Cannes, Capitalism, the Red Carpet and India

BoF columnist Bandana Tewari examines Indian fashion, identity and the representation of women through the prism of Cannes’ red carpet.

Aishwarya Rai Bachchan and Vidya Balan at Cannes Film Festival | Source: Photo composite by BoF

CANNES, France — I was recently in Monaco for the Dior cruise show and decided to drive to the Cannes Film Festival on a particularly cold day (whatever happened to the legendary balminess of the South of France?). I drove down the Croisette (more backpackers than beau monde) and soaked in the rhapsody of frills and frocks on the red carpet. This year, more intently than ever before, I followed what the Indian actresses were wearing. The festival was, after all, saluting 100 years of Indian cinema — more than just Bollywood, as demonstrated in the riveting film “Bombay Talkies,” a jamboree of four short films that peeks into the real India in all it’s sensational complexity. Besides, we had a top Indian actress, Vidya Balan, in the coveted role of festival jury member.

The fact that India is one of the largest movie-producing countries in the world, with one of the biggest movie-going populations, makes it a sought-after source of new revenue for international cinema. Besides, the rising profile of the country’s film-industry muscle power — Indian industrialist Anil Ambani and Steven Spielberg’s Reliance-DreamWorks produced the magnum opus “Lincoln,” while the leading actors of the Bollywood blockbuster “My Name is Khan,” sold to Fox Star Studios for a record $21 million, rang the opening bell at the NASDAQ stock exchange — all made India’s presence in Cannes even more conspicuous. So, I thought, yes, it’s time our folks strut their stuff on the red carpet — with a modern twist.

So when the star Vidya Balan faced the camera for a photo-op with her co-jury members looking like a subservient bride, a caricature of those notoriously big fat Indian weddings, there was collective disillusionment and ridicule.

Right now, in India, we are gagging for an overhaul in the way women are represented in the media. In a country still reeling from an unbroken stream of rape and other forms of violence against women, the gaping reality of gender inequality and the stereotyping of woman has taken centre stage. The idea of a woman being covetable because she looks servile continues to sit in our collective psyche and is regurgitated again and again in our popular culture. The last thing we, the emancipated, modern, opinionated women of this country (of which there are plenty) wanted to see on the global red carpet of Cannes was a demure Indian woman.

Indian social media went into a state of frenzy. Online comments were brutal. “Pretty sure that the jewel thief in Cannes is Vidya Balan’s nose,” read one comment. “Costume catastrophe in Cannes,” screamed another. The newspapers mocked and scoffed every morning as more and more Indian stereotypes walked the red carpet.

If anything, this demonstrates the power of fashion and how intrinsically it is related to our sense of identity. This particular red carpet moment signaled our readiness to ask a much-needed question: what is the identity of the modern Indian woman? And by extension, what is the cultural identity of a progressive India? By what we wear, are we espousing archaic stereotypes or are we championing our cultural identity? One of India’s top designers, Sabyasachi, who dressed Balan, certainly seemed to think so when he announced in the media: “We are looking forward to bringing back what India truly stands for.” But by whose standards?

Even with India’s political independence and enviable economic growth, the country seems to have a niggling sense of self-doubt and, dare I say, lack of self-worth. Globalisation is good and unstoppable. But with it comes a litany of psychoses, some real and some imagined: fear of global imperialism, fear of losing cultural identity and uniqueness, especially amongst less powerful countries. I wonder if we, as a nation, are still suffering from a case of post-colonial blues.

In a country like mine, still straddling two intensely opposing worlds, one tied to archaic reasoning, the other catapulting forward without a conscience, it’s crucial that we hold up a mirror to our society and reflect at every opportunity, especially when it comes to how we are portraying ourselves in the arena of entertainment, which thrives on building and breaking images.

Finally, I’ll let you in on a cruel irony that really prompted this piece: Vidya Balan, in reality, is an incredibly progressive and emancipated woman. But the image of her cowing down to a male gaze — in faux bridal finery — did great disservice to her and to us, the women of India.

Image-makers of India. Beware.

