Utpal Borpujari

February 23, 2009

India’s Oscar story : LOST in translation?

Poor selection of  films is one of the main reasons that keeps the coveted award away from India, says Utpal Borpujari

In less than 24 hours from now, the world will know if Bhanu Athaiya would continue to be India’s sole winner of the Oscar Award — if we leave aside the honourary Lifetime Achievement Oscar to Satyajit Ray — or if names of one or more among A R Rahman, Gulzar and Resul Pookutty would get added to the list of winners of the world’s most famous cinematic honour. If we go by the overwhelming popularity that Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire has achieved in the awards circuit, it is almost certain that Athaiya should get ready to have company.

But therein lies the real story — that the only Indian to win the Oscar, or the possible Indian winners of the Oscar this time round, would have to thank not an Indian production, but a completely foreign production set in India, for their recognition by the Academy of Motion Picture Art & Sciences. If Athaiya had won it for Britain’s iconic director Richard Attenborough’s classic Gandhi, the other three have received their nominations — in case of Rahman it numbers three — for a film by Boyle, another British director, who is already recognised as a new-age icon thanks to his powerful cinematic imaging in films like Trainspotting, Shallow Grave and 28 Days Later.

So, what is that keeps Indians and Indian films away from winning the coveted statuette, even though the country boasts of the world’s largest film industry in terms of number of movies churned out every year? A mere glance at India’s entries’ list for the Best Foreign Film Oscar would give some insight to that. Barring a few notable exceptions, most of the films sent over the years as the country’s entry into the Best Foreign Film Oscar have been ones that have been mostly plain uninspiring cinematically — some like Shankar’s abhorring Jeans (1999) even falling within the category of absolute junk.

A few of them have been interesting cinema in the Indian context but would clearly stand no chance when standing face-to-face to fare from some of the countries which make up their lack in numbers through sheer virtuoso cinema.

Anyone who thought Aamir Khan’s Taare Zameen Par, no doubt a courageous production in the context of Hindi commercial cinema, stood any chance at the turnstiles should watch nominated films like Israel’s Waltz With Bashir or France’s Class to realise the gap that exists between “us” and “them”. Even without comparing with the nominated entries from other countries, a plain look at the entries from India in the last few years would be enough to realise this gap: the visually-interesting but convolutedly-themed Eklavya – The Royal Guard (2007, the year when the selection process by Film Federation of India or FFI was challenged in the court by Bhavna Talwar, the director of Dharm, which lost out in the race), the urban-angst-story Rang De Basanti (2006) the kind of which European cinema has done in much larger numbers and with far greater sensitivity, Paheli (2005) in which the sensitivity of the story got lost in Shah Rukh Khan’s in-your-face starry presence and the colourful setting or the over-sentimental Shwaas (2004) or the garish Devdas (2003).

Even Lagaan (2002), which became the only third Indian film to get a nomination after Mother India (1957) and Salaam Bombay (1989), despite being able to go so near, in retrospect stood no chance against Bosnia-Herzegovina’s eventual winner, the hard-hitting tragi-comedy No Man’s Land on the futility of war.

So, who is the villain in the piece really? The quality of films made in India, FFI’s selection process, or a bias against the culturally-different presentation of most of the Indian films by the Academy voters due to their completely different set of sensibilities?

Probably, it is a combination of all this. Despite a great variety of cinema in terms of budget, thematic presentations, directorial styles and languages, Indian cinema has rarely been able to cross the great cultural barrier and get accepted by the non-Indian-NRI-PIO audiences, barring probably Ray’s creations. While the big budget Indian commercial films are getting increasing audiences across the world, it is mostly thanks to the burgeoning NRI-PIO-South Asian Diaspora, with only a minuscule number of Western audiences venturing near even those Hindi films that are “big” hits in countries like the US or the UK.

No doubt, some White audiences are getting interested in “Bollywood masala” but it is more due to the exotic value peppered by the songs and dances than any real pursuit of cinematic wisdom. So, it is not a surprise at all that the Academy members who vote to choose the Oscar winner more often than not do not connect with the sensibility — or the lack of it, depending on one’s viewpoint — of Indian films, especially when they are measured against the new, courageous content and styles of filmmaking emerging in various parts of the world.

FFI, the body that is mandated to select the Indian entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, too has added to the scenario through some really quirky selections, at least in the recent times (just refer to some of the entries mentioned above). While off and on it has sent films by directors like Abrar Alvi’s Sahib, Biwi Aur Ghulam (1963),  M S Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (1975), Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (1978), Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1979) and Shekhar Kapur’s Bandit Queen (1995), FFI for reasons best known to it has mostly kept its eyes focused on commercial fare, that too of uninspiring variety and even films that had been ‘inspired’ to a great extend by one of the other big Hollywood films (eg, Parinda, Nayakan).

For some strange reason, it has never thought it fit to send any film by some of the art house giants of Indian cinema, filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Girish Kasaravalli, Jahnu Barua, Goutam Ghose or even the venerable G Aravindan or Ritwick Ghatak, who have developed their own cinematic idioms that has made them highly regarded in some topmost film festivals of the world.

It becomes even more glaring because the Academy, while most of the time celebrating its own big-budget cinema, seems to prefer thought-provoking stuff when it comes to the Best Foreign Film Oscar. FFI, being packed with industry body representatives, is often being seen to be biased towards mainstream stuff, at the cost of any realistic shot by India at the Oscars. But Indian cinema, of both the mainstream and art house varieties, is becoming less and less visible in the premiere film festivals of the world in recent years — Cannes, Berlin, Venice festivals have hardly seen any Indian selection in major sections in the first decade of the current century. So, probably, it has more to do with the overall quality of Indian cinema than the mere art-vs-commercial debate.

The Oscars, to be fair, hardly gives a grudging acknowledgement of the cinema from the rest of the world in the form of one single award for the whole diversity of them. As superstar Amitabh Bachchan has often said, Oscars are actually a celebration of Hollywood by Hollywood itself, and so we should not give it the importance we give. But at the same time, the over-arching reach of Hollywood globally, and the high-adrenaline hype about the Oscars, more so in these times when hype becomes more important than the content itself, has made the statuette the most-sought-after international cinematic honour, rightly or wrongly.

Altogether 67 countries sent in their entries for the single Best Foreign Film Oscar this year, and the winner among them will require not just outstanding quality but a lot of luck too, as jury decisions, as we all know, could by very fickle. So, maybe, Indians more often than not can have a real shot at the Oscars only thanks to an Attenborough here or a Boyle there, and quite clearly the realm of possible winners will always lie among technicians like Pookutty or creative crew like Rahman.

To be a Roberto Benigni, who walked off with a number of Oscars with his Italian La vita e Bella, which the whole world came to know as Life is Beautiful, it will require an overwhelming connect with cinema audiences globally, which Indian cinema does not seem to be able to make in the present juncture. We are yet to have our Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and the last one Indian film that was able to do that — Mira Nair’s Monsoon Wedding — had lost out to Lagaan at the FFI’s selection process itself.

(published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 22-02-2009)



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