It was pointedly mentioned in the Cannes invite that we are required to wear a gown. I wrote a letter to the festival director in which I clearly explained that I won't be wearing a gown. Sari is Indian wear and Gown is very much western. I was confident that they would permit me to wear a sari.
As expected they gave the green signal for the sari. That’s how I appeared in a Kerala printed Kasavu sari at the Cannes Film Festival red carpet. My daughter Devika wore a lehenga. Actually, there wasn’t much time to really choose our outfits. Cannes is popularly called the festival of festivals. I am still in a daze. I can’t believe that I attended the Cannes Film Festival. All it took was the restoration of a 44-year-old Malayalam film. It was screened in the classic film section. It was festival director Theory Fremus to selected 'Thampu'. He was present at the screening and also on the red carpet. He said it was a film that deserved a mention in the history of world cinema. This was a huge recognition for our cinema. I think film heritage foundation director Shivendra Singh Dungarpur did a huge service by restoring the film.
When I stepped on the red carpet, I thought of Aravindan sir. And Nedumudi chettan, the one who introduced me to Malayalam cinema. It was Venu chettan who showed my photographs to Aravindan sir. That’s how I bagged 'Thampu'.
Cannes was such a magical experience for us. We had gone to buy a shopping bag in Paris. There, we saw Bollywood star, Ranveer Singh. Devika immediately approached him and also introduced me to him. She informed him that her mother’s film was being screened at the Cannes. He was thrilled and said it was heartening to know that a Malayalam actress was getting recognised at the festival. He said it was a proud moment not just for Kerala but also for India.
Devi has been learning French since the age of two. And that came in handy during our travels and interactions in the city. The French are impressed by foreigners who make an effort to learn their language. At the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania where she did her business studies, it was mandatory to learn a foreign language. And she was also required to live with a French family for a long period of time. That’s how her French improved. My daughter always used to wonder if she can ever be part of a red-carpet event and that’s when this invitation came. She was stunned, hugged me tightly, and said— “Amma, you are great.”
The red carpet was at 9:30 pm. It was a full house! They had instructed us briefly regarding how to walk and where to stand on the red carpet—turn left, right, take that step, etc. But once on the red carpet, all those instructions flew out of the window. It was like being part of a dream. We were required to pose for a photo session in one corner and Theory Fremus was there. He was excited and said we should have a happy picture together. That group photo featuring Shivendran was taken by him.
Later it was from Resul Pookutty that I heard I was the first Malayalam actress to walk the red carpet. At the Cannes Film Festival, my mind suddenly travelled back to all those legends I had worked with. Aravindan, Padmarajan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Bharathan, and Lenin Rajendran, are the men behind some of the greatest classics in Malayalam cinema! Back then there was a clear distinction between commercial, art, and parallel cinema. I have been part of every kind of cinema. We all used to simply call it ‘cinema’ as it sounded equal and democratic! I would call that time the “new generation” cinema. So in a way, Cannes was a nostalgic trip for me. I remember watching ‘Thampu’ (1978) at Thiruvanthapuram with my parents and siblings. And four decades later I watched that film in France with my daughter. I recalled the Thirunavaya location of ‘Thampu’. Each day was like going to school.
(Compiled by TB Lal)