Indian films in Oscar: Hope still lingers

A simple Indian story became Danny Boyle’s and Slumdog Millionnaire’s passport to four Golden Globe awards and ten nominations at the 2009 Oscars.

Directed by a Hollywood Director, Slumdog, is all set to create history for India, especially when India’s official entry this year, Taare Zameen Par hasn’t even made it to the nominations.

India started sending its official entries in the Best Foreign Language category in the Oscars in 1956. But only three films made it to even the final nominations. These were, Mother India (1956), Salaam Bombay (1988) and Lagaan (2001). But none of these were able to earn India the prestigious award.

Neither the gritty realism nor the fantasy flight of the Indian filmmaker was able to lure the European jury at the Academy Awards.

Wrong choice of films

The subject has been seeped in controversy from the beginning. Most critics blame indiscretion in the choice of films that were sent to the Awards.

For instance in the year 2001, India’s official entry for the Best Foreign Language film was Lagaan. It was a film loaded with songs, dance and cricket (India’s craze). The other competing work included movies such as No man’s Land, Amélie, Son of The Bride and Elling.

It was No Man’s Land, a film about and Bosnian soldiers trapped together in a war situation that won the honours for being the Best Foreign film. In sharp contrast to Lagaan’s epic scale, length, and drama, No Man’s Land was a short, contemporary film which portrayed brutality and harsh reality. The cause for loss, as many believed, was the strict confinement of the film and its vision to India.

Veteran actress and former Chairperson of Censor Board, Sharmila Tagore opines that Indian mainstream cinema does not appeal to the western jury and audience because they are “culture specific”. Sharmila however believes that the grammar of Indian film making is very different from Hollywood. The incorporation of songs and dance in the film makes it far from reality for a westerner.

In 1955, critics at New York left the theatre mid-screening saying they were repulsed seeing people licking their fingers in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, based on the classic Bengali novel by Bibhutibhushan Bandopadhyay. It was at this time that many from the Indian film fraternity including actress Nargis Dutt alleged that Satyajit Ray had harshly ‘exported images of India’s poverty for foreign audiences’.

While one school of thought is rather smug in declaring that the Europeans are plain simple biased and that is purely the reason why Indian keeps losing this race, contemporaries like Tagore feel that the race for the Oscar Award is “pure competition, just like Olympics in sports.”

Even a movie like Pather Panchali, that was slammed by some critics within the country and abroad, won as many as 11 international awards, including the Best Human Document at Cannes in 1956 due to its use of symbolism and simplistic storyline.

“Good cinema is always rewarded,” adds Sharmila Tagore.

According to Indian film critic, Saibal Chatterjee, “Mainstream Indian cinema, with its song and dance idiom, is a world apart. It’s usually too remote for the members of the Academy. The three Indian films that have so far been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar — Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan — managed to connect with the Academy but lost out in the final reckoning. More often than not, India sends the wrong film to the Oscars.”

If realism is the mantra to win an Oscar, what makes Slumdog Millionaire, a pure fantasy, to garner nominations in ten categories?

“Actually Slumdog has ended up doing infinitely more for Bollywood than any Bollywood film has ever done. Danny Boyle is a master, and so is cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle. It is their magic that you see on the screen. Though the film is set entirely in Mumbai and is a Bollywoodian rags-to-riches fantasy, it is shot and edited in a style that is far removed from the average Bollywood filmmaking template,” he added.

Doea Slumdog Milllionaire really represent India?

When the entire nation is euphoric about Slumdog’s nomination in Oscar, there are certain classes of people who claim that there is nothing to be so exulted about. Apart from the cast, Co-Director Loveleen Tandan, Music Director A R Rahman and the Vikas Swarup’s novel Q and A, the movie’s location, Mumbai’s sprawling Dharavi shanty town, the Director, Cinematographer etc are all British.

While many have gone ahead and called the film, poverty porn straight out of India, critics are quick to refute such claims. “Despite being a “British film”, India is the subject of the film. The music is by AR Rahman and the entire cast is India. Also, if Rahman wins an award, it will be a matter of immense pride,” says Sharmila Tagore.

Film Critic Saibal Chatterjee says, “Slumdog is essentially a British film that tells an Indian story. It will definitely win a clutch of Oscars and in the bargain give the Indian technicians who worked on the film well-deserved global exposure.”

Losing the Oscar race every time, India has set all its hopes on Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. But surely there has to be some effort made by the Indian film makers to set a new era of film making, churning out classy indigenous films, giving tough chase to the foreign competitors. Just ‘hope’ and ‘hype’ cannot do it all.


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