Well, this is an odd list! And it inspired me to do a bit of research on how these names are chosen and what it means and what the process is.
Here are the list of names from India (not Indian Americans like Kal Penn, but actual Indian industry folks) who were just announced as new members of the Academy of Motion Arts and Sciences:
Madhuri Dixit (actress)
Ali Faizal (actor)
Anil Kapoor (actor)
Shah Rukh Khan (actor)
Naseeruddin Shah (actor)
Dolly Ahluwalia (costume design)
Manish Malhotra (costume design)
Amit Ray (production designer)
Sneha Khanwalker (Background music composer)
Aditya Chopra (producer)
Bishwadeep Chatterjee (sound designer)
This is an odd list of names and it got me thinking about where these names came from, how were they the ones chosen. So I looked up how new members of the Academy are chosen, what is the process exactly.
Let me back up a little first. Years ago I took a graduate school seminar from a Hollywood producer. He wasn’t super powerful and important, but he had been involved in some critically successful films, he was a working producer who could give us a glimpse into how things really functioned (which is why the school had hired him). And when we were talking about the Academy, he mentioned that his wife had a co-worker, an executive assistant type, who was a member somehow. And she would take him there for lunch sometimes, it’s a really nice building and a nice place. Maybe he would arrange to join sometime, just for that perk.
For him, a white man who had an over 20 year career in Hollywood, that’s all the Academy was. A nice building with some cool perks, and if he put in a little effort, he could definitely join it. This is the advantage of being a white man, you can join these things without thinking about it.
Looking at the exact process of membership, I can see both why he was so casual about joining and why his wife’s executive assistant type co-worker was randomly a member. To become a member, you have to get two sponsors. Beyond that, the requirements vary slightly branch to branch, but they all come down to having been part of 4-6 recognizable films, or else one really really good film, or in some other way shown exceptional ability. Except for the two sponsors, these are very specious requirements that leave a lot of room for interpretation.
What that means is, if you are an executive assistant that everyone really likes because you are so nice when people show up for meetings with your boss, than your boss and one of his friends might “sponsor” you for membership as an “Executive”. And they just have to lean on a few people they know on the membership committee to broadly interpret the definition requirements. It’s easier than giving you a bonus and it doesn’t hurt anyone. Seemingly. After all, a nice hard working secretary is at least as qualified as anyone else.
And then there was my teacher, a white man with 20 years experience. He could easily find two member sponsors, and actually fit easily within the definition for the “producer” category. Absolutely he was qualified for membership.
The issue isn’t with who is qualified, any more than it is why whether or not Alia Bhatt will do a good job in Karan Johar’s next movie, it is with who is being left out. Because those same specious definitions that can let in anyone can also keep anyone out. For instance, a requirement that someone must “have standing in, and made contributions to, the motion picture industry that reflect the high standards of the Academy.” Well, what does that mean? It means whatever you want it to mean! If you don’t like someone, you reject them because they don’t “reflect the high standards”. Easy-peasy.
(If you wanted to keep Madhuri out, you could just say this song was undignified and didn’t reflect the high standards, and she would be out)
And what’s really insidious is that it isn’t even necessarily conscious. You don’t sit down and say “I am a racist and will make up a reason to reject all people of color because they don’t meet they high standards”. No, you look at the list of names, and you go “I know that guy, I know that guy, I know that guy, I don’t know that guy and yet somehow I have a vaguely bad feeling about him based on his name and the list of films he was associated with, I don’t think he is a good fit”.
That’s how the Academy was structured, to only bring in people you could trust. Only, it went from being a polyglot group of early film pioneers trying to keep out East Coast money and power, to a bunch of established people trying to keep out anyone new. Until the past two years, when in a massive organizational shift suddenly there was a top-down directive to bring in those new people, shake up the Academy.
But, and this is what I am thinking of as I look at this list of names, ultimately it is still about being able to find two sponsors and at least partially meet the requirements of membership. And also to accept the nomination for membership. Of course the Academy isn’t going to put out a list of who rejected them, but I have to wonder, looking at these names, who else they may have asked who turned them down.
