa Roy and Balraj Sahani in the lead, Do Bhiga Zameen elevated Bollywood’s prominence on the global stage of the 7th edition of the festival. 

3.    Salaam Bombay!, Mira Nair, 1988

Salaam Bombay!
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When the children of the Mumbai streets found a frame through Mira Nair’s first feature film, the portrayal of their daily challenges stayed in the hearts of jury as well as the audience at the 41st Cannes long after the screening concluded. Propelling India into the global cinematic scenario with her documentary style feature on the underbelly of the Mumbai city, Mira Nair won both the Camera d’Or and the Audience Award. Featuring Shafiq Syed, Raghuvir Yadav, late Irrfan Khan, Nana Patekar, and Chanda Sharma, the film lent a voice to the everyday ordeals of children, inhabiting the slums of the "City of Dreams" through the story of a rag picker and a prostitute who form an uncanny bond with one another. 

4.    Boot Polish, Prakash Arora, 1954

Boot Polish
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An ode to masterful writing intertwined with humour and poignance, Boot Polish mulls its audience and immerses them in a state of profound emotion and empathy. The child actress, Naaz, is to be accredited for her exceptional portrayal as witnessed through the Special Mention that she received at Cannes for her performance. The story revolves around the bond between two orphaned siblings—Bhola (Rattan Kumar) and Belu (Naaz) who create their own respected path of making ends meet by earning money through the honourable work of polishing boots instead of begging as forced to by their aunt, Kamla Devi (Chand Burke). They defy being caught in the shackles of exploitation through a gritting portrayal on the ideals of dignity and hard work.

5.    The Lunchbox, Ritesh Batra, 2013

The lunchbox
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“You're young, you can dream, and for some time you let me into your dreams; and I want to thank you for that.”
Drawing upon the simplest yet the most profound human urge of communication and being understood, The Lunchbox unravels a unique, epistolary love story amidst the modern, bustling city of Mumbai, where more often than not one might find themselves to be lonely, just like the protagonists. Starring the late Irrfan Khan, Nimrat Kaur, and Nawazuddin Siddiqui in the lead, the movie won the Critics Week Viewers Choice Award also known as Grand Rail d'Or. This slice of life film extraordinarily represents the mundanity of connecting through letters, traversing through a wrongly delivered lunchbox between a housewife and a government officer.

6.    Masaan, Neeraj Ghaywan, 2015

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Penetrating through the concepts of love and attachment, Masaan captures the turmoils of relationships that are most commonly felt, yet almost never romanticised. Etching through the 68th edition of Cannes with two awards—FIPRESCI, International Jury of Film Critics prize and Promising Future prize in the Un Certain Regard section, the film beautifully delves into how one gets caught in the latches of familial responsibilities, detachment, and eventually finding your peace amidst the conservative social stigmas. 

7.    CatDog, Ashmita Guha Neogi, 2020

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The only Indian film, amongst the 13 narrative films that were chosen at the 73rd edition of the Cannes Film Festival for the Cinéfondation Premier Prix 2020 from the 1,952 works submitted from across the globe, emerged as the victor of the grand title. The 20 minutes-long film deals with the subject of fractured families, essentially revolving around the relationship of a brother and sister who face imminent separation. 

8.    A Night of Knowing Nothing, Payal Kapadia, 2021

A night of knowing nothing
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Unsaid words, unsent letters, and unspoken wishes, A Night of Knowing Nothing urges the audience to delve into unexplored social realities. What birthed out of friendly interviews that Payal took of her friends became her debut documentary that won the Oeil d’or (Golden Eye) award for best documentary at the 74th Cannes Film Festival. A young student sets forth on an amorphous journey when she begins to address her estranged lover through her journal entries that enables her to explore her fantasies, anxieties, and dreams. The FTII rebel is one of the most talked about persons at the Cannes 2024 Film Festival as her film “All We Image as Light” has been nominated to compete for Palme d’Or, making her the first Indian female director to ever compete for the highest honour at the festival in the past 30 years. 

9.    All That Breathes, Shaunak Sen, 2022

All That Breathes
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Premiering in the Special Screening segment at the 75th Cannes Film Festival, the documentary by Shaunak Sen won the L'OEil d'Or (Golden Eye) award, which is the top title a documentary can receive. Depicting two brother who took it upon themselves to rescue and treat injured birds, particularly Black Kites, soared through multiple film festivals including the Sundance Film Festival. 

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