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  1. Exactly my thoughts, while watching the parade of indian stereotypes (in the guise of high fashion) walk the Cannes red carpet. Articulated in her razor sharp eloquence (as always) by Ms. Tewari. Thank you.

    Rymn Massand. NYC. from New York, NY, United States
  2. Well said Bandana. As India struggles to develop a design identity the fashion influencers need to assume responsibility for the power they hold in developing our identity – especially on a global platform. Championing craft is a noble endeavor to be applauded. But show us the diversity that exists in ‘what India truly stands for”. Certainly, it is not only this pious one.

    Malika V Kashyap from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  3. Even as the writer questions the nation’s ‘post colonial blues’ and ‘fear of losing cultural identity’, she is using the same trope. That of India as one entity. A country as diverse as India, for that matter any country, cannot have one identity. So if you have a Vidya Balan who wants to dress in ‘bridal finery’ and sarees, we also had a sherlyn chopra who went in a transparent gown. Aishwarya always has a mix. So, is the article only a criticism of Vidya’s dressing or does the writer want Indian women to collectively show their progress by adapting western standards of measurement? One Vidya with dupatta on her head does not make Indian women any less progressive than they are.

    Deepti from Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India
  4. I could not disagree more with this entire article. Vidya Balan was not ridiculed because she looked demure or servile, but because the clothes she wore were particularly unflattering on her. Just as Aishwarya Rai is every year for her bad styling decisions. Just as Amitabh Bachchan was for his ridiculous jackets this year. And yet we are not talking about whether sparkly jackets define the identity of the modern Indian man.

    What Balan wore to Cannes really does not affect the women of India in any way. No one woman represents the women of India. The women of India have many identities and they should all wear whatever the hell they want without worrying about how it reflects on the country. If they look good while doing it, great. If they don’t, oh well. The women of india will manage to somehow live through the crushing disappointment.

    Charu Latha from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  5. It’s no longer about sartorial individualism but designerim. Indian women are losing their inherent sense of style as they follow fashion impositions.
    The Indian aesthetic, always renowned, is already lost, weighed down by heavy embellishments.

    Sunaina Suneja from Delhi, Delhi, India
  6. It’s sad that in 2013 white people get to represent themselves while people of colour must represent their entire nation. Surely fashion is a personal choice. The red carpet at Cannes would find me in borrowed Dior couture, my sister on the other hand would insist that important events require full Yoruba regalia.

    I’ve seen many a bridal gown on the red carpet, most recently Jennifer Lawrence at the Oscars, and no ensuing outcry. Is there a little self-hatred mixed in with all this talk of globalization and diversity.

    Also, anyone who would pass up an opportunity to wear Sabyasachi, needs to get their head checked.

    Maria from Benin
  7. Thank you for this wonderfully articulate writeup Bandu. And thank you for saying what you did.

    People that do not see a connection between what is carefully selected for wardrobe at a respectable global platform like Cannes, and the general social direction that big reputable stars in attendance represent, are not only blithely unaware (as Miranda Priestly would put it) of logical reasoning, but also in an unfortunate state of cultural denial.

    We need to collectively get over our human sexuality, and learn to blossom and be inspired by the wholesome experience that a well-rounded life has to offer.

    Elton from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  8. As I read your piece – and reflected on the crazy hullabaloo that Sabyasaachi’s sartorial chocies for Vidya Balan’s red carpet appearances at Cannes this summer generated in India – I thought about shows on Indian art and design that have been presented through the last decades outside of India, and how little of the ‘contemporary’ India these have represented. And why, perhaps, for the first time, despite having long believed that such ‘fashion news’ must be ignored to seek impacts of how our films are doing at such, well, ‘film’ festivals, I was even slightly angered was because at every opportunity that we get to articulate what a new India means for us and the world today, we seem to harp back to tried and tested formule that address no sense of where we see ourselves going?