Now, names! Actors first. Here are the requirements to join the Academy as an actor, along with the two member sponsors:
(a) have a minimum of three theatrical feature film credits, in all of which
the roles played were scripted roles, one of which was released in the past
five years, and all of which are of a caliber that reflect the high standards
of the Academy,
(b) have been nominated for an Academy Award in one of the acting categories,
(c) have, in the judgment of the Actors Branch Executive Committee,
otherwise achieved unique distinction, earned special merit or made an outstanding contribution as a motion picture actor.
Now, do you see where the stumbling block for bringing in a Hindi film actor is? Two blocks actually, first the sponsorships. You have to get to know two current members well enough to have them sponsor you. And once you get past that barrier, you have to convince the academy that your “weird” Hindi movies “are of a caliber that reflect the high standards of the Academy”.
It’s all about who you know, and subjective quality decisions. There is no way to win. Hindi film can be shut out indefinitely, if the Academy wanted to go that way. The only way for it to come in, is for their academy to decide to go out and hunt down people to sponsor, and for the board to decide that they are going to recognize Hindi productions, at all.
And so we have this odd group of actors added. Anil Kapoor, Tabu, Nawazuddin Siddiqui, and Ali Faizal, those all make sense. They have done cross over movies, they know people in Hollywood to sponsor them, and their cross over films alone almost get them to the “three screen credits” requirement.
(Of course, I know Ali from this, but I doubt it is one of the films he submitted. But maybe! The Academy seems open to it, at least this year)
But then we have Madhuri and Shahrukh. That’s something different. They don’t necessarily know anyone in Hollywood. They don’t necessarily NOT know anyone either, for instance Shahrukh worked closely with the Oscar winning and therefore Academy member make-up man on Fan, but they aren’t in the same kind of mixing and matching level as Ali and Anil and even Tabu and Nawazuddin. And they have nothing on their filmography that would necessarily meet the “three screen credits” requirement, not if the Academy decided it didn’t. And yet, they are new members.
What is the Academy getting out of this? Well, they are making valuable connections overseas. Shahrukh himself, Red Chillies is increasingly powerful. I don’t think Madhuri can do anything in particular for Hollywood. But the Ambanis can, they already bought DreamWorks and helped Spielberg finish Lincoln. And the Ambanis like it when Shahrukh gets things, it’s why Yale made him a Chubb fellow while their daughter was there. And Madhuri, she’s someone everyone likes, no one in India will be offended by her membership, might even be flattered, why not throw her in too?
But it’s the technical memberships that I start to get really interested in. Because those are much harder to get. The Academy has 1,218 actors as members, versus (for instance) only 128 costume designers. It’s not just that though, it’s that the technical area is where the Academy definitions start to vary the most from the Hindi film definitions. For instance, Make Up and Hair. If you are Shahrukh’s personal make-up man who was with him for 20 years until the day he died, does that mean you “have supervisory position on at least five theatrical feature films (at least three within the last seven years) of a caliber which, in the opinion of the executive committee, reflect the high standards of the Academy”? No, it probably doesn’t. You did Shahrukh’s make up, you didn’t do make-up for the whole film. And that’s a perfectly fine job structure for a film industry to have, personal make-up men and hair and everything else being part of a star’s team, but it doesn’t match the structure the Academy is expecting, they can’t make that work. Actors are actors everywhere, but nothing else on a film set is quite the same place to place.
And so 2 of those 128 costume designers are now from Hindi film. Because Dolly Ahluwalia and Manish Malhotra are definitely costume designers, according to the standards of the Academy. They aren’t some untrained “dressman” who runs off to sketchy tailor shops and has 20 party dresses run up for the heroine based on a picture in a magazine, they do “look books” and idea meetings and have assistants and design concepts and all those fancy things. Or to put it another way, they “have at least five years’ experience in the motion picture industry, and have screen credits as Costume Designer on at least four feature films of a caliber which, in the opinion of the executive committee, reflect the high standards of the Academy.”
(These guys are not who the Academy is looking for)
And then we come to Amit Ray. Now, he is fascinating! He is a “production designer” which is another one of those terms that doesn’t really fit with how a lot of Hindi films are made. If Rajamouli’s wife helped him figure out how the throne room should look while they were having dinner together, does that make her a “production designer”? What about Karan planning out how he wanted the Raichand mansion to look in K3G? Does that make him a director/production designer, or just a director who didn’t hire a production designer?
