“A big vindication for Indian cinema at large”: this is how cinematographer Anil Mehta describes the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ membership list for 2018. Mehta is among the 20 Indian film personalities invited this year to be a member of the academy that organises the annual Oscar awards. Also on the list, which was released on Monday, are Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee, Naseeruddin Shah, Shah Rukh Khan, Madhuri Dixit, Ali Fazal, Anil Kapoor and Tabu among the actors, producers Aditya Chopra and Guneet Monga, music composers Usha Khanna and Sneha Khanwalker, production designers Subroto Mukherjee and Amit Ray, costume designers Dolly Ahluwalia and Manish Malhotra, sound designers Biswadeep Chatterjee, Debajit Changmai, and editor Ballu Saluja.

“More than a personal achievement, I see this more like the Academy finally recognising that there are many nations and many types of cinemas – that there is a whole other world out there,” said Mehta, the only Indian cinematographer on the list. “It is a very good sign coming from the academy. America has generally been a nation that looks inwards. They’re finally looking outwards and are consciously making space for a whole universe of cinema.”

A record-setting 928 members from across the globe have been asked to swell the ranks of an organisation that has been criticised in recent years for being overwhelmingly white and male. In 2016, the Academy set up a diversity committee and fixed a goal to widen its membership by 2020. Among the Indian members in this committee is Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty.

The Indians invited to join the Academy includes actors who are familiar to American audiences through their appearances in international productions. Ali Fazal, the youngest Indian actor on the list, has been in For Here to Go, Furious 7 and Victoria and Abdul. “To one more step towards global cinema, towards one world, I am so happy the academy has diversified extensively over the past few years,” the 31-year-old actor said in a press statement. “And to include me in that prestigious list is in itself an honour for me and my country. I hope I serve well in the forthcoming years of entertainment. There are some heavy names out there on the list, so I am happy to share stage with them on this.”

Victoria and Abdul.

Another name that will be familiar in international film circles is Guneet Monga. Her credits as producer include Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which was an international breakout hit in 2013, and Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai, which was India’s Oscar entry in 2016. “I’m honoured to be recognised for my work and to be invited with the best in the world,” Monga said. “This moment means a lot and I’m simply grateful to be a member of the producers’ branch of the academy.”

A number of renowned Indian talents have been extended invitations. Production designer Subrata Mukherjee, who has worked with Amit Ray on Haider, Padmaavat and Raazi, said he was “speechless” when he heard the news. “It is a big honour for me,” Mukherjee said (Ray has also been invited). “I’m definitely going to fill up the [invitation] form and then let’s see after that. All of our films – across departments – are of international quality. This is a perfect time for this recognition.”

Sound designer Debajit Changmai, whose credits include Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, Raazi and Court, added that the move will amplify Indian cinema across the world. “For me, this is not about the Oscars,” Changmai said. “I’m counting this as a recognition of our films and our work. I come from Assam and never dreamed of coming this far – where my work is recognised by outsiders. Genuinely happy and honoured. I see this as a chance to see other people’s work and perhaps, that’ll help me grow as a technician.”

Who gets invited?

The list of Indians invited by the Academy is diverse, but not enough – it does not include any personalities from the southern film industries, for instance. The process of selecting invitees is long and arduous, and it is only a matter of time before more diversity is reflected within the Indian list as well, explained Resul Pookutty, who is a member of the diversity committee. Members in this committee are responsible for spotting potential members from their respective home countries.

“This year, I had submitted a few more names from the South like Mani [Ratnam] sir etc,” Pookutty said. “It is a very, very long process, and it is eventually the decision of the board of governors as to who they should take. We have managed to increase the overall diversity at the Oscars from 2% to 48% in just the last two years, which I think is a huge achievement.”

Pookutty’s role is to draw up a list of artists whom he believes should represent India at the Academy. When this list is ready, he introduces the work of the personalities he has chosen to the selection committee. Several rounds of discussions, paperwork and presentations follow. A shortlist is prepared, which is examined by the board of governors.

“This entire process takes close to eight to nine months,” Pookutty said. “Once the Oscar ceremony is over, we begin this exercise. So far, I’ve single-handedly handled this for India. This is the least I can do for a country and cinema that has given me so much.”

According to recently framed rules, the invite lasts for ten years rather than for life, as was previously the case. Each member pays a fee of $300 and has the right to vote across a range of categories, from governor elections within the respective committees to films that get nominated and win at the Oscars.

Members have the choice of voting or sitting it out. “As a member, it is ultimately up to you to decide to what extent you want to be involved in the academy’s activities,” Pookutty said. Membership comes up for renewal after ten years based on the member’s contribution.

“It’s like a US visa,” Pookutty joked. “If it is given to you, it is given to you for ten years.”

Hidden benefits

Being an Academy member does not automatically ensure an invite to the annual Oscar ceremony, as is widely believed. “I’m not sure any doors opened for me because of the academy membership – if they did, I didn’t know that was the reason,” said screenwriter and director Sooni Taraporevala, who became an Academy member in 2017 and exercised her vote before the Oscars, “But my bhav [status] did go up especially with non-film family and friends who thought it meant that I would be going for the Oscar ceremony and were very disappointed when I informed them that I was not.”

The Academy informs non-American members through email about screenings (which take place only in London, New York and Los Angeles), elections to various committees and Oscar award-related news. “This is one of the most disciplined, extremely well-organised organisations I have seen in my life,” said sound designer Amrit Pritam Dutta, who became a member in 2017. “You are well-informed about every activity that the academy is involved in. Then you are given a specialised Oscar card which gives you access to screenings i.e. if you are in America or London around the time of a screening, you can easily just walk in to the screenings. Else, you are sent DVDs of films which you can watch in the confines of a home theatre. This discipline and dedication in organising all of this is something I’d want to bring here in Indian associations.”

Could Hollywood’s famed professionalism and emphasis on technical excellence rub off on Indian professional bodies too in an entirely unintended consequence of Academy membership?

“Some of us, at our own individual levels, have been fighting for standardisation of, say, projection or digital cinema,” argued Anil Mehta, who has Lagaan, Highway and Beyond the Clouds to his credit. “Being a part of the different committees of the academy could help give us more weightage that we can leverage within the industry. Studios might listen to an international body like Society for Motion Picture and Television Engineers, which is a standards committee. I’m hoping that I can write to the chairman of SMPTE and ask if we can hold a seminar here to create awareness amongst our producers and distributors about say, what the projection standard for digital cinema should be.”

Beyond the Clouds (2018).