CINEMA: ACADEMY AWARDS
Waiting For The Oscar
Why the world's most prolific film producing nation
is ignored at the world's most prestigious film awards
the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences watching Hum Saath Saath
Hain (HSSH), Sooraj Barjatya's three-hour-plus, annoyingly trite paean
to the joint family. Or Aditya Chopra's Mohabbatein, a tale of love and
longing set in a fantasy gurukul, where the principal is stern, the boys
frisky and the girls mostly undressed. A bad Bollywood joke? Actually
not. Both films were considered by the Indian selection committee as contenders
for the Academy's Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. After five days of
deliberation, Kamal Hasan's ambitious but fatally flawed epic, Hey Ram!,
was selected. It didn't make it even to the nomination stage.
Which is hardly surprising. The Indian film industry,
the largest movie producer in the world, has been sending films to the
Academy Awards since the early 1950s, managing to get nominated twice,
once for Mehboob Khan's classic, Mother India (1957) and 31 years later
for Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1988). Meanwhile, small nations like Mexico
and Belgium have managed five nominations each, while France has an astounding
31 nominations, including nine wins. This year, Taiwanese director Ang
Lee's martial arts masterpiece, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, a Mandarin-language
film, garnered 10 Oscar nominations.
|CLUELESS CONTENDERS: Still from
What hobbles the Indian film at the world's most
prestigious film awards? Too many things. To begin with, there's the standard
of the films produced. While the Indian film industry has made great technical
strides, the content is still abysmally infantile. Says director Rajeev
Menon: "Our writing is so cliched. Given their present quality, our
films have no chance at the Oscars."
Then there's the selection process. The mandate
for selecting India's entry has been given to the Film Federation of India
(FFI), an apex body of 34 film organisations. Each year, after being notified
by the academy, the FFI asks its concerned constituents-10 or 12 producers'
bodies-to nominate members for the central committee which meets in October
to pick a film in time for the academy's November deadline. This year's
committee was chaired by film producer and president of the South Indian
Film Chamber of Commerce,
A. Kothandaramaiah, and included Ajit Bhattacharya
and T.N. Janakiraman. Bollywood was represented by three producers. The
best known was Sushma Shiromanee, whose last film was the 1995 Ajay Devgan-Urmila
Matondkar starrer, Kanoon.
Of the 800-odd films released last year, 16 were
considered before Hey Ram!, with six votes, won. Says Kothandaramaiah:
"Invariably, there is a lack of good entries. If Hey Ram! was selected,
it was only because there was no competition." Says FFI secretary
Supran Sen: "There is absolutely no campaigning. It's a fair selection."
Perhaps. But as usually happens, between intention
and reality falls the shadow. Since the entire process requires about
a week's commitment, the busier filmmakers don't participate. The academy
does not foot the bill for the selection process, so associations have
to pay for their members' boarding and food. Not surprisingly, some bodies
don't even bother to send a representative-this year, the Association
of Motion Pictures and Television Producers headed by director Pehlaj
Of course, politicking, rife on film selection
boards (such as that of the National awards) also comes into play. Since
the country's various filmmaking centres are represented, regional biases
are unavoidable. Says Shiromanee: "Naturally, everyone wants their
kind of film to get selected." The result is that the best film doesn't
always make it, the one with the most clout does. Which explains why a
film like Jeans was India's official entry in 1998. And why our entries
over the past decade include Indian (1996) and Heena (1991).
Hey Ram! (2001)
The submissions also indicate that the judges
seem to have little idea of what might appeal to an international audience.
"My thought was that we should present our Indian culture abroad,"
says Shiromanee, "so a film like HSSH or Mohabbatein would be appropriate."
Actually, the opposite is true-India's song-and-dance narrative is largely
seen as exotic kitsch by the West. Says Uma d'Cunha, official programme
consultant, Toronto Film Festival: "Our preference is for commercial
films which the FFI is familiar with. But the perceptions of an Oscar
committee are very different from ours." Adds filmmaker Mani Ratnam:
"A lot of attention is focused on Indian cinema now, but we're not
producing international quality films."
Once an entry is submitted, there's hardly any provision for the next,
critical step-promotion. While the Oscars have a stringently audited voting
process, there is intense lobbying for nominations and awards. In 1998,
production house Miramax came under heavy criticism for spending millions
of dollars on promoting Shakespeare in Love. But the aggressive campaign
worked-the movie won Best Film over Steven Speilberg's Saving Private
Ryan. Indian producers have neither the funds nor the marketing savvy
for the fight. "Let's just admit that we are not an industry,"
says director Dev Benegal, "We're just a bunch of people with haath-gaadis
(hand carts) selling channa, chole and hoping someone will pick something
Is there a solution? Some makers argue that
changing the selection process might help, but, as Film Producers Guild
of India Vice-President Amit Khanna points out, any democratic process
is, by its very nature, flawed. "Any jury's selection is prone to
criticism," he says. "But if the people who matter don't participate,
they don't have the right to complain either." Exactly. Until active
filmmakers take the selection process more seriously, India will continue
its losing streak. And the Oscar, like Godot, will never come.