Oscar time again! And once again, I have seen basically none of the nominees. And I especially haven’t seen the foreign film nominees. And nor has anyone else. I don’t mean that they don’t play widely in America, for the most part the kind of films that get an Oscar nomination do pretty well in the art theaters around the country. But they don’t play around the world. Hollywood, Hong Kong, and India are objectively and demonstrability the most watched film industries in the world (with maybe Korea and Nigeria just barely beginning to give them a run for their money), and only one of them ever makes it to the Academy Awards. But I actually think there are some reasonable reasons for that. Not good, but reasonable.
(Mother India is, of course, the closest India has ever come to wining. Lost by a hair to Nights in Cabiria. Stupid Fellini)
First, the Oscars are supposed to help recognize excellent work, maybe work that wouldn’t be known or popular otherwise. Of course, they don’t always (or often) do that, but with that goal in mind, I can see justification for focusing on films from film industries that actually need the help, like Iran, instead of industries that are doing just fine, like India.
Second, the Oscars are essentially American, no matter how much they liked to pretend they are for everybody. I mean, there is a massive international audience spread out among other countries paying attention to them, but EVERYBODY in America watches them, every single person, and that’s the audience that matters, that’s the audience the Foreign Film choices are picked for. And, weirdly, art-y films from Iran actually have a greater penetration into American culture, than the fantastically popular films from Hong Kong or India that play everywhere else in the world.
Third, the “Academy” is made up of craftspeople trained in Hollywood filming techniques. Where as an industry like India or Hong Kong has its own training system and techniques and a whole bunch of other things that just don’t translate in a way that the Hollywood filmmakers can understand. In some ways being so educated in film is actually preventing them from appreciating kinds of film that are outside of their experience.
But fourth, and most importantly, India really really just does not care about the Oscars! And why the heck should they? They have the biggest audience in the world, and the biggest profit margin. They have their own awards shows which don’t just rival the Oscars for spectacle and audience, but beat them. All the Oscars would give them is some vague international artistic legitimacy, but can you take that to the bank? (I mean yes, you can, there is a definite box office bump for every Oscar film. But it’s not a bump worth chasing if it means losing your built in audience who likes big Star features and funky continuity and obscure meta-references.)
This year the Committee in charge of India’s submission selected Court, which is fine, it sounds like an interesting art film in the Hollywood rather than Indian style. But there are plenty of other films just like Court from all over the world, so of course it wasn’t chosen by the Academy, because it’s nothing special to them. But Court is the kind of thing the Indian film festivals liked, and it did okay in global fests and, most importantly, it won’t get the Committee in trouble for accidentally insulting an industry bigwig, or supporting a controversial political stand. Which seems to be their usual goal, just find something generally unobjectionable, send it in, and forget about it.
The only nomination India has gotten in recent memory is for Lagaan. It managed to be West-friendly (synchronized sound used during production, big historic epic plot, lots of those “colors” everyone talks about) at the same time it still high-lighted what makes Indian films “different” (Rahman did the songs, Aamir blasted his star power over everything, lots of subplots and side-stories). There hasn’t been a film like Lagaan since then, but I think there were plenty that came close, only the Indian selection committee just doesn’t realize it. They keep chasing the perfect “Art” film, without realizing that the real “art” is going on in the popular industries and they just aren’t seeing it. Or they are seeing it, but they are too spooked to select it.
Let me give an example In 2003, the Committee didn’t even select a film, because they didn’t feel anything produced in India that year was Oscar worthy. Now, here are ten movies from that year that I think would have been excellent candidates, both in terms of quality and viability (in alphabetical order):
1. Baghban: Amazing performances by Amitabh and Hema Malini, and the Oscars are suckers for the old lover stories (see Charlotte Rampling’s nomination this year). Plus, sequences like this are legitimately beautiful and unique and what makes Indian film into something special:
2. The Hero: Love Story of a Spy: I liked this movie so much, I even did a full summary of it! More importantly, it had international level action sequences and was very much not what people think of when they think “Indian film”. Heck, they nominated Mad Max this year, maybe they would have considered The Hero: Love Story of a Spy. I would have liked it to have a shot, just to force Academy voters to watch it and open their minds to a different kind of Indian movie hero.
3. Jhankaar Beats: Clever script, “realistic” characters, but still deeply grounded in Indian film history and style. It’s kind of fallen out of fashion in recent years, but it is really really good! Really! The sort of clever lowkey comedy that can be a surprise winner at the awards, like Sideways, which won best screenplay just a year later in 2004.
(Here, just watch the whole thing!)
4. Kal Ho Na Ho: Brilliant 4th wall breaking, unusual editing; The Big Short, basically, but a love story about suicide and religious/regional conflict instead of a period piece about money. Plus, it brings in peak Indian star power and Song Power.
(admire the editing and camera work here. That’s not just Hollywood level visual storytelling, that’s better than Hollywood)
5. LOC Kargil: Another one I liked well enough to post on. Plus, it’s “based on a true story”, which is always Oscar bait, it also has huge battle scenes and a stacked cast. Do you know how many big battle scenes from real life war movies have won or been nominated for Oscars? The Hurt Locker, Saving Private Ryan, American Sniper, and on and on. And this one is all tied together with brief character moments and song snatches like only India can do.
6. Munna Bhai MBBS: Congrats again Sanjay! So happy you are out of jail! But, back to this, it is a remarkably Hollywood kind of plot, so much so that there were rumors for years that Chris Rock was remaking it (I would still love that, by the way). And, this years exclusion of Concussion aside, the Academy loves medical dramas! But at the same time, it is all based on a phenomenal performance by Sanjay that is built on his uniquely Indian loveable little bad boy persona.
(I love how they work around his complete inability to dance)
7. Pinjar: Seriously, Committee? Freaking PINJAR wasn’t considered good enough? It’s one of those movies, like Neerja, that people can barely talk about without crying, plus a career best performance from Urmila Matondkar, and dealing with a vital and forgotten part of history. It’s like Room, but with songs and historical relevance! Or Brooklyn, but with a more complicated love triangle!
8. Tehzeeb: Speaking of career best Urmila performances…. Boy, that was a good year for her! And Tehzeeb is an even better Oscar pick. It’s like Pinjar, but slightly less of a political hot potato, and slightly less emotionally devastating, and songs by Rahman, and the plot is all about family drama among artists, which the Oscars looooooooove (Even so-so Trumbo got a nomination this year for best actor). Also, Arjun Rampal is really hot.
9. Tere Naam: I just saw this for the first time recently and man, it is GOOD! Salman actually acts, Bhoomika Chawla is adorable, and it has this whole tortured mentally disabled thing going for it to help with the Oscars. I don’t think I need to provide an example of mental health/disability based Oscar winners, do I? It’s just accepted at this point, right?
10. Dhund: The Fog: This is a terrible terrible movie. Words cannot convey properly the badness of this film. But! It stars Irrfan Khan! And the Oscars love Irrfan Khan! If the Committee had a time machine in 2003 and could go forward ten years to see the reaction to Life of Pi, they definitely would have submitted it. Or rather, they wouldn’t have, because they don’t want to actually win, they just want to submit something that won’t ruffle too many feathers back home.
And to take the taste of that out of your mouth, here is the other awesome song from Tehzeeb (so HOT! So much hotter than Bryan Cranston in Trumbo!):