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Foreign Oscar: A two-horse race?

Saibal Chatterjee contemplates why Paheli lost the Oscar race. The Nominees

india Updated: Feb 04, 2006 19:54 IST

Is anybody really surprised that Amol Palekar’s Paheli hasn’t made it to the list of nominees for the best foreign-language film Academy Award? The Shah Rukh Khan-Rani Mukherjee starrer, for all its colour, drama and visual sweep, was never within striking distance of the coveted Oscar shortlist of five entries.

The reason for its also-ran status was as much the film itself,it was a complete washout at the domestic box office,as the competition that it was up against. Consider the quality of some of the other films that missed out: Chinese master Chen Kaige’s period parable The Promise, Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf’s contemplative Sex and Philosophy (entered by Tajiskistan), Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s Palme d’Or-winning L’Enfant from Belgium, Bulgarian cinematographer-director Radoslav Spassov’s Stolen Eyes, and Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-Liang’s darkly erotic The Wayward Cloud.

And now run through the films that have actually been nominated: Cristina Comencini’s La Bestia Nel Cuore (Don’t Tell) from Italy, Christian Carion’s Joyeux Noel from France, Hany Abu-Assad’s Paradise Now from Palestine, Marc Rothemund’s Sophie Scholl – The Final Days from Germany and Gavin Hood’s Tsotsi from South Africa.

Paheli  for all its colour, drama and visual sweep, was never within striking distance of the coveted Oscar shortlist of five entries.

Not even the most optimistic apologist for Bollywood (to be fair, Palekar’s film isn’t a run-of-the-mill potboiler, but it still is too alien in terms of substance and form to appeal to Western audiences) could have expected


to break into a list of films of such obvious merit. Not that all the five foreign-language Oscar nominees are films that are outstanding in every respect, but each of them addresses a theme that has universal resonance.

A drama about a newly married Rajasthani village girl’s dilemma cloaked in Bollywood’s conventional narrative packaging stood no chance of scoring over a film that probes the minds of suicide bombers, an intense account of the last days of one of Germany’s best known anti-Nazi crusaders or the tale of humanism located in the heart of the most unlikely of places – a violent Johannesburg shantytown.

Two of the Oscar nominees in the foreign-language film category – Don’t Tell and Joyeux Noel – are good old melodramas designed to strike an emotional chord. While the Italian film, adapted from Comencini’s own novel, revolves around a young woman on the brink of motherhood who is haunted by memories of the paternal abuse she was subjected to as a child, the French nominee is a peace-preaching film set during the early wintry days of World War II when a temporary ceasefire takes effect as the spirit of Christmas sweeps through the battlefront.

Watchable films both but are Don’t Tell and Joyeux Noel really capable of cornering the votes of the members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences? The German contender, Sophie Scholl, a superbly crafted Nazi-era drama, is certainly in with a better chance because it deals more pointedly with the themes of freedom, commitment and valour.

The lengthy interrogation of the protagonist, an activist in an underground resistance movement in Munich, by a Nazi criminologist forms the crux of the tragic tale. Sophie Scholl is bolstered immeasurably by the wonderfully controlled performance by Julia Jentsch as a woman who has the courage of her conviction to go the whole hog with her political convictions.

But don’t be surprised if the foreign-language Oscar race this year turns out to be a two-horse race between ParadiseNow and Tsotsi. The South African film, based on a novel by Athol Fugard, follows the spiritual journey of a brutally violent boy from the mean streets who undergoes a transformation after he is inadvertently saddled with a baby following a botched car theft.

In an increasingly cynical world, this story of hope set in what is perhaps one of the most violent places on earth carries connotations that could effortlessly transcend geographical boundaries. No wonder Tsotsi won the audience award at the last Toronto International Film Festival.

Much the same could be said about the impact that the Golden Globe-winning Paradise Now might have on the voting members of the Academy. It is essentially a human drama that presents prospective suicide bombers as flesh and blood characters, as young men wracked by doubts and anxieties, as single-minded crusaders driven by a faith in a higher divine goal.

Paradise Now is the story of two friends who work for a West Bank terrorist outfit that is about to launch its first suicide mission in two years. Much of the taut film’s footage is devoted to the little acts that the two young men must perform as they buckle up for the job.

Tsotsi or Paradise Now? The latter has the edge.

First Published: Feb 05, 2006 18:00 IST