    Perhaps, we feel that we know how to play to the continued ‘expectations’ of exotica from India? The last few major shows about India internationally include ‘The Maharaja’ at the V & A London, the hugely criticised ‘Bombay Paris Delhi’ at the Centre Pompidou Paris, and one on Indian miniatures (even if stunningly curated and imaginatively beautiful!) at an important museum in Switzerland. We continue to be sought for a past…? For the last year – curating a ”major’ show on contemporary Indian design, at a ‘major’ museum in Europe for the next year – I have struggled to ‘cater’ to the needs of a audience conditioned to see India in a certain way. But really, in the arts, the imagination, is this a time to ‘play’ safe?

    When I think of the red carpet wear that articulates the India I engage with and occupy, I think of an Abraham & Thakore silken back-less gown fashioned from the Gujarati Kediya, A Small Shop dress with its intricately made textiles, even a Raw mango Chanderi Sari so perfect in its proportions – accessorised with a stunning En Inde statement jewellery neck piece! These to me reflect an india playing with the old and the new in fresh ways, an irreverent India which also takes itself seriously, an India of many diasporas – outside and within, an India where traditional textile crafts are used towards contemporary artistic expression!

    With Sabyasaachi’s pre-eminent position in the Indian fashion world, this responsibility comes even more urgently? As a designer who made it big without the fashion mafia behind him, a designer who chose to ‘do his own thing’, who chose to reference more local notions of beauty and the vernacular, we are all looking to him for more inspired work! Perhaps, the most exciting outcome of such events, is that after a long time, people are uninhibited to express themselves and there are innumerable platforms to do this, and there is dialogue.

    Can we, ever, be Indian design’s biggest supporters without being its severest critics?

    Mayank Mansingh Kaul from Ghaziabad, Uttar Pradesh, India
  9. Very nice article Ms Bandana. Not only did you speak about Indian women’s emancipation, but also about the position of women worldwide. Nicely done!

    Violet from Attikí, Greece
  10. It’s a great piece and one line that captured my attention the most is “what is the identity of modern Indian women??”

    I think as a nation we are all very confused. I have seen my mother always where sarees but few days back she wanted to wear salwar Kurta as its more comfortable and she is 60 now. My aunt has started wearing jeans only at 60 as its easy. At 30s I still only wear clothes for comfort. But that is not what people can wear on red carpet. Though I feel Nandita Das looked classier in her kurtas than the over dressed aishwaryaor vidya.

    In such red carpet event the Hollywood actresses wear mostly couture gowns. In India couture means only custom made bridal wear and that’s what the actresses are wearing. So who is to decide what should the Indian women wear??

    Sanghamitra from Delhi, Delhi, India
  11. The issue is a broad one beyond the scope of an article but the article does highlight the key fact, that sometimes a designer could be carried away by his personal ideals and aesthetics, disregarding the platform and the possible semiotic translation. The argument that we need to showcase our traditions and crafts to the world is a juvenile one as it’s a Film festival and not a Costume show at a museum, going by that logic we would have our politicians in embellished Sherwani’s in global summits.
    I am not sure how much an appearance of a professional actress at a film festival would shape the perception of Indian women as Mrs. Indira Gandhi, Gayathri Devi, Sania Mirza and many more outside the realm of fashion and entertainment play an equal role in defining the Indian woman.
    Our designers and their celebrity clients definitely need to take a cue from the article and would look forward to an article from Bandana, which would explore this subject further.

    Maneesh from India
  12. Columnists of India. Beware.
    ‘It’s’ and ‘its’ are not interchangeable.

    Nandita from Bangalore, Karnātaka, India
  13. Very good analysis, as always with Bandana’s sharp eye and pen.
    I agree completely and would add – from a purely fashion point of view – that such a great beauty as Aish chose to get dressed in my grand-mother’s curtains was very sad indeed… (Then again last year she was lampooned for her weight which as a mother “over 40″ made me cringe even more.)
    Meanwhile I live in China and there are many great designers here, so I was so disappointed that the Chinese superstars (Fan BingBing etc…) walked the red carpet, day after day parading LV, Dior, Cavalli and all but no talent from China. French Audrey Tautou opened the festival rocking this amazing mint green silk dress by Chinese born French designer Yiqing Ying, an amazing but ultra confidential designer…. Considering that Tautou could have had her pick of just about any major house on earth, that was a bold – fabulous – choice! And one that China’s weibo applauded with pride. It could/should have come also from a home-grown star…
    I would also like to know if India has some modern cool designers that could/should use this global platform? Brazil also went to Cannes to present their designers, and it went great…. Come on BRICs… Show us what you’ve got…

