It really has become an annual joke or as a local wit quipped “I laugh so that I may not weep!” Ever since the Best Foreign Film category was introduced in 1947, India has dutifully sent entries. Till date, only three films (Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan) made the cut, while almost all others have been slung out with ceremony! Yet, every year India continues to make a big production generating high drama involving the selection process—which invariably turns controversial due to the bizarre set of films picked. How dumb, delusional and demented can India get? Now comes a proposal from a respected filmdom official that instead of one, can we please send five entries?
Let’s get some basics right and home in on some ground realities. The fact that India is the largest movie-producing country on earth, doesn’t mean a fig because in global competitions where quality—not quantity—is the key, India is often found wanting.
Bollywood junkies, blinded by glitz, glamor, and the demons of megalomania insist that Bollywood doesn’t really need the Oscars because it is a global force anyway! In support of this argument they point towards its zooming box office collections from the international arena.
What can the Oscars—an American/Hollywood award—give Bollywood that they don’t already have? For that matter, all big-ticket (Cannes, Venice, Berlin, Toronto) global events are ONLY great for an exchange of ideas, networking with luminaries, marketing movies, collaborations and socializing … International awards mean nothing, beyond some media coverage and congratulations, forgotten within a week.
The saner lot (after clearing their throats in embarrassment) however are fully cognizant of the huge and unquestionable status, respect and global recognition that comes with an Oscar, something that all the awards at home can never ever hope to match.
The problem is: How should India crack it?
Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal believes that “narratives on human relationship with a strong socio-political context that celebrates the ambience of local roots ignited by universal appeal—A Separation, Amour, In a Better World, Lives of Others, The Secret of their Eyes—is required, something that we just can’t seem to come up with.” He believes that, unfortunately, we are blinded by our version of so-called great films [Tare Zameen Par, Barfi] which bewilders them. “We must realize that our version of their need just doesn’t work!” he reminds all those keen to hear.
Adds Victor Banerjee, the star of David Lean’s classic Passage to India three decades ago and an Oscar nominee himself without any fuss or frippery, “We are plain not good enough for global standards! Stuff like Barfi and Black are nothing when you see Charlie, Rain Man, Miracle Worker and a host of other gems from Hollywood and other places. In our arrogance and self-congratulatory mode, we believe that we have been wronged and racism, favoritism or politics has played its devious part. Rubbish! Our 100 years of cinema or tons of trash that we roll out every year means nothing to them. Its not that we lack talent but our cockeyed presumptuousness and habit of reading the writing on the wall wrong, along with our self-righteousness continues to prompt this early exit. Sad but true.”
The other international star Kabir Bedi (of Sandokan, Octopussy, Bold and Beautiful fame) also joins the party with his POV (point of view). “I agree with both Shyam and Victor and would like to add one more reason. According to me, much more attention needs to be paid to the psychographics and demographics of the jury members and decision makers. What is their leaning and liking in terms of form and content? Historically there has also been a huge greenlighting of films from the West, with Italy ruling. Asia, comparatively, has been pretty much out in the cold with a very meager presence. Can we do anything about that? Quite honestly, I have no answers.”
All three make valid points, but can India learn? Will India learn?
After packing off the truly brilliant Lunchbox, India’s Oscar Selection Committee’s choice The Good Road was shown the highway in record time! Instead, the list of nine films that will feature for the BFF (Best Foreign Film) slot have been announced: Belgium’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, Bosnia’sAn Episode in the Life of an Iron Picker, Cambodia’s The Missing Picture, Denmark’s The Hunt, Germany’s Two Lives, Hongkong’s The Grandmaster, Hungary’s The Notebook, Italy’s Great Beauty, Palestine’s Omar.
Belgium? Bosnia? Cambodia? Hungary? Palestine? Places which are miniscule in size and population compared to India with no celebrated hundred year tradition or movie-crazy audiences. Can they be expected to produce films of world class standard? Yes … and it is out of these films that five have been shortlisted (The Broken Circle Breakdown, The Great Beauty, The Hunt, The Missing Picture and Omar) and from which one will win the Oscar.
Perhaps, the next Oscars will be a new beginning.
Monojit Lahiri is a journalist who has been writing on Advertising, Cinema and popular culture and has been published in every mainstream Indian magazine for over three decades.