Photographer Sasha Jairam while on assignment with Diipa Khosla at Cannes 2024
Work 19 May 2024 5 MIN

The great Indian hustle behind the Cannes red carpet

From stylists to photographers, creatives from India are funding their own trips to the South of France in the hope of landing interesting clients

We all know that the Festival de Cannes, one of the most celebrated film events of the world, is also where the planet’s most-sought-after celebrities descend to offer a fashionable moment of a whirl of camera flashes. Here, anything can happen: a dog can upstage a celebrity or a film can be rated based on the duration of standing ovation it receives. But for the festival to be reimagined as the new hotbed of hustle culture is unexpected to say the least.  

And that’s what fashion creatives (photographers, stylists, hair and make-up artists) from India are after as they descend upon Cannes to pitch their portfolios and network for the duration of the festival, all in anticipation of landing famous clients on the spot.  

Most of these trips are self-funded, and the creatives in question travel without any assistants. It’s an ambitious outing that could turn out to be a feverishly costly affair. Base tickets are in the ₹60,000-70,000 bracket and hotels cost twice as much when the festival is on. But it’s the hustlers’ insatiable appetite to potentially have their career take off, with a little help from this world stage, that spurs them on. When they book their flights, stand in the visa queue, pay extra for additional luggage, or wheel around their suitcases packed with professional artillery, they are seldom daunted by the fear that their trip might not be bookended by a life-altering gig. 

Yes, we Cannes 

Priyanka Borkar, a celebrity hairstylist and make-up artist who has worked with actors such as Priyanka Chopra, Alia Bhatt, Janhvi Kapoor, and Rashmika Mandanna, has more than two decades of experience in the field. Her trip to this year’s edition of the film festival, where she’ll be styling Kiara Advani (among others), took two months to plan, starting with her manager reaching out to a host of important personalities, hoping to lock in substantial projects before she landed there.  

What prompted Borkar was a desire for work that was out of the ordinary; one that would up the ante and challenge her as an artist. In India, the red-carpet fashion game is reasonably subdued in comparison to its Western counterpart, where the avant-garde, camp, and eccentric are championed.  

Borkar is “hoping to get to work with a different set of people” at Cannes, including, perhaps, the chance to collaborate with an international roster. “At the end of the day, all eyes are on Cannes from the world over,” she notes. “It’s exciting because your work can reach places it wouldn’t normally go.” For many professionals like her, the intent is twofold: to amp up their public profile and to find creative clusters with whom they might collaborate. “It’s pure luck and pure risk,” says Borkar, who is giving up some lucrative work prospects in Mumbai to be at Cannes. 

For such creatives, the Riviera town is the proverbial oyster. Photographer Vaishnav Praveen, who has shot an array of Bollywood royals such as Ranveer Singh, Anushka Sharma and Deepika Padukone, has been to the Cannes Film Festival a couple of times as a photographer for L’Oréal. In 2022, while on a fully sponsored visit, he was approached by Kylie Minogue’s team to photograph the pop superstar for the red carpet. Unfortunately, Vaishnav had to decline. “I was with another artist, and I couldn’t take it on,” he shares.  

Hustle couture  

Like Borkar, Mumbai-based stylist Akshay Tyagi, who has orchestrated ensembles for actors like Hrithik Roshan, Aditya Roy Kapoor, and Bobby Deol, is at Cannes this year on a self-funded trip. Tyagi is well-versed with the high-level press attendance, the exhilarating crowd hysteria, the inimitable competence of the “network ecosystem” at Cannes, and the gamut of possibilities that can unfold for an artist of his calibre there. It’s his third Cannes visit—this time, he has prepared key red-carpet looks for model-entrepreneur Diipa Büller Khosla and India’s first male beauty influencer, Ankush Bahuguna. “At Cannes, all the hotels” (that is, the major ones: The Hôtel Martinez, The Carlton, Le Majestic) “have multiple showrooms tucked away here and there. I’ve seen some 45 look books of real jewellery and statement gowns,” he says. “There are brands, designers, PR agencies, pop-ups, styling suites—everything is there. Seamstresses are on standby, steamers are there, everyone is going in or out, bumping into each other. If you’re a stylist, you’ll be running around with bags full of clothes or scarves while trying not to get hit by a car. It’s very much like a scene from The Devil Wears Prada.” 

Seamstresses are on standby, steamers are there, everyone is going in or out, bumping into each other. If you’re a stylist, you’ll be running around with bags full of clothes or scarves while trying not to get hit by a car. It’s very much like a scene from The Devil Wears Prada.

Despite the manic nature of the tinselled beast, it’s the beating heart of a “global network of hustlers,” observes Tyagi. At the end of the day, it’s a serious job. “You have to meet people; you have to make acquaintances with brands. Every move can be a strategy for your own brand to develop and grow,” he says. Of course, a lot of groundwork is covered if you have solid social media clout. Photographer Sasha Jairam, who shot British fashion model Neelam Kaur Gill, actor Vijay Varma, and content creator Masoom Minawala at Cannes last year, reveals that the moment she posted on Instagram that she was in the city, Indian celebrity managers started calling to book her on the spot for their clients. While she went on a sponsored trip last year, she understands why creatives would go on their own. “When you plonk yourself in another city, you’re going with some hope. And honestly, whether you’re at Cannes, Milan Fashion Week, or elsewhere, people are always looking for stylists, hairstylists, photographers, and make-up artists. You might just get lucky,” says Jairam.  

It’s not just Cannes that artists annually scramble to. “This kind of hustle culture exists even at fashion weeks,” observes Borkar. “Whether it’s Milan or Paris, I know people who put themselves up somewhere and try and get some work.” While Tyagi admits that a 20-something-year-old him would not have been able to make an overseas trip like this one, Borkar encourages aspiring artists to save up because the exposure one gets is unparalleled. 

Though behind the shiny veneer are hard financial truths. Not everyone can afford a trip to Europe out of their own pocket. Trips like these easily spill into lakhs. It cost Borkar about ₹2 lakhs on tickets and accommodation alone. Thankfully, she already had a Schengen visa; booked an Airbnb on a sharing basis with a fellow creative to split the costs (hotels in and around the Croisette cost over a lakh per night during the festival), and decided to purchase most of the hair products required for the red carpet looks, in France rather than cramming them in suitcases that would tip the baggage scales. Artists like Borkar and Tyagi are already established names in India, and have taken the time to build a solid nexus of contacts. “I have locked two jobs, so my flight and stay are covered now, along with some extra money. Everything else going forward will be a bonus,” Borkar told us a day before she left for Cannes.