India At The Oscars Part II

In a previous entry, I looked at Indian presence at the Oscars over the past fifteen years or so. Slim pickings, as you can imagine. The famine continued this year, cool self aggrandizing ad from M. Night Shyamalan notwithstanding. "Why should Indians care about winning at the Oscars?," I hear you ask. Reasons about national pride and filmmakers' lifelong dreams aside, I would simply suggest it is good for business. Succeeding on such a global stage opens more doors and confers more visibility for the industry as a whole. Result? Beaucoup bucks and more smiles for Bollywood financiers than the entire back catalog of Govinda, Johnny Walker and Johnny Lever put togther. Hence, every year, the Indian newspapers flagellate themselves into a frenzy over this issue. A typical article from Rediff reads:

The Oscar nominations announcement for the 78th Academy Awards was certainly bad news for Bollywood film lovers and the Indian media.

After the announcement, a Google search of the word Paheli generated the following news headlines -- Paheli fails to get Oscar nomination (The Times of India), Paheli misses race for Oscars (The Hindu), Brokeback in, Paheli Out (Rediff) and even Paheli, Morning Raga out of the race for Oscars (Webindia 123).

Apparently, the expecation was that after Lagaan's nomination, the floodgates would open. Alas, that didn't turn out to be the case. The reactions for Devdas, India's entry the following year:

One committee member later said the following to this reporter: "We just didn't like it," he said referring to Devdas. "The girls were beautiful, but the story was out of whack. At least last year's one (Lagaan) had great humour. But (in Devdas) everybody was shouting and screaming. They weren't pleasant people."

Perhaps they had seen far too many tedious foreign language films that week, but nearly half of the 250 to 300 committee members reportedly walked out of Devdas' official screening during the intermission. That pretty much sealed the fate of Bansali's film.

And for Paheli:

A member of the Academy's foreign language film committee, contacted by this reporter after the January 31 Oscar nominations were announced, failed to recall details about Paheli.

"It didn't go down very well with the group," he said, on the condition that he would remain anonymous. "I can't remember why though."

The article tries to blame a lot of this on bad luck. Voters were, unfortunately, unable to remember much about Paheli after they had seen it. Similarly, Devdas wasn't handled as well as Lagaan which was shown on a Sunday afternoon and included a lunch intermission that mitigated its three and a half hour running time. Devdas was screened in the middle of the week - so poor Devdas continued to be denied even after his death.

Hogwash. Lagaan is a far superior film and one of the few gems to come out of Bollywood over the past couple of years. It fully deserved its success. As for the rest, here are some candid remarks from a member of the Academy's foreign language committee:

"We look at the films from the American point of view," the Academy's foreign language film committee member said. "What happens (in Bollywood films) is that in the middle of the scene suddenly (the actors) start jumping up and dancing and singing, which, to us, is ridiculous. When we see an Indian film and that happens, we don't know how to react to it. That's the problem."

He added that he was not suggesting that Bollywood filmmakers should change their filmmaking style. "Obviously, they are making the films for the Indian market and not for the American market."

From an Indian standpoint, film critic Raja Sen ("Why can't we win an Oscar?") opines:

ki : Is Indian cinema truly global in terms of standards? I mean, look at the production overseas and you see the difference

Raja Sen : No, we have a long way to go. It's not just budgets and production values, but we work on a very limited creative canvas as well. We need to explore different kinds of cinema, not typical box office-friendly fare.. but I think things are beginning to slowly change.. now if only we had some original stories.

As any follower of Indian films will tell you there is hope, however. Raja Sen, again:

NYSocial : Where do we think Indian Cinema is going ? Our producers just follow trends...comedy movies...shooting abroad..and all that. The basic creativity is missing. What do you think ?

Raja Sen : I know, but there is fast emerging the newly-branded culture of 'multiplex films'. Which means it is actually possible to make a tiny-budget film the way you want to, and keep it profitable. There are creative people in the industry, and they just need avenues to express themselves. I think things are getting better (despite the fact that mainstream films are getting worse and worse, like you said), and I'd like to be optimistic about Indian cinema's future.

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- March 15, 2006 7:43 PM // Bollywood , Film , India