Every year, there is a huge amount of press coverage in India about the Oscars, but what do the awards mean to the Indian film industry? Hollywood is the predominant form of global cinema hence its awards are the most important and command universal respect. However, one of the many unique features of the Indian film industry is that it produces a global form of cinema which is more popular than Hollywood at home and has a global reach. So why does it care so much about winning an Oscar? Why does recognition in the US mean so much?
That’s a complex question that is connected to many others. Why do Indian films not reach beyond the NRI audience in the West, including the US? Why have Hong Kong stars and directors moved to Hollywood and yet so few Indians have? Do we have to raise the cry, ‘Hum kisi se kam nahin’ when it’s an evident truth?
We should not forget that many Indians have done well in Hollywood. Gurinder Chadha, who is British but of Indian descent and loves Indian cinema, is working in Hollywood and she’s also one of the few women directors. Bhanu Athaiya won an Oscar in 1982 for costume design and one of the biggest awards of all — a Lifetime Achievement Special Oscar — was awarded to Satyajit Ray in 1992. Ray is regarded as one of the best directors cinema has ever seen, and the current issue of his entire oeuvre on DVD just proves how right this recognition is.
In other words, we’re not looking at the absence of India at the Oscars but at why no Indian film has won an Oscar. This raises the question of how the films are selected in India and how the Oscar judges decide on a winner. The Indian government appoints a selection committee to choose an entry for Best Foreign Film that cannot be in English. The committee has to select which kind of cinema and which language. The Indian selection committee’s choices are mostly from the more ‘realist’ mainstream cinema or from middle cinema.
It is striking that the three Indian films that were nominated (i.e., reached the final competition) include two mainstream films (Mother India and Lagaan; the third is Salaam Bombay!). I’m surprised that Guru Dutt’s films did not fare better, nor Mani Ratnam’s. Art cinema has to meet global standards which Ray and others set, but few do. In recent years, the serious Western critics have not rated Indian ‘art’ films highly and it is no good crying foul however great the directors regard themselves. There has been great Indian cinema of this kind — Ray and Ghatak are the obvious names but there are many others.
Language politics are a serious matter and the list of 25 official entries is dominated by Hindi with six Tamil films, one Telugu/English, one Malayalam, and one Marathi. I looked again for Bengali but didn’t see any. (I notice five star Kamal Haasan which is surely a matter for discussion elsewhere.)
The official entries were mostly decent films. So why did none of them win? The list of winners shows that France and Italy dominated through to the 1970s with movies that are now regarded as classics at the height of the new wave, with internationally recognised directors such as Fellini, Buñuel, de Sica, and Truffaut.
The 1980s show the coming of other Europeans such as Szabo, Wajda, and Bergman, and by the 1990s, there is a wider, though uneven, spread across other countries. Looking through the list, I’m not sure what defines a winner but there do not seem to be outrageous injustices or token political gestures, although it could be that we grew up on these films because of their Oscar success.
The years that India was nominated, highly acclaimed films won. In 1957 (Mother India), Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria (Le Notti di Cabiria) won and in 1988 (Salaam Bombay!) the competition included films by Svabo and Almodovar and the winner was Pelle the Conqueror (Pelle Erobreren). Lagaan had stiff competition in 2002 from Amelie as well as the winner, No Man’s Land.
I’m not able to say whether Rang De Basanti will do well or not. Was it the right selection? That I can’t say though there is stiff competition, with Almodovar and others in the running. I can ask some questions. Should the Indian committee aim to honour the best film or to win the Oscar? Should it try to make political decisions about which language and which kind of cinema to enter? I don’t know. However, I would like to see a brave decision. I suggest a big commercial success should be entered. Everyone I know has loved Lage Raho Munnabhai. Let’s see him at next year’s Oscars.
Meanwhile, we shouldn’t gripe too much about Indian filmmakers wanting to win Oscars. It’s only after winning awards that one can question their validity. Yet winning an Oscar isn’t the major issue facing the film industry today nor is recognition from Hollywood what the industry needs. I’m still going to enjoy it all, especially what to me is the essence of the Oscars. The frocks.
(Dwyer is a Reader in Indian Studies & Cinema, and Head of the Department of South Asia, SOAS. Her last book was 100 Bollywood Films)