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How an Indian Film can Win an Oscar

No more sprawling dunes of Rajasthan, please

Winning an Oscar- like any contest- requires strategy. Here’s how India can win the Best Foreign Film award

Lagaan Pscars Who dares win

Can we all agree that the Oscars matter? No, they don’t matter as an external validation of our home grown filmy industry. They also don’t matter as an arbiter of taste (these are of course the Awards that infamously decided that Crash was a better film than Brokeback Mountain). But they matter as a  part of a story, as rights to brag (Anil Kapoor is still high from having made it to the podium as part of the Slumdog Millionaire ensemble), as a technician’s life-long dream, and as a potential key to new markets. How many German movies did you seek out after The Lives of Others? And didn’t you spend hours Youtubing snippets of Paolo Sorrentini’s other work after the majesty of The Great Beauty?

We don’t need the Oscars for validation, but they could help introduce the majesty of Indian films to an otherwise uninterested viewer. And while the viewer may start with  a serious film, what is to stop him from navigating his way all the way to a Magadheera or an Ek tha Tiger? And that is why it is nearly silly to pretend they don’t matter at all.

It is a pity then that we get it wrong so often. If past history has taught us something; it is that the Foreign Film Award invariably goes to a film with a:

  1. Universal theme
  2. Enough cultural signifiers of its own country and culture
  3. Potentially world renowned director/ or actor
  4. A “western”-style narrative.

And just like any contest, to win is not so much the matter of sending our best film, as it is of sending a film which most closely hews to this template. That is why, even though we don’t enjoy admitting that Anurag Kashyap was right, we would much rather send Lunchbox (internationally renowned actor Irrfaan Khan, universally accessible love story, great Mumbai colour) over The Good Road in 2013. Or if we had to send a genuinely great movie we could send the brutal, stark Fandry.

But as a country we invariably sent a lavishly mounted piece with plenty of pageantry, or the latest Aamir Khan film. Here are just a few instances from the last few years when changing the film would have afforded the Indian film industry a better chance to bring an Oscar home.

2012: Replace Barfi! with Kahaani

We liked Barfi! just fine. But it wore its influences (from Buster Keaton to Ryan Gosling), a little too close to ever really be considered an original. It also had an overly long second half, marred by a dash too much melodrama.

Kahaani- in contrast- was slick, well acted and relentlessly surprising. Vidya Balan was enjoying international renown which culminated with a turn at the Cannes jury that year, and the ‘exoticism’ of Kolkata came as a jolt to the senses for both its Indian and international audiences.

2008:Replace Taare Zameen Par with Oye Lucky Lucky Oye

Has there ever been a film more overrated than TZP? A winsome lead performance by Darsheel Safary and inventive visuals gloss over a script so weak it could’ve been written by someone from Ekta Kapoor’s stable. Contrast it with the nuanced story telling of Oye Lucky Lucky Oye. There is the local colour of West Delhi, and the universal story of an expert conman. Helmed by Dibakar Banerjee- one of our few auteurs- the film has enough surreal and grounded touches to appeal to both those who are looking for ‘art’ and those who are looking for a good time. And in the lead female performances of Richa Chaddha and Neetu Chandra, the film has surprisingly interesting female characters (not that *cough* the Oscars care about that). But isn’t that a film more likely to appeal to those looking for a cinema with cross-over potential?

2007: Replace Eklavya with Naalu Pennungal

With Barfi! and Taare Zameen Par we understand the impulse of sending a film that breached the commercial and critical divide in India.  These movies may not be ideal but they appealed to a wide cross section of people and were both well made and entertaining. But what about a ponderous, overwrought film such as Eklavya- The Royal Guard? Surely, no one even in the selection board can claim to have “liked” the film?

Consider instead the Malayalam film Naalu Pennungal released in the same year. Directed by Adoor Gopalakrishnan ( a director of international renown), the film comprises of four vignettes about Malayali women from different walks of life. This is a famous director not known for his women characters or visual palette, experimenting with form. These are four tightly controlled performances (including one by Geethu Mohandas, director of this year’s submission Liar’s Dice) that are accessible to even those unfamiliar with the milieu or the language. Is it even a contest? 

2002 :Replace Devdas with Mr. and Mrs. Iyer or with nearly anything else

Devdas is all style over very little substance. Before we even get to the misogyny and the sheer unlikeability of the characters, let’s just admit how the film was strongly divisive even in India. The only people who liked it were those who liked either Shah Rukh Khan, Aishwarya Rai or Madhuri Dikshit. And even if Aishwarya Rai has significant recognition in America, that hasn’t made any of her films do well with either the critics of the masses there.

Mr. and Mrs. Iyer- in contrast- is a simple story ably told by adept performers. It is not a great film, but it is a film that translates easily and speaks to multiple experiences. The urban leads could be from Anytown, Anywhere and react in almost exactly the same way to those situations, but retain  a certain base “Indianness” that is hard to replicate. With the right advertising and marketing the film could potentially have been just as big a crossover hit as Monsoon Wedding or The Lunchbox.

And as for 2014, while we appreciate the inventiveness of Liar’s Dice, for our money, the most Oscar-ry of movies (and also, the nicest of movies) this year was Aankhon Dekhi.  And – what’s more- it did the presumptive Oscar favourite Birdman’s last scene before anyone saw Birdman. Wouldn’t it have been lovely to see it among the five nominees for Best Foreign Film tonight?

Agree/ Disagree? What kind of films do you think India should send to the Oscars? Or do you think it’s wrong to care? Tell us in the comments below.

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