While indie voices in Indian cinema struggle to get noticed in the crowd of world cinema on the Cannes platform, Bollywood stars get their lion’s share of media frenzy on its red carpets. After years of doting or hating on Aishwarya Rai’s sartorial choices the flashbulbs have turned on Cannes debutante Katrina Kaif. L’Oreal that had been pumping its brand image to cater to the averagely brown skinned Indian woman has carefully chosen its ambassadors: Aishwarya Rai, Sonam Kapoor, Frieda Pinto and now the reigning queen of Hindi film industry Katrina Kaif.
The two days Katrina has appeared on the Cannes red carpet she has been unanimously hailed as the next big phenomenon from mainstream Indian film industry. Given Katrina’s stable stardom in India it is a little surprising that she had to wait so long to get there. Perhaps, the currents that steer the industry were biding their time to let the ‘Barbie doll’ of Bollywood become Indian enough to let her represent the nation on an international stage. Considering the brouhaha that follows every time an Indian actress sets foot on the Cannes red carpet one cannot help but wonder what is this image of India that we want to show the world.
Rewinding over a decade, it all began with a naïve Aishwarya Rai going to Cannes in 2002 with her film Devdas. People may not remember Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s opulent production but not many can forget the global glare she invited on wearing a canary yellow Neeta Lulla saree o the film’s Cannes premiere. After two more years of sticking to Lulla’s creations Aishwarya figured the need for changing tracks. In came Gucci and Giorgio Armani in 2005, and by 2007 with hubby Abhishek Bachchan by her side Aishwarya found her mojo with Ellie Saab. By the turn of the decade, she had learnt the game balancing her Armani Prive gowns with Sabyasachi sarees.
Over the years, several have jumped on the India bandwagon to Cannes. Among them only a few have managed to escape the scrutiny of fashion critics and fans alike. From Aishwarya’s post-pregnancy weight in 2012 to Vidya Balan’s nose ring in 2013 everything has been under the purview of censure. It is important to note here that dressing up is not a single person’s effort anymore. These stars are trailed by an entourage of designers and stylists to get their ‘look’ right. Sonam Kapoor the first self-proclaimed Indian fashionista has been open about the work that goes behind each public outing at Cannes. Two schools of style has emerged from these outings, one where Indian ethnicity—think Abu Jani-Sandeep Khosla—have been diffused with the Gaultiers and Cavallis of European couture and the other where Indian ethnicity is worn as a badge of distinction as was proven by Vidya Balan’s concerted effort along with Sabyasachi Mukherjee.
Simultaneously, Cannes has outgrown its film festival premise and become a newer kind of fashion week where stars test their saleability. Here the Indian actress comes off as a tad confused about where she wants to stand. Does she see the Cannes red carpet as a ticket to a spotlight further West? Does she see it as an opportunity to rub in her Indian roots?
It is generally agreed upon that showbiz is a little harsher on the fairer sex. So an Indian actress’s acceptance or rejection of her culture becomes a moot point when Hrithik Roshan can safely breeze in a tuxedo on the same carpet without batting an eyelid. However, the economics behind the fashion industry has attained such proportions that an actress’s endorsement of a brand can do wonders for the designer’s line. As has been the case for Sabyasachi’s vintage Indian couture that has suddenly become a staple in the industry after Aishwarya earned accolades in a Sabya sari in Cannes.
The mere anticipation of what will win the favour of the audience aided somewhat by the fashion police drives the economy of the fashion industry. And the Indian scene is no different in its pandering to the eclectic tastes of a growing urban audience back home coupled with its overseas visibility. Thereafter, a ‘bold’ Mallika Sherawat has sobered down from her Hiss days of bare-all to more calculated risks of classy gowns with sultry lace detailings.
It is ironic that while playing safe and classy works for the Indian actor at Cannes the actresses have to sweat it out and experiment. In it Sonam’s naturally adventurous nature seems to have become a happy accident, where her Anamika Khanna saris work as well as her quirky choices from European couture.
Katrina Kaif might have tutored herself from the mistakes of her predecessors to have an impeccable debut at Cannes but is far from representing the organic diversity of India. If there is anyone who has regularly maintained her connect with India through her attire it has to be Nandita Das. With her loyalty to handwoven sarees Das bypasses the fashion frenzy that can at its best stage an affect of India on the Cannes carpet.