More often than not, these dreams remain just that – a fantasy of sorts. Last year in November, the Kolkata-based Film Federation of India announced that the Malayalam film Jallikattu, directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery, would be India’s official entry for the International Feature Film category at the upcoming 93rd Academy Awards. However, last week, it was reported that the film could not make the cut to the shortlist of 15 features, from which the final five films make it to the nominations.
In fact, India’s tryst with the Oscars began over 60 years ago when the Hindi film Mother India was nominated for Best Foreign Film in 1957. It would be another 30 years before an Indian film would find itself in the foreign film nominations, as Mira Nair’s gritty Salaam Bombay became a frontrunner in this category in 1988. The last time that a Made in India film made it to nominations was in 2001, when the crowd-pleasing Aamir Khan starrer Lagaan, was sent to the Oscars. The absence of nominations in no way diminishes the impact of Indian artistes on the global stage. To jog back memory, in 1983, Bhanu Athaiya made history by becoming the first Indian recipient of an Oscar (in Costume Design) for the British film Gandhi. In 1992, auteur Satyajit Ray was awarded an honorary Oscar, the only Indian to be bestowed the award. Since then, AR Rahman and Resul Pookutty were honoured with Oscars for their work on the international co-production Slumdog Millionaire (2009).
One of the reasons why Indian films have found it hard to breach the bastion of international film festivals, and the Oscars is due to concerns of artistic merit and relatability. The formulaic song and dance format coupled with melodramatic and romantic scenarios that are typical of Bollywood, and even the southern film industries, has often found itself at loggerheads with arthouse offerings that represented the idea of serious, grown-up filmmaking and eschews such rituals. Most Indian features that make it to the foreign film categories in festivals around the world are non-mainstream arthouse offerings.
But, in the case of the Oscars, whether Hollywood likes to admit it or not, musicals are more or less welcome, only if they’re made in America, a case in point being La La Land, or even The Sound of Music, Chicago or A Star is Born. It’s in this milieu of anglicised expectations that India was mindlessly tossing films such as Jeans, Devdas, Eklavya and Barfi at the Academy Awards, just to satisfy the requirement of having submitted an ‘official’ entry to Oscars, artistry and merit be damned. In 2011, the jury presiding over the 58th National Film Awards had suggested the winners of Best Film at the State-sponsored awards are only chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars. That happened only once, with the Marathi film Court in 2015.
It takes tremendous financial muscle, intense lobbying and influence to be able to get one’s film into the hands of an Oscar jury. Last year, the Korean sleeper hit Parasite, a biting commentary on the class divide, which had already won the top prize at Cannes, went on to rewrite history by becoming the first non-English language film to win the Best Picture title. Its director, Bong Joon-ho, in his acceptance speech thanked American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino, who had over the past decade, contributed to instilling curiosity and spreading the ‘word of mouth’ buzz around Joon-ho’s previous ventures as well.
Going forth, the challenge for Indian cinema will not be in pandering to Oscar sensibilities, but in developing a sense of pride in its own offerings. There are a billion stories worth telling in India, and we have the audiences to match that number too. It’s about time we started telling those stories.