But I can look at Amit’s filmography and go “oh, yeah, that scans”. He did Padmaavat, and Udta Punjab and, most impressive to me, 24. 24 was really a ground up production design, it wasn’t like Padmaavat where you kind of through together a bunch of old historical images in a new way, it was something completely original. And separate from the director’s vision, the script had nothing specific in it requiring a steam punk aesthetic, that was all on Amit.
And then there are our two music people. Tricky one there. Because of course the most important music folks in Hindi film are the song composers. Who aren’t always the same as the people who do background music. But the Academy doesn’t have a category for that. And so Sneha Khanwalker, who only does background music, and Bishwadeep Chatterjee, who only does the sound designing, are getting in before, for instance, Pritam.
Finally, most importantly, producer! It is very very very hard to get admitted to the Academy as a producer. There’s a courtesy of giving people producer credits if they are the stars wife, or agent, or girlfriend, or whatever. And there’s the courtesy of giving people producer credits merely because they put up the money for the film and did nothing else. The Academy doesn’t want those people. It wants line producers, ones who were actually there helping during production.
The problem is, in Hindi film, you have the producers who are people’s wives and mothers. And you have producers who put up the money. And then you have directors. You don’t have many of that middle category, the ones who do more work than just putting up money, but less work than actually directing the film.
(And half the time the hands on kind of producer just turns into a director anyway, like Dinesh Vijan who went from producing for Saif’s company to directing Raabta.)
I was looking for Adi’s name to show up on this list, I actually skipped down to the directing category first looking for him there, but producer makes a lot more sense. Because that’s what he is, primarily, and he is exactly the producer the Academy is looking for. Hands on, but not too hands on.
He is also the person the Academy is looking for, and he is looking for them. Yash Raj opened up a Hollywood office ages ago. They are going after the American market HARD and have been for 2 decades. And they are going after Hollywood for real, looking for serious co-production possibilities. Adi wants those connections, he wants to be able to go to lunch at the Academy and rub shoulders with the people who matter. And if the Academy is looking for a way to make the Hindi market a little less aggressive, find a friend there, Adi is the friend they want.
Ultimately, that’s what this list is about. The Academy wants India. And they are doing whatever they need to do to get it. They are digging up members to sponsor Hindi film candidates, and they are ramming through their membership, using the open language to get them in instead of keeping them out.
The value of an Old Boy’s club isn’t in who you keep out, it’s in what happens when you let someone in. Adi is “theirs” now, and so is Shahrukh, and so is Manish Malhotra, and all the others. The scrappy upstarts have been giving a seat at the table, and the bet is that, now that they are there, they will calm down, go with the flow, support the establishment.
(That’s why in real life these kind of loud student activists often end up on the ticket or one of the major parties and suddenly turn boring and conciliatory instead of angry. It’s intoxicating, becoming part of the establishment, makes you forget who you used to be)
It’s already happening. Two costume designers got into the Academy. That means reverberations in India. More and more films are going to look for costume designers, official people with sketches and degrees, instead of casual friends of the stars. Or the star’s own people that they have brought in. But it also means, even before this, even without realizing it, Hindi film was looking West. They started changing how they were so that there could be costume designers, instead of just Gauri Khan picking out clothes for her husband. And they started making movies that had a distinctive “look” which required a production designer. And a professional cohesive sound that required a sound designer. The rough edges are getting worn down, the structures are shifting, it is all becoming very palatable, very professional, very American.
Or, maybe not. Notice that none of these names came from outside of the Hindi industry. And yet Bahubali 2 is the most successful Indian film in the history of the American box office. But, who could you invite in from that film? Prabhas, an actor who has been in only 2 movies in the past 5 years and fights more than he talks? Rajamouli, a messy type of director/production designer/writer/everything else? It’s not a movie that can fit in any of these neat little boxes and labels that Hollywood uses to keep people in their place, it’s not a movie that needs them.
So, that’s my thoughts on this whole thing. The Academy is bending over backward to get in Indian film people and even so they are still limited in who will fit within their definitions of what film professionals are. And they are bending over backward because they want to bring them in, they want those connections and they want to pluck out the fangs, just a little bit.
As for what I think might happen, well, the headline says it all. Aditya Chopra took over Hindi film before he was 25. What is going to happen now that he has an in with America?