In pursuit of Oscar

Why does an Oscar nomination hold so much weight for most Indian films?

Sonal Pandya

Every year around September, the debate around which Indian movie is being submitted to the Academy Awards for Best Foreign Film rises above cacophony. There are cinephile blog posts, numerous Twitter conversations and hundreds of words devoted in print and online as to who the deserving film should be. Once the choice is announced, it's either kudos or outrage.

Since 1957, India has been fairly regular in sending their films to the Academy even though there have been a few off years where no film was submitted. The Foreign Film category at the Oscars was only fully established in 1956; prior to that, the Academy handed out special or honorary awards to the films they felt deserving of the best foreign language films like The Bicycle Thief (1948) and Rashomon (1950). But in the very first year India started submitting its films, it won a nomination for Mehboob Khan's seminal classic Mother India (1957). After that only two other films have shared the same honour as Mother India, Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan (2001).

In 2013, the discussion got ugly when the presumed favorite, The Lunchbox (2013) was passed over for a little known Gujarati film, The Good Road (2013). The uproar on both sides was hard to ignore. The filmmakers felt the selection process needed to be revisited, while the selection committee demanded an apology, of course. Writer-director Ritesh Batra ended up issuing his apologies via a public letter. The incident caused producer Anurag Kashyap to leave social media, claiming in a passionate column, "I have realised that the community of independent filmmakers in India is essentially crabs in a basket; they cannot bear to see a film or a filmmaker do well."

The larger argument is that the odds of an Oscar nomination are stacked in favour of European art fares which highly appeal to the 91% white, 76% male demographic that makes up the Academy Awards. An occasional outlier like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) can win once in a blue moon, staying true to its cultural roots. We too have to persist that a Bollywood extravaganza complete with around six to seven songs will net us the golden guy. However, most of our recent selections have bucked that trend and are actually this new breed of 'festival films' based on realistic characters and situations. They largely contain few songs.

So what should it be? Should it be the mainstream Bollywood musical or the new wave of parallel independent features that have emerged to represent our cinema? Tom Bernard, co-president of Sony Pictures Classics might have an interesting theory on this. He said in an interview, "What India might be doing is nominating the best movie in India, but not the best in world cinema." The Indian film industry is one of the largest in the world, yet is dwarfed by the success that Hollywood enjoys globally. By sheer numbers alone, we beat every film industry in the world. In 2012, the Indian film industry produced 1,602 films, compared to 476 from USA and 745 from China. But in money matters, the number one film in the U.S., Star Wars: The Force Awakens, handily trounces last year's top Indian grosser Bajrangi Bhaijaan. It has made four times the amount of Bajrangi Bhaijaan does. India's biggest superstar alone cannot take a franchise film that traces its roots back to 1978.

Out of the thousand-odd films released in a year, only around 25 submit themselves up for consideration from all over India. The final film is chosen by a jury of about 20 or so industry insiders. That the insiders' choice will match the populous is a rarity. Over the years features from filmmakers Satyajit Ray to M.S. Sathyu to Mani Rathnam have been submitted and even passed over. Baffling choice have also been made, Henna (1991) and Jeans (1998) were the official submissions in the year of their release.

Last year, director Chaitanya Tamhane's Court, a quiet thought-provoking drama won over audiences at festivals before receiving a national release. There wasn't much discourse over this; everyone agreed this was a deserving film. But then in December, news came that Court failed to advance in the race for Oscar. From the 80 films submitted from countries around the world, only nine were deemed eligible to go ahead to the next round: an Oscar nomination.

With such unfair advantages and disadvantages, why do we fight so much for international recognition? Especially for an Oscar nomination and award. Master filmmakers like Alfred Hitchcock and Robert Altman have never won an Oscar. Instead they were bestowed honorary trophies after the fact. And it's not as if an Indian hasn't ever received the golden statuette. Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya became the first Indian to win an Oscar with her work on Richard Attenborough's Gandhi (1982). Legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray is the only Indian to receive an Honorary Academy Award in 1992 for his contributions to cinema. He received the Oscar in his hospital bed, 24 days before his death on 23 April.

And in 2008, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire, a movie filmed in India and based on a book by an Indian diplomat, swept the Academy Awards. Winning eight total statues, including those for its Indian crew, lyricist Gulzar, music composer A.R. Rahman and sound editor Resul Pookutty who were each honored for their work. Rahman, in his acceptance speech, famously included a dialogue from Deewaar (1975), "Mere paas maa hain" much to the delight of Hindi movie buffs around the world.

And despite being about Indian characters and shot in the country, most Indians didn't identify with Slumdog Millionaire. They viewed it as an outsider, a movie that won its accolades on the shoulders of its Indian-ness. Movies like Life of Pi (2012) and Gandhi are made by non-Indian directors and a large international crew, even though its central characters are Indian. We do not embrace these films as our own. On the other hand, in 2007, Deepa Mehta's final film of the Elements trilogy, Water, was nominated for Best Foreign Film from Canada. Due to the film's controversial setting on the widows of Varanasi, Mehta was not allowed to film in India and had to shot in Sri Lanka instead.

No Indian movie has ever won an Oscar and maybe that's just part of the eternal appeal. The pursuit of one of the highest honours of the cinematic world is a goal that most filmmakers want to achieve. Why should it be any different for Indian filmmakers? There are numerous awards handed out all year that each claim to be the 'only genuine award' for Indian cinema. But in one singular Indian awards show, three films can claim to win some kind of 'best film' honor, confusing the audience and placating its recipients. Maybe it's time to look inwards and fix the way we choose our awards. Then we won't look for constant outside validation.

Meanwhile, in January 2016, Rahul Thakkar, a software inventor, won the Academy's Sci-Tech Award alongside Richard Chuang for their “groundbreaking design” of the DreamWorks Animation Media Review System. Another software technician Cottalango Leon was also honoured for "the design, engineering and continuous development" on the Sony Pictures Imageworks itView technology with his colleagues Sam Richards and J. Roberts Ray. The achievements of these path-breaking Indians didn't get the recognition that an Indian film's Oscar nomination might receive. Which is a shame because their hard work is just as valid. Remember that next September when the furor over Oscar submission begins again.