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You still don't get the picture

A blank at Oscars again? Maybe we send all the wrong movies for a jury dekho, writes Udita Jhunjhunwala.

india Updated: Feb 07, 2006 14:31 IST

So you're the kind of person who's smelt a conspiracy when it comes to Paheli not getting nominated for the Oscars this year.

You clearly think that the Oscars jury has an agenda in mind — the agenda of keeping Bollywood films away from the golden statuette. And yet, you didn't really sit down and try to figure out why the Oscars seem to be 'partial' against desi cinema, have you?

Well, for starters, there are the movies themselves. Only three Indian films have made the grade in the Best Foreign Film category since the world's premiere film awards included a Best Foreign Film category in 1956. (Pather Panchali, released a year before, would have most probably made the grade.)

This year, matters became more grave even before the nomination list was announced.

This was the desi list the jury had to choose from the last few times: Paheli this year, Shwaas last year, Devdas before that... and many other unholy selections before that. Worth Oscar nominations? I don't think so.

Now let's consider the films that did make it to the final selection for Best Foreign Film: Mother India in 1957, Salaam Bombay in 1988 and Lagaan in 2001.

All these three films are loaded with a strong story and a rich unobtrusive cultural commentary without tom-tomming their Indianness and playing posterboys for Indian Tourism.

They address historical, societal and political issues without excess rumination and with conviction and complete commitment to the craft of storytelling.

They spoke of the struggle of the underdog and sensitively portrayed human resistance and strength — good, old values served up well in the cinematic medium.

From a country with a century long history of filmmaking and that boasts being the largest producer of movies in the world, it does seem odd that we aren't able to compete with the rest of the world on the same playing field.

If a German, South African, Mexican and Palestinian can do it, why can't an Indian director find himself or herself up on the podium with a statue of Oscar in his or her hand?

Well, the answer to that lies within our borders.

We are all too forgiving of mediocrity. We don't take a stand against works that are unoriginal — especially when they are glossed up, have our top actors acting in them and are directed by celebrated mavericks.

To make matters worse, we apply the wrong parameters for judging our films. These parameters range from lobbying powers -- that be to portraying Indian exotica as if all Indian movies were promotions for Brand India for the consumption of foreign participants at Davos.

We forget that the power of the story and the values of production are far more important than the hype and the hoopla that accompanies the Big Budget-but moronic film.

Consider the international films in contention for the Academy Awards this year.

In Tsotsi (Thug), from South Africa, the protagonist faces a struggle between a life of crime and making the right choices after he kidnaps a baby during a car-jacking. Paradise Now, from Palestine, is the tale of what drives men to become suicide bombers.

In Joyeux Noel, from France, British, French and German soldiers during World War I call a truce on Christmas and celebrate the day together before resuming battle.

Don't Tell, from Italy, is the story of a woman whose reawakened memories from childhood cause her to seek out her brother in the US, where she uncovers a painful family secret.

Sophie Scholl, from Germany, is the true story of a young woman who helps lead an underground resistance movement during World War II.

Anyone notice the common thread running through all these films?

Noel De Souza, a Los Angeles-based journalist and member of the Hollywood Foreign Press Association that hosts the Golden Globes, says of India's inability to make the cut: "My take is that India should send more meaningful films and not films that they think represent the country. I think Black was much touted, but that was a rehash of an American film.

"This year's entry (Paheli) was not very unusual. India has to submit films that people can relate to, more topical subjects. Waves are good, they get people talking and word gets around."

De Souza suggests Page 3 might have been a better choice. His insight is that the mistake made by those who select the film for submission is that "they think that the film should reflect the culture of the land instead of submitting something that will provoke. Lagaan was the underdog winning and should have been a good watermark to go by. It's all a crap shoot anyway, but more attention needs to be paid to good, thought provoking films that are masterfully done."

On the importance of lobbying, De Souza says, "You can spend all the money you want on campaigns, but if the film does not stir, forget it. Tsotsi shows the life of a guy in the slums and when he wins in the end, the audience is moved. It does not reflect the culture of the land."

The truth is that we don't really need international recognition to tell us whether our films are worthy of awards and rewards. But it helps to know what sort of films are being made and feted here, and made and feted elsewhere.

And it can't harm us to know that maybe the bar needs to be raised a tag higher and that producers and writers could -— possibly -— think of coming up with original stories to make movies out of.