    Benedicte Bro from Finland
  14. Fashion is meant to be fun. Magazines and journalists have turned it into a Hot or Not contest. Yes it is serious business for a designer- which I am, and yes it can be an extension of ones identity. Ia f Balan wanted to play the demure lady, why not? As if Halle Berry never had a fashion disaster.. If we are going to judge the women of the worlds largest democracy by what Vidya Balan wore..then we should all be very afraid of our wardrobe.

    Aarti Kalro from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  15. While I have the utmost respect for Ms. Tewari and her keen analysis of Indian fashion, I have to disagree with her sentiments here. The fashion represented at Cannes by the Indian women in attendance ran the gamut from Vidya Balan and Nandita Das in traditional saris, Sonam Kapoor’s pitch perfect glamour in custom Dolce & Gabbana and Freida Pinto, who walked the red carpet in a slinky gown with a thigh high slit by Indian designer Sanchita Ajjampur.

    What Vidya Balan represented through her sartorial choices was neither India nor Indian women but rather the specific aesthetic of a designer who considers her his muse. Sabyasachi stated quite clearly that he wanted to create a “purist, ethnic look” for Vidya with a focus on Indian textiles and handcrafts. Thus, what you saw was the actress in elegant cotton saris with minimal embellishments, which is the anthesis of stereotypical Indian bridal wear. Whether the designs were becoming on Vidya is up for debate but they were classic Sabya – conservative, restrained and yes, Indian, but as defined by the designer and not the country at large.

    Gina Mathew from Towson, MD, United States
  16. Vidya Balan was just one word at Cannes ‘Disaster’.
    Her mistake ..she choose and entrusted the wrong designer for the job .
    Also it will be treated as a biggest blunder in the designers career as it was his responsibility to research enough to make sure what will work. you cant mess up at such a big platform .
    Translating India can be done in numerous ways from embroidery stitch to the fabrics , it always doesn’t need to be the entire Indian traditional outfit .
    Someone also commented on the atrocious jackets Amitabh Bachhan has been wear on the Tv shows.. Again its not just about hiring a big name .
    Designers need to know when inspiration converts into overkill.

    Abhinav misra from Toronto, ON, Canada
  17. You nailed it Bandana!! Why wasn’t the Vogue team of stylists involved in styling these celebs who were representing india on an international platform? In their effort of trying to look too Indian, they were looking like a bunch of clowns. Even fashion maverick Sonam Kapoor ruined her couture look by placing a nose ring which was totally inappropriate.

    Sudeepa Khanna from Fremont, CA, United States
  18. Great article

    Kasia from Montreal, QC, Canada
  19. I really don’t understand this identity confusion. The modern Indian women of my world have a very proud and definite Indian perspective on life, but we feel (and are accepted as) belonging anywhere in the world.

    To me having an Indian fashion perspective suggests an integration of sensuality, modesty, tropical clime, legacy of natural and hand woven fabrics and a touch of glamour.

    People who dress in costume are people who don’t know who they are.

    I equally hated seeing these stars looking like they walked off a period piece set or wearing a multinational luxury label gown. Neither is relevant to modern Indian life.

    To have worn elegant designs from Anamika Khanna, James Ferreira, Wendell Rodricks, Manish Arora, Savio Jon… Now that would have made sense.

    Who are these women? The problem is they themselves don’t know.

    The only rule of fashion is the ultimate truth in life: Know Thyself.

    Beenu Bawa from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  20. There is no one identity or representation of India, and one shouldn’t expect such a heavy responsibility to be foisted on one actor attending an international “showplace” as Cannes.

    What one does expect though is sense of self and that just didn’t come through Vidya’s carriage of the clothes and so it looked costumey.
    If she had been able to carry it off, whether it was a wedding dress or a rag it really wouldn’t have mattered!

