“At every juncture of the film’s journey, we have felt that it has given us more than we could ever imagine,” said Chaitanya Tamhane, director of the movie that has been selected to represent India in the best foreign language category at the Oscars. Court was named from among 30 entries to compete at the Academy Awards, which will be held in early 2016.
“Once again, this has come as a genuine surprise to both Vivek and me,” Tamhane told Scroll.in. “Ever since we started making the film, we kept our expectations low. Especially in this case, since these results tend to be so unpredictable, it just felt like a wise thing to not expect too much. Now that it has actually happened, we would like to thank the jury for their decision and everyone who has supported the film so far.”
Written and directed by the first-time filmmaker, Court follows the never-ending trial of a balladeer who is accused of encouraging a municipal worker to commit suicide through his fiery songs. The multi-lingual arthouse drama, which is predominantly in Marathi, examines the Indian judicial system from the perspectives of the accused, the lawyer defending him, the public prosecutor, and the judge presiding over the case.
Court was chosen unanimously by a 16-member jury headed by veteran actor and filmmaker Amol Palekar. The panel is chosen every year by the Film Federation of India, and except for the chairperson, no other members are identified. The jury sifted through 30 entries, including Masaan, PK, Haider, Kaakaa Muttai and Baahubali.
Court has already won wide acclaim at home and abroad. It was premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2014, where it won the Lion of the Future Award for the best first feature as well as the top prize in the non-competitive Horizons category. Court also won the National Award for Best Feature Film at this year’s National Film Awards.
The movie’s cast includes its producer, Vivek Gomber, Marathi stage veteran Geetanjali Kulkarni, and Vira Sathidar, and it has been shot by Mrinal Desai and edited by Rikhav Desai. “We thought that we stood as good a chance as the others, and it will be interesting to see how the movie is received on the Oscar platform, which is a much more mainstream one,” said Court’s cinematographer, Mrinal Desai.
India has never won an Academy Award in the best foreign language movie category despite sending films across genres, narrative styles and languages. Indian entries in the past decade include Rang De Basanti, Peepli Live, Abu Son of Adam and Barfi! There has never been a consensus on the choice of the Indian entry. A-list producers from the leading film industries in Mumbai, Hyderabad and Chennai want the selection to reflect domestic box-office successes, directors in regional languages complain of a Bollywood bias, while indie filmmakers argue that their approach to cinema works best for foreign juries.
What it takes to win
Only three films have made it to the Oscar short list, which comprises five titles: Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan. There might have been a fourth title in 2013, when all bets were being made on Ritesh Batra’s epistolary romance The Lunchbox as the Indian nominee most likely to hold strong against international competition. However, the FFI jury that was headed by Goutam Ghose unanimously chose Gyan Correa’s arthouse drama The Good Road instead. The Lunchbox went on to become a critical and commercial darling the world over, and the FFI’s decision to send a representative Indian movie rather than a production that chimed with the tastes of American jurors was widely pilloried.
A hefty price tag is attached to the prestige of representing the country at the Oscars. It’s not enough to send an Indian movie with an internationalist outlook. The selected movie’s producers will need to take the battle all the way to Hollywood, and will have to spend on publicity and lobbying to ensure that their production gets noticed among the hefty competition.
India’s yearning for Oscar glory has been fulfilled by international productions. Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya is the first Indian to win an Academy Award for her work on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1982. Satyajit Ray got a Lifetime Achievement Oscar in 1992 a month before his demise. Danny Boyle’s Mumbai-set Slumdog Millionaire snagged Oscar gongs for music composer AR Rahman, sound designer Resul Pookutty and lyricist Gulzar.