When Marlon Brando won the Oscar in 1973 for portraying the don Vito Corleone in The Godfather, he rejected it in protest against the ‘poor treatment of Native Americans in the film industry’. Native American activist Sacheen Littlefeather went to the ceremony on Brando’s behalf and delivered a heartening speech in which he explained why the actor was declining the award.
Yesterday, 42 years later, singers Common and John Legend, while accepting their Oscar for the best original song for the historical drama Selma, voiced their concern for black Americans in prisons.
“We live in the most incarcerated country in the world,” Legend said about America. “There are more black men under correctional control today than were under slavery in 1850.”
Like Common and Legend, many winners at this year’s Oscars used the glittery ceremony to voice their concerns on issues which they feel strongly about. Analysing the mood at Dolby Theatre in Hollywood, many commentators have wondered if Sunday’s Oscars might be the most politically-charged ceremony ever, with a columnist in Salon saying that these political moments were ‘the sudden injection of meaning and power, in a meandering spectacle that otherwise had none’.
Patricia Arquette, who won the award for her role as the best supporting actress (Boyhood), spoke up for women’s rights and equal wages. Laura Poitras, director of the documentary Citizen Four (best documentary) based on the life of whistleblower Edward Snowden, took the opportunity to remind the world once again about the threat which mindless surveillance poses.
Apart from the rage on socio-political issues, most of the presentations—like Neil Patrick Harris' opening song, about the wonder of ‘moving pictures’(however the critics might poke him for a dull show)—was enthused with a motive to brighten up the evening with entertainment which is both meaningful and rational.
The Oscars, indeed, award the best in world cinema every year. But then, India is the world’s largest film producing country, with a good dose of serious cinema. Yet, our award ceremonies, most of them highly televised, fail to craft themselves in the sensible and classy way of the Oscars.
India’s film award ceremonies are dotted with innuendoes and digs in which political consciousness is completely missing. Never do we come across an Indian film awards show in which the biggies of our film industry put across a relevant socio-political message.
The entertainment quotient reflected in these award ceremonies crutch mainly on filmy acrobatic stage- performances by stars, which pander to the ‘lowest common denominator’ of its audience. The celebration at our award ceremonies focus mostly at the glamour and celebrity fanfare, just like most of our Bollywood films, with neither depth nor maturity.
A recent example is last month's Filmfare awards. It reached a whole new level in absurdity when actors Salman Khan and Siddharth Malhotra, director Karan Johar and comedian Kapil Sharma bit the skirt of actress Deepika Padukone and lifted it--all for a dance!
Rewind a few years ago, in another Filmfare award show, we had Neil Nitin Mukesh getting offended to a silly dig by Shahrukh Khan and Saif Ali Khan on Mukesh's name. In many such award ceremonies, the spat between the Khans become the centre of attraction rather than the films themselves. On another instance, couple of years ago, the directors Ashutosh Gowariker and Sajid Khan had a war of words. Gowariker took offence at Khan for making fun of the film fraternity.
On the one hand where the Oscars provide a platform to drive home certain voices in our ongoing societal debates, Indian award shows are nothing more than long hours of frivolous entertainment. No actor or director ever takes any stand on even an issue afflicting our culture, leave alone socio-political ones, in such shows.
Satyajit Ray might have said that films can’t change a society, but, nevertheless, they can and often do, put across significant socio-political messages. It’s not a calm, peaceful world where we can happily go on singing and dancing ever after. Film-makers and stars are celebrities with massive fan-following, and when they speak up regarding equal wages for women, racial violence or US hegemony it resonates much wider than when an editorial columnist does.
(Views expressed are personal)