The 89th Academy Awards just dropped curtains with the much-talked about goof (announcing a wrong name for the Best Picture); however, what remains customary is India’s lacklustre feat in the world’s most celebrated film award ceremony.
‘Moonlight’, an American drama, won the Oscars for Best Picture, whereas ‘The Salesman’, an Iranian film, directed by the legendary Asghar Farhadi, was honoured as the Best Foreign Language film. Indians watched the broadcast twice and mused over how the largest producer of films in the world has so little an impression on the global stage. Quite evidently, India’s rendezvous with this major film award ceremony is either a mirage of expectations or a repeated show of misrepresentation. It’s been almost nine decades of Academy Awards and India has managed just five. What makes Indian films weary of the race in the foreign films category for so long?
Indians with the Academy Awards
‘Gandhi’ won the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1983. Richard Attenborough’s film was co-produced by the National Film Development Corporation of India (NFDC) and this was the first taste of victory for an Indian, Bhanu Athaiya, for the Best Costume Design. The story remains self-explanatory since then. ‘Mother India’ by Mehboob Khan was nominated before this, in 1958, in the Best Foreign Language Film category, but, lost to Federico Fellini’s ‘Nights in Cabiria’ by a solitary vote. The same was the fate of ‘Salaam Bombay’, the Mira Nair film in 1989.
Satyajit Ray received the Honorary Award from the Academy in 1992 for his lifetime achievements towards the art of cinema.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s ‘Lagaan’, too, failed to clinch the grand prize after being nominated in 2002. Finally, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ happened and three Academy Awards came India’s way. Resul Pookutty received it for Best Sound Mixing while AR Rahman received the Oscars for Best Original Score and the Best Original Song.
Rejection vs. Misrepresentation
There is an archetypical clamour every year, where Indian filmmakers, critics, journalists and industry professionals talk about India’s poor run in the Oscars. It fizzes out in a week or sometimes the uproar lingers on for a month. What remains unaddressed is the ground reality. While most of the influencers think that India is lacking proper intent in sending the right film for the Best Foreign Film category and the country is misrepresented, there are theories that also support the rejection on the basis of judging principles. Let’s take a look at both the theories neutrally.
The Academy Awards, which have later got popular with the nickname of ‘Oscars’, have managed to create an ample blare around itself that makes it the most celebrated film award ceremony in the world. However, whether the ceremonious celebration of American films has the right aptitude to judge foreign language films, which typically show alternate cultures (non-American or non-European), is still quite debatable. It is observed that since 1947, the Best Foreign language Film Award has been won by European productions a whopping 56 times. The Asians won it six times, and thrice each by films from Africa and the Americas. The Academy tends to favour European films, with France leading the foreign language film nominations with 34 and having bagged nine Oscars, and Italy following with 27 nominations and 10 victories. There is a very austere reason behind this. Every other American filmmaker who made it big in Hollywood over the last five or six decades have drawn inspiration from Italian Neo-realism and the French New Wave cinema. No wonder, the member of the Academy falls in the same category. So, there is not much that an Indian can do apart from making a film that is purely woven with the authenticity of Indian culture and wait for the Academy to see through the philosophy.
The other component of the rejection theory is the misrepresentation. Yes, we have faltered time and again to send the best film to the Academy that can represent India as a whole. In 2013, Ritesh Batra’s film, ‘The Lunchbox’ was acclaimed in a number of prestigious film festivals, including Cannes. The film that India chose for the Oscars was ‘The Good Road’, a Gujarati film. It was followed by ‘Liar’s Dice’ in 2014, ‘Court’ in 2015 and ‘Interrogation’ in 2016. They all failed to grab the attention of the Academy jury. Now, the concern is that the Indian jury that decides the entry has been experimenting with the content, but, at times, falls prey to peer pressure in the industry. A lot of good films, which have the potential, fail to reach the specified inbox and India settles for a smile, looking at glitterati of the Oscars ceremony.
This year was positive. Dev Patel got a nomination for the Best Actor in a Supporting Role category for his film ‘Lion’. Although he lost it, there was some meat in the stories written about Indians making it big in the Oscars. Besides, Om Puri was remembered in an AV, which the Academy calls ‘In Memoriam’, paying tribute to the lost entertainers of the global film industry. Overall, the Academy Awards 2017 was a nice session of polished American drama, where they had ample opportunity to be sarcastic about their President and celebrate brotherhood beyond borders with a confluence of entertainment and elegance. Will India someday manage to make a mark on the Academy stage? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind…