Red carpet | Festival of India


Red carpet | Festival of India

Two terrific appearances and one lemon. Earlier this week, when actor Vidya Balan arrived for the jury photo call at the 66th Cannes Film Festival in a white Khadi sari with a muted gold border, a full-sleeved girl scout-inspired military blouse, a beaded necklace and old jadau earrings, her hair in a slick braided bun, all the strands of her personality came together. She is a beautiful Indian woman fond of the sari and a talented actor who has scripted a significant story in Hindi cinema.

That essence was emphasized the previous evening too at a cocktail event at Hotel Martinez in Cannes where Balan wore a deep red Mangalgiri anarkali with an old Bengali zardozi border and a Khadi dupatta. A tiny black bindi, neat hair and soft, flattering make-up made her sparkle.

But later in the evening on Day 1, when she walked the red carpet for the screening of the film The Great Gatsby in a floor-length white and black anarkali, her head covered with a diaphanous, embroidered dupatta, the idea of India that she and her designer are trying to express reached a screeching decibel. Balan looked distracting instead of glamorous, exotic instead of contemporary Indian.

Three days before her first appearance, her designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee had confessed that the white Khadi sari from his Save The Sari campaign planned for the jury photo call was his favourite among the 30 looks he had created for the actor. Balan will be in Cannes till 26 May and the 30 sets will give her enough options to change twice a day or more if she wishes to. “I have not been stressed about the clothes at all. I am representing Indian films and my country, going there to enjoy the magical world of global cinema as part of a very respectable jury; I never think of myself as a clothes horse anyway,” Balan had said. Even on the phone line from Mumbai, it was clear that at the final fittings, she and Sabyasachi were playing their now well-greased roles with systematic ease. Balan: good, assured cop. Sabyasachi: delighted, delirious, edgy cop. Balan, busy being her own self, refusing to get carried away by the clothes. Sabyasachi, totally carried away by the clothes he believes will ignite a new inquisitiveness in Indian dressing. “We are not succumbing to the pressure of doing something different: The entire wardrobe has floor-length anarkalis and woven saris without any fashion connotations,” Sabyasachi said.

The designer said he had emphasized fabric and volume over embellishment and hoped that when others saw Balan’s clothes up close, they would gawk at the unique texture of authentic Khadi and other weaves. “There is one old Kanjeevaram sari I have borrowed from a friend’s mother; the rest include Andhra Khadis, Chettinad weaves, printed Sanganeri chiffons, Dhakais, Akola block prints, with dupattas in Maheshwari, Kota, old zardozigota-patti and Bagru prints, all worn with jewellery by Pankaj Surana and Amrapali,” detailed the designer. It is a mini representation of India’s contemporary art and craft movement.

At a time when the Hindi film industry is caught in the nostalgic, celebratory churn of its 100th year, Balan’s presence as a member of the acclaimed jury is meaningful. On the other hand, the glamorous appearances of stars like Sonam KapoorFreida Pinto and Aishwarya Rai Bachchan are being as critically watched—if not more—than Indian films. True to her reputation, Kapoor looked quite winsome at the Gala dinner in a pink lace Elie Saab couture dress with pink ankle-strap pumps, her hair worn straight down. For the red carpet, she walked out in an Anamika Khanna lace sari with a long embellished jacket and a large pearl nathni (nose ring) dazzling over her deep maroon lips, adding spunk to her Indian ensemble. Pinto wore a long Gucci dress and Chopard jewellery, looking nice but hardly spectacular, and Mallika Sherawat wore a yellow beaded gown, looking indistinct. By the time we went to press, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan had still to put in a first appearance.

When you read festival director Thierry Frémaux’s lines on the official website, “….Cannes must be open to new ideas, while remaining faithful to its past, of course. Diversity can only enrich it. That’s what makes the Festival de Cannes our festival…,” you realize Balan is the diverse “other” in a global jury that is headed by stalwart Steven Spielberg and includes Japanese director Naomi Kawase, Oscar- winning Ang Lee, and actor Nicole Kidman, to name a few. She is also the “other” in fashion, given Pinto’s “international” style cool or Kapoor’s effortless fashion consciousness. Which is why, covering her head—similar to Sabyasachi’s styling for model Kanistha Dhanker in 2011—was not a great idea.

“When it comes to performance, Vidya is a mainstream actor, but in dressing she represents the fringe movement without Gucci or Dior gowns or a statement bag. I want to emphasize this fringe look as a gateway to refinement in Indian dressing,” says Sabyasachi, adding that the cinema of film-makers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Satyajit Ray, Bimal Roy or Guru Dutt created awe because of its strong cultural aesthetic—and that’s the aesthetic he wants to provoke through Balan’s clothes.

Balan is only too happy to wear saris and anarkalis. “I am wearing India’s national dress. The sari is unapologetically back amongst us, so why should I feel pressurized that it is too nostalgic?” she asks. Yet, are the purist sari and woven textiles the only symbols of contemporary Indian dressing?

Designer Rohit Bal, who in 2010 dressed Deepika Padukone in a white and gold sari for the Cannes red carpet, refused to comment. But veterans Tarun Tahiliani and Wendell Rodricks, (we spoke to all of them before Balan’s first appearance) shared incisive thoughts. “It is cool that Vidya feels no pressure to dress in other styles besides what she is comfortable in. It is wonderful for Indians to see that but of little or no relevance to the rest of the world, akin to a great Japanese actress showing up in a kimono—beautiful, but relevant to her own race,” said Tahiliani.

Rodricks had another take. While he was sure that Balan would shine, he emphasized the emotion he calls “identifying with”. “The French expect a sari and love it. But I have realized that the international acceptance level to wear an Indian garment is only when clothes go from ‘costume’ to international street wear. Khadi, on the other hand, is a 70-year-old story. It has no appeal in a fashion world obsessed with the latest ‘new’. We need to tweak and adapt it to the international woman who can wear it in Rio and Tokyo, Paris and New York,” he said.

At the moment, while hand woven textiles are doing some talking at Cannes, Balan’s now comfortable-in-her-own skin demeanour is giving her costumes good competition. Perhaps it is time to separate the garment from the wearer even on the red carpet.–Festival-of-India.html