Lights, Camera, Conversation… “And the Oscar doesn’t go to…”

Some thoughts on cricket and baseball and the movies we send out for Best Foreign Film consideration.

So the powers that be chose The Good Road over The Lunchbox, and Twitter exploded. I thought, first, that this was an overreaction. (Then again, what’s Twitter for if not overreacting?) After all, isn’t this the same system that decided, one year, that Jeans stood a chance? (Even if the politically correct musical-chairs system were at work that year, wherein it was Tamil cinema’s turn to come up with the nominee, wasn’t Santosh Sivan’s The Terrorist a better choice?) I looked up the Wikipedia entry that lists our submissions over the year, expecting many more such gaffes – but I was pleasantly surprised. It isn’t an altogether terrible list. The first five Indian films sent to the Oscars were Mother India, Madhumati, Apur Sansar, Sahib Bibi Aur Ghulam and Mahanagar. They’re all good films, well-regarded films, made with passion and conviction. Some of them even show up in the “Best Films of All Time” lists that Indian magazines are so fond of publishing. An Indian jury would have no problem voting for any of them.

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The question, though, is whether they’re good films in the eyes of the Oscar voting committee, which is a little like asking a nation of baseball players to officiate a cricket match. They may vaguely know the rules. They may be able to see that the play is somewhat similar, involving a bat, a ball, and lots of running. But push aside these surface similarities and there’s not much in common. The language that our films speak – not the language that the characters speak, but our filmic language – is cricket to the rest-of-the-world’s baseball. So if we are to compete in a baseball-playing nation for a prize that’s routinely given to baseball players, then we should learn to play baseball. Because there are no cricket scouts out there – only baseball scouts, ever on the lookout for new baseball players, local or foreign, and if you don’t catch their eye, you don’t stand a chance of getting into the big leagues.

From that list of films, only Apur Sansar and Mahanagar – both by Satyajit Ray – are “baseball movies,” speaking a universal filmic language (or at least, a language familiar to American viewers and Oscar voters). These are films that can play anywhere in the world, with very little that’s lost in translation. And the saris and the bindis and the dhotis and the quaint traditions only end up enhancing the appeal of these films – they speak a universal language, and yet, these specifics root them in a particular culture. They’re global enough to be understood by art-house audiences everywhere, yet they’re “foreign” enough – they can turn out to be contenders in the Best Foreign Film category, alongside films from Japan and Argentina and Russia. And we’ve sent quite a few of these films over the years: Garm Hava, Manthan, Shatranj Ke Khilari, Salaam Bombay! (which won a nomination), Bandit Queen, Earth, Hey Ram, Shwaas, Harishchandrachi Factory, Peepli (Live) and Adaminte Makan Abu.

The point, here, isn’t whether these are great films, but whether these are films made in a way that won’t put off the typical Oscar voter, who is American, and who will be flooded with thousands of DVDs during Oscar season, and who just won’t have the time or the inclination to learn the rules of a new game. The films that defeat this line of reasoning are Mother India and Lagaan (a “cricket movie” if there ever was one), both of which found a place in the final five in the Best Foreign Film category. Both are very long films, filled with songs and very Indian melodramatic constructs, and you’d think that a baseball player just wouldn’t bother with them. But maybe there was something universal in them after all. Mother India wasn’t all that far removed from The Good Earth, and Lagaan, boiled to its essence, is a rousing David-Goliath story.

And films that do not have these universal elements – simple entertainers like Jeans or the Sivaji Ganesan tearjerker Deiva Magan (which, incredibly enough, was nominated in 1969) or Devdas or Paheli or the Vyjayanthimala dance-epic Amrapali – don’t stand a chance. But even these universal elements aren’t always enough. It’s naïve to think that the Oscars are just about quality, about how good (however subjective that qualifier is) a film is. They’re about taking out expensive “For Your Consideration” ads in trade publications in the months leading to the announcement of the nominations. They’re about lobbying and convincing voters to watch the film and vote for it. They’re about recognizing realities like, say, a film by a big-name director (like Ray, who was championed by major American critics) will stand a better chance of cutting through the Oscar-season clutter. I will be thrilled if The Good Road scores a home run, but I also wonder what chance this little movie has of American viewers watching it when most Indian viewers haven’t.

Lights, Camera, Conversation… is a weekly dose of cud-chewing over what Satyajit Ray called Our Films Their Films. An edited version of this piece can be found here.

