Several filmmakers are in the middle of one of the most thankless jobs of the year – picking a movie to represent India in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars.
The movie is chosen by the Film Federation of India, one of the country’s major film trade bodies, from among entries sent by producers across the country. The process is clouded in secrecy to prevent corruption, influence and favouritism, and only the committee chairperson’s name is revealed. This year, Ketan Mehta heads the jury comprising 17-odd members. The submissions include Thithi, Sairat, Nil Battey Sannata, Udta Punjab, Visaranai and Neerja. The winner will be named by secret ballot mostly likely by September 23.
Like a gold medal at the Olympic Games, the foreign language film Oscar has proven to be maddeningly out of reach, and one of the culprits is faulty selection. India has had a reputation for sending entries that appeal more to locals than foreigners. A local hit or prestige production does not have the same resonance with American juries, and the general complaint that they “don’t get” Indian cinema ignores the uniqueness of our filmmaking idiom, especially its use of melodramatic elements, such as song digressions. Movies like Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Bajirao Mastani made a lot of money, but it is highly unlikely that they will click with the 6,000-plus members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.
In the foreign language category, Oscar juries usually pick accessible arthouse films with universal themes (Amour from Austria in 2012) or thoughtful and timely explorations of a country’s culture (A Separation from Iran in 2011). The movie that speaks for all of India as well as communicates with American selectors stands the best chance, but this choice is difficult to make in a country with so many languages, styles, themes and concerns.
Several countries have already handed in their entries: Brillante Mendoza’s Ma Rosa from the Philippines, Asghar Farhadi’s The Salesman from Iran (he previously won for A Separation), Pedro Almodovar’s Julieta from Spain, Pablo Larrain’s Neruda from Chile and Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann from Germany.
Rather than pushing our local filmmaking idiom down the throats of Academy voters who pick nine films for the short list, whittle it down to five nominees, and eventually choose the winner, it makes the most sense to send a film they might actually engage with beyond the first few minutes – a film that represents India but is also in sync with American and global storytelling.
The overall Oscar selection process is not fair or even scientific to begin with, and has come under immense scrutiny in recent years. The Academy has been accused of bias, insularity, racism, sexism and ageism in its overall selection. Anonymous testimonials by Academy selectors, such as the ones carried by the American trade publication Hollywood Reporter, reveal that sometimes, jurors make up their minds before even watching the films they are supposed to evaluate. A survey by the Los Angeles Times newspaper in 2014 revealed that the Academy is mostly white, male and above the age of 60.
The Academy has introduced greater diversity in its invite-only membership since the so-called Oscar So White campaign (the new members include Sharmila Tagore and Freida Pinto from India and Indian-origin filmmakers Deepa Mehta and Asif Kapadia), but when it comes to foreign language cinema, all the colours in the rainbow cannot help if the movie is of an unknown shade.
If the Indian entry can prove in its opening sequences that its narrative language is the same as the Chilean or the Italian submission, it is on firmer ground than a populist production that will appeal only to hardcore Bollywood fans. It stands to reason that an Indian movie that has gathered international festival buzz before its local release stands a better chance than the year’s blockbuster.
India’s previous selections include arthouse and populist cinema. We have sent Apur Sansar (1959), Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Saaransh (1984), Nayakan (1987), Bandit Queen (1994), Jeans (1998), Rang De Basanti (2006) and Peepli Live! (2010) over the years. Only Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957), Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan (2001) made it to the final five. They lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, Bille August’s Pelle the Conquerer and Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land respectively.
The one time we seemed close to entering the final list and even winning the coveted award was in 2013. Ritesh Batra’s debut feature The Lunchbox was released in India after charming the Cannes Film Festival and bagging Sony Pictures Classics as a distributor. Had the FFI jury headed by Goutam Ghose chosen The Lunchbox, the costs of mounting and maintaining the Oscar campaign between the nomination and the ceremony would have been borne by the powerful studio rather than the movie’s multiple smaller producers, including Sikhya Entertainment and National Film Development Corporation.
However, Ghose and his committee picked the NFDC production The Good Road instead. The ensuing protests raised questions about the FFI’s ability to understand how the Oscar selection process actually works. Even though The Good Road, a road movie by Gyan Correa, spoke the same arthouse language as other entries from around the world, The Lunchbox was a stronger bet that year because of its universal theme, the presence of the actor Irrfan (who is a familiar face in Hollywood), its wide distribution in the United States, and positive reviews from American critics. Even without being herded into a preview theatre to watch the nominations, it is likely that the Academy members would have watched or at least have heard of The Lunchbox.
In 2014 and 2015, FFI sent movies that represent Indian cinema’s international face – Liar’s Dice and Court. While neither film made it to the shortlist, they at least stood a chance of being accepted by Oscar members more than, say, Devdas (nominated in 2002) or Taare Zameen Par (nominated in 2008).
The game is weighted in any case in favour of producers and agents with deep pockets. It is not enough to be named as India’s official entry. Producers and filmmakers need to advertise in trade publications, spend on publicity, organise screenings, and ensure that at the very least, they get noticed, if not favourably viewed. A jury that has to watch films from around the world – 81 nominations were sent for the 2016 Oscars – is likely to lean towards titles that are already well-known.
When Aamir Khan’s production Lagaan was chosen as India’s entry in 2001, the typically meticulous actor decided that it wasn’t enough to sit in Mumbai and hope that the Academy would swoon over a 224-minute nationalistic period film about a sport that the average American knows little about. Khan mounted a month-long campaign in America. Although the film lost out to the more topical wartime satire No Man’s Land, Khan’s efforts gave Indian producers an idea of the costs involved in winning an Academy Award.
The danger of picking a movie that already has muscle is that independent cinema will lose out. Should the jurors select a title that already has its American media plan in place? Or should it name a film that will have to spend vast sums on getting noticed, but one that is more likely to resonate with Academy members?
The least FFI selectors can do is name a movie that not only represents the best of contemporary Indian cinema but also has a strong chance of engaging selectors beyond the trailer. Rather than sending what we consider to be a source of national pride, we need to send films that are so local they are also universal.