It’s a clear case of sour grapes. A section of Bollywood tends to dismiss the Academy Awards as a Hollywood exercise that Indian cinema can live without. Sure, not winning an Oscar is not going to make a difference to the interface between popular Indian cinema and the masses that patronise it.
But winning one of those coveted statuettes could change the very way the world treats India as a filmmaking nation. It could help our film industry increase its share of the global pie from under one percent – yes, that is where Indian cinema stands at the current juncture – to a level far more substantial.
An Oscar would be a stamp of approval on the Bollywood label from the world’s most powerful movie industry. It is important to remember that Hollywood isn’t only about the U.S. – it is an industry that draws talent from all across the globe and while it is dominated primarily by market dynamics, the range of filmic expressions that emerge from within the major American studios and from quarters that exist outside of them is enormous.
The so-called Bollywood idiom is a much-abused entity. Despite the growing awareness around the world about its power and reach, it remains a fringe phenomenon, limited largely to Indian audiences. This idiom is a trap: while it does give our cinema its unique character, it saps it of the strength needed to stand tall on the global stage.
What does Bollywood need to do to leap out of its limitations and compete on an equal footing with cinema from around the world? Simply put, Indian filmmakers must concentrate on making films that are indigenous in spirit and substance, but universal in terms of style and emotional texturing. The greatest undoing of Indian cinema stems from its principal strength – the size of the movie-going Indian populace.
Because the domestic market and expatriate community is large enough to sustain mainstream Indian films, our filmmakers tend to be complacent, secure in the belief that they do not really need to tap into the global market for survival. That notion, in this era of globalisation, can only be suicidal. For an industry that thrives on numbers, insularity can never be a desirable goal to pursue.
So how can Indian cinema crack the Oscar code? Well, apart from selecting the right films to represent India, we also need to understand that culturally Indian audiences are far removed from filmgoers in the West.
For a majority of Indians, a trip to a movie hall is an excursion into an unreal world peopled by larger than life characters; it represents an act of escapism. In the West, especially in Europe, on the other hand, cinema is seen as a mirror that is held up to real life. Members of the Western movie-going tribe love their blockbusters all right, but they also love to see projections of themselves in their cinematic narratives.
Moreover, Indians relate instinctively to high-pitched, unabashed emotions; Western audiences have a taste for a low-key, inward-looking rendition of feelings. So even if an Indian filmmaker comes up with a great story, his narrative idiom, dominated by loud melodrama and extravagant musical set pieces, comes in the way of a non-Indian audience grasping the entire drift of the film. Even when an Indian film is cinematically rich, like Black, it fails to make an impact because of the shrillness of its drama.
If films like Lagaan and Monsoon Wedding struck a chord in the West, it was essentially because the emotions that lay at their heart rang true. Happily, an increasing number of Indian films are eschewing high-strung drama in favour of a more realistic mode of expressing emotions.
Take Nagesh Kukunoor’s Dor as a case in point. The story has immense emotional depth, but the director refrains from turning his narrative into an exercise in unbridled melodrama.
Dor, a true rarity given its rural Indian setting, is wonderfully consistent in its emotional pitching; the actors underplay their parts and the drama and the cinematography have a universal feel to them. Dor is just the sort of film that has the lightness that a film requires in order to travel forth into the world: it is purely Indian at heart but international in its core cinematic trappings.