Copyright ©2013 The Hindu. This article may not be reproduced in its entirety without permission. A link to this URL, instead, would be appreciated.

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24 thoughts on “Lights, Camera, Conversation… “And the Oscar doesn’t go to…”

  1. Just one correction on facts. Bandit Queen could not be sent, as it got wrangled in legal troubles. If it was sent, it had a very good chance of making it to the Top 5 that year.

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  2. As an American resident, I would like to watch ‘The Good Road'; yet to find a release here. On that matter, yet to find an American release for ‘Ship of Theseus’ – Indian promoters lump the entire NRI market as gaudy,melodrama lovers and couldn’t be further from the truth. There is a market for intelligent ‘talkie’ movies in US and NRI’s don’t necessarily beam with pride in seeing Lagaan as an Oscar nominee (tallest hobbit at best). Haven’t seen ‘Lunchbox’ either but am glad it isn’t nominated – just because some Bollywood elites deem it a Oscar contender, doesn’t amount to a ‘hill of beans'; juxtaposed to their own insipid celluloid offerings, of course, hail the one eyed king of the aandhas. Almost like Subhash Ghai griping that his ‘ILU ILU’ song should have been nominated instead of the one from Lekin – what a ‘silli silli’ question, yaara :)

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  3. Iranian films come to my mind when i see the debate about the indian films that should be sent to the oscars. Their film industry could not be as diverse as ours. They dont seem oscar obssesed as we are.The superlative ‘A seperation’ won every conceivable award last year.May be as you say it is a film with an universal appeal yet i found some portions in the film not exactly universal that would appeal to a global audience. Essentially the baseball nation gave it to the country that knows less baseball than indians do and which worships football instead (which the americans know even less)

    In this information age the more local you go,the more global you become.An Indian film with its template of melodrama and songs has more chance of wiining an oscar.

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  4. Something tells me this post is going to receive a lot of response (flak?). Perhaps a lot of dissection of the following:

    “Apur Sansar and Mahanagar – both by Satyajit Ray – are “baseball movies,” speaking a universal filmic language (or at least, a language familiar to American viewers and Oscar voters). These are films that can play anywhere in the world, with very little that’s lost in translation.”

    It doesn’t matter what you are trying to say; people only perceive what they WANT to perceive.

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  5. you know , not a single Adoor gopalakrishnan or ,G.Aravindan film has ever been sent to the oscars. Can you believe it . And speaking of Ray what about his masterpieces pather panchali and Aparajito. Apur sansar was the least impressive of his apu trilogy and Mahanagar ranks even below , So even in the case of Ray i don’t think the selection was right but just makes the cut on the basis of baseball grammar of movies that BR was talking about. But no need to worry about Americans not watching a film that Indians are not watching.Look at the movies we are watching in droves Chennai express,Grand Masti etc , For that reason alone perhaps this small movie may have a better chance even though i too believe that Lunch box would have been a better choice.

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  6. And there is the crux of the conversation. Instead of making such a hoo-ha about the Oscars, I wish we were doing something more about making smaller films more accessible to the audience, more art-house theatres, cheaper tickets, etc., etc.

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  7. Rangan,

    ‘Dancer In The Dark’ a highly melodramatic film with plenty of songs has won a Golden Palm at Cannes. There is nothing like an international film language and the indian films language. If a film is made with ‘total integrity’ it will get accepted internationally irrespective of the fact that it has songs or melodrama, there are plenty of examples for it in film history.

    Many Indian films lack this integrity, we make creative compromises very easily in the name of making accessible to audience. Satyajit Ray had integrity in his work so he got noticed internationally, it is not that he got world attention because he made films in some sort of an ‘international language’ as you call it.

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  8. rejath: No I didn’t miss it. This article isn’t meant to be an exhaustive listing of all submissions down the years.

    kainattu: Exactly. There’s a certain sense, also, of “playing to the jury.” Of course, you could say “I don’t care about the Oscars, but if you do, then it makes more sense to play by *their* rules, send in films that are suited to “their* sensibilities — keeping in mind that the average Oscar voter isn’t a film critic or likely to be highly evolved as a filmgoer, but just someone who prefers the heartwarming niceties of “Dances with Wolves” and “Shakespeare in Love” over “Good Fellas” and “Saving Private Ