Oscars 2002. We as a nation, sat glued to our TV sets in the early hours of the morning, as the event was telecast live from Los Angeles. The foreign film category was being announced, and as we watched it seemed as though Aamir Khan subconsciously got up from his seat when the decisive envelope was opened. Lagaan—a movie tailor-made for awards, with an impeccable hero, captivating narrative, excellent performances, all tied up neatly with melodious strains of music. But it was not to be. The nation felt a collective remorse when the movie lost to No Man’s Land.
Since then, India’s Oscar dreams have been redeemed by Rehman, Gulzar and Resool Pookutty bringing the prized statuette home, albeit for foreign productions. But the astounding fact remains that for the third biggest movie factory in the world, which churns out more than 1000 films annually, our movies have only managed to garner three Oscar nominations through the years, let alone make the final cut.
Do we lack talent of international caliber? Hardly. Many an Oscar winning director has professed to learning the cinematic craft from our masters like Satyajit Ray. Ray is the recipient of the Oscar lifetime achievement award, an honor rarely bestowed to Hollywood outsiders. Indian cinema is routinely showcased and extolled in International film festivals like Sundance and Cannes.
So, why do we underperform at the Oscars, year after year? Because, the Oscar audiences do not get to see our truly exceptional movies. Baradwaj Rangan, National Award-winning film critic and Deputy Editor of The Hindu, voices his opinion on why Indian movies fall short at the Oscars. “We don’t always send the right films. It’s important to remember that the Oscar jury consists mostly of Americans and we need to send a story that resonates with them, but with our local color. There is a strong, cutting-edge, body of work that does that, but we never consider these films and instead send movies that must seem strange to them and ultimately unworthy.”
The biggest pothole on our path to the Oscar red carpet appears to be The Film Federation of India (FFI), the organization that determines the official entry to the Oscars. Time and again, this body has been dogged by controversy be it questionable choices of entries, lack of transparency in its functioning, or the bureaucracy involved.
The FFI seem oblivious to the different audience expectations in the two countries. For us Indians, movies are our trips to fantasy land. We watch movies to vicariously live through the infallible hero’s exploits or to snigger at the absurdity in them and feel intellectually superior. The shirtless superheroes that we adore are relegated to teen flicks in American theatres. Hollywood loves characters with tragic flaws. A recurring safe bet at the Oscars is the hero’s emancipation despite these flaws, a theme that’s particularly hard to pull off in our movies.
“The FFI needs people who understand what the Oscar jury looks for,” Rangan believes. “This is not just about selecting the best film from among Indian releases, but selecting the right kind of film that plays well to an American audience. The Oscars have a tradition of considering serious films, and Barfi! comes off as a trifle, a mere entertainment as opposed to a movie that says something meaningful about life, like Amour.”
A glaring error in the selection of Indian nominations is the skewed ratio of national versus regional cinemas. In the past 55 years that we’ve been sending our films for Oscar consideration, 30 movies have been in Hindi, a smattering of Bengali, Kannada, Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Marathi movies make up the rest of the list.
“Regional movies have been selected on and off, but really strange ones like Jeans. In fact, it’s the regional films made by the likes of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Girish Kasaravalli that will make for excellent choices, because they are local stories told in the language of international art cinema,” says Rangan.
“We do make stories that are capable of “wooing” the Oscar committee. These films have the necessary technical chops, acting prowess and storylines to make the grade. It’s just that we never look at them. The length of our movies may deter the attention span of the international audience, but there are long foreign films as well. And if other things work, then length shouldn’t be a problem.”
Networking is another colossal juggernaut that film makers have to override. Young, up and coming directors who invariably have the most interesting stories to say, are daunted by networking expenses, which might add up to twice the budget of their production costs.
Rangan comments, ‘The Oscars are a huge campaign, and not everyone can spend that much money, to go to Los Angeles and show the film to the right people and make sure DVDs reach the right hands. It’s a lot of work, unless some of that work has been done for you by critics, as in the case of Amour. It was so universally acclaimed that it automatically became the frontrunner.”
Bhanu Athaya for Gandhi; Rehman, the musical genius behind Slumdog Millionaire; and now Bombay Jayashree for Life of Pi, have been recognized by the Oscars, when the movies are helmed by foreign filmmakers. It is a chicken-soup-for-the-soul feeling to see Jayashree stand out like a dark horse among international powerhouse perfomers like Adele and Claude-Michel Schönberg .
Oscar snubs aside, Hollywood is increasingly looking eastwards for stories, talent and landscape. The success of foreign movies set in the Indian milieu has brought fringe benefits to our film industry too. Indian stars like Irfan Khan, Tabu and Anil Kapoor are increasingly finding footholds for themselves in Hollywood movies. Pondicherry and Munnar never looked so beautiful, as when seen through the eyes of Ang Lee. Movies like Life of Pi and Eat, Pray, Love are generating a tourism boom in India. Curiously, the west seems enamored by our classical art forms like Karnatik music, which gets bypassed or morphed beyond recognition by our populist industry.
For an artist, receiving an Oscar is the pinnacle of achievement, the validation of excellence of craft. For the nation, it instills a sense of national pride. But feel-good factor apart, the tangible benefits are limited. As Rangan puts it, “It’s just an individual recognition, like a medal in the Olympics. It makes an individual famous but doesn’t necessarily do much for the sport.”
The Indian movie industry has the unenviable task of catering to a culturally diverse audience of 1.3 billion. It would be quixotic for producers to alter their winning formula that appeals to the whole population, in quest of Oscar glory. Let’s face it, Bollywood films centered on poverty porn do not get into the 200 Crore club.
Zenobia Khaleel is a stay at home mom who dabbles in a lot of adventures (and misadventures), and is passionate about writing, traveling, acting, direction, girl scouts, and community volunteering. Some of her articles have been published in The Hindu and The Khaleej Times.