    Gurmeet Kaur from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  21. Bandana is spot on! For too long have Indian Designers subscribed to the Bollywood stereotype of the Happily Ever After. Every fashion show ends with a blushing Bolly bride coyly fluttering her fake eyelashes from under her veil as she pounds one more nail into the coffin of women’s emancipation in India. Cannes was just another show stopper moment.

    Prasad Bidapa from Bangalore, Karnātaka, India
  22. (The title sorely misses the point of the article.)

    s.a. from Lima, Lima, Peru
  23. Ms Tewari eloquently captured this “cross-roads” moment as India defines and redefines itself in a seemingly endless cycle of birth and rebirth. In fact, India is constantly undertaking this self-examination in all mediums of expression: music, art, film, fashion. Without a doubt, Vidya Balan et. al Cannes’ red carpet follies and the reaction therein puts a spotlight on a crisis of identity. Ms. Tewari’s comment about India suffering from “self doubt and dare I say, lack of self-worth” is very poignant. Post colonial blues indeed. Despite my often critical commentary on how modernization has often been equated with “Westernization” I must admit that Tewari’s analysis is very on point. Perception is everything; Vidya Balan and other women would have better served to represent the modern India had they been dressed in a manner that unapologetically captures the elegance, strength and sophistication of the modern Indian woman.

    Ali Sachedina from Burke, VA, United States
  24. Raiee ka pahaad, I would say. Don’t we have bigger issues to deal with than Indian / Western clothes? Mannequin banning, for instance? These guys are famous already, I think other more important things could do with some much required attention.

    Tiv from Bangalore, Karnātaka, India
  25. Well said. and the sad thing is that these costumes are not authentic to bengali culture (sabyasachi’s) or tamil culture (vidya’s)

    Catherine from Mumbai, Mahārāshtra, India
  26. Vidya Balan is an individual who has the right to wear whatever she likes. The Cannes Festival selected her as a juror, not the rest of India. Yes, the clothes had an old world appearance/bridal look but that is her choice. I remember many top people in the fashion world panning Vidya when she wore western outfits. Vidya is an independent woman, and an elegant one. Please lets keep opinions about clothes,Vidya, Ash to ourselves and focus on the art of acting and cinema, which these actresses deliver much better than the impeccably dressed Sonam Kapoor.

    Shalini from India
  27. I mean, no offense to any one, but why can’t we let a Vidya Balan (or anyone who goes to Cannes from India) be? The whole silk clad, socially aware, good actor, worships Shabana Azmi style seems to have been her ‘personal style’ for the last year atleast. If she wants to project herself that way, why can’t we let her do that? Aren’t we restricting her by hating on her so much? Hasn’t it been all about being what one wants to be in the last few decades- fake or genuine? Frida Kahlo travelled the world in her Tejuana costume (more relevantly during her French escapades) to draw attention to her unique Mexican style. I don’t think Sabyasachi or anyone in a sari wanted to stereotype and bring out the ‘subservience’ in an Indian woman, I would say they ended up projecting the contrary, given that Vidya went as a distinguished jury member (not just an attendee like our other gowned bombshells).

    Given the decade we are in, I don’t think there is a place for feminism (atleast in educated society) and talking about a woman’s attire or her mannerisms follows a highly retro feminist mindset. Had Vidya adorned western attires or mannerisms, the world would have called her a fat Freida Pinto.

    Maharani Ayesha turned heads because of her charm and the woman that she was. Comparing an actor with a highly westernized, elevated Maharani is not fair as there is a mismatch in their leagues.

    PS: I hate Vidya with a vengeance, but I have had it with people talking about her clothes. Or her, for that matter.

    Manuja Waldia from Indianapolis, IN, United States
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  29. Sadly the difference between couture and costume was ignored! As was common sense! Where was the cardinal rule of true style — being true to one’s self? Thank you Bandana for so elegantly stating the obvious. My two paise — next time get Vogue India to dress our stars. That is as full proof as we can get.

    Gaurav Bhatia from Singapore, Singapore (general), Singapore