Award-Winning Bollywood Films: Cannes Film Festival

Bollywood films have walked away with several major prizes at prestigious film festivals worldwide over the years. Dating back to 1937, films from India have captured the attention of international juries. The Cannes Film Festival, without question one of the most influential and important of all the world's festivals, has seen only a few Indian films win awards over the years. 

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"Neecha Nagar" (Dir: Chetan Anand, 1946)

Though the Cannes Film Festival officially began in 1939, there was a six-year break owing to World War II. The festival resumed in 1946, and it was in that year that Chetan Anand's film Neecha Nagar was one of a handful of films that walked away with the top prize, which was then known as the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film. One of the earliest efforts at social realism in Bollywood cinema, it was inspired by a short story of the same name written by Hayatulla Ansari (which itself was based on Maxim Gorky's The Lower Depths) and focuses on the vast differences between the rich and poor in Indian society. Though mostly forgotten today, it paved the way for many filmmakers in the Indian New Wave.

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"Amar Bhoopali" (Dir: Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram, 1951)

Director Rajaram Vankudre Shantaram's Amar Bhupali (The Immortal Song) is a biopic about the poet and musician Honaji Bala, set in the final days of the Maratha confederacy in the early 19th century. Bala is best known as the composer of the classic raga Ghanashyam Sundara Sridhara, and for popularizing the Lavani dance form. Depicting the poet as a lover of both dance and women, the film was nominated for the Grand Prix du Festival International du Film though it only snagged an award for Excellence in Sound Recording from the Centre National de la Cinematographic.

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"Do Bigha Zamin" (Dir: Bimal Roy, 1954)

Bimal Roy's Do Bigha Zamin (Two Acres of Land), another social-realist film tells the story of a farmer, Shambu Mahato, and his struggles to hold onto his land after being forced to pay back an artificially inflated debt. Roy was one of the pioneering directors of the neo-realist movement, and Do Bigha Zamin, like all his films, successfully finds a balance between entertainment and art. Featuring songs performed by legendary playback singers Lata Mangeshkar and Mohammed Rafi, the film won the respectable Prix Internationale at the 1954 festival. The link above will allow you to view the film in its entirety.

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"Pather Panchali" (Dir: Satyajit Ray, 1955)

Auteur Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali, the first chapter of the Apu trilogy, is not only a landmark of Indian cinema but is also considered to be one of the greatest films of all time. Featuring a cast primarily made up of amateur actors, the film introduces us to Apu, a young boy who lives with his family in rural Bengal. A look at the abject poor and their need to leave their homes and relocate to the big city in order to survive, it's an excellent introduction to the lyrical realism that Ray is known for. The film won the Palme d'Or for Best Human Document in 1956. The link above will allow you to view the film in its entirety.

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"Kharij" (Dir: Mrinal Sen, 1982)

Based on the novel by Ramapada Chowdhury, Kharij (Case is Closed) is Mrinal Sen's 1982 tragic drama that tells of the accidental death of an underaged servant, and the effect it has on the couple that hired him. A charged political work that exposes the exploitation of the underprivileged classes in India, it's a far more downbeat film than your typical Bollywood film. A powerful and unforgettable work, it won the Special Jury Prize at the 1983 festival. The link above will allow you to view the film in its entirety.

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"Salaam Bombay!" (Dir: Mira Nair, 1988)

A crossover hit that found worldwide success, Mira Nair's first feature film is a hybrid documentary-narrative that features real children from the streets of Bombay who were professionally trained to re-enact scenes and experiences from their lives. Unrelenting and often cruel at times, the kids in the film must tackle issues such as poverty, pimps, prostitutes, sweatshops, and drug dealing. A smash with festival-goers, it won both the Camera d'Or and the Audience Award at the 1988 festival, paving the path to a handful of awards at other festivals worldwide.

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"Marana Simhasanam" (Dir: Murali Nair, 1999)

This relatively short feature (just 61 minutes) set in Kerala is an often disturbing film that tells of the first execution by electric chair in India. A desperate villager who steals some coconuts in order to feed his family winds up being sentenced to death through a series of politically-related events. Told with minimal dialog, the film is a powerful critique of class oppression and political manipulation. This deeply unsettling film (whose title translates as The Throne of Death) walked away with the Camera d'Or at the 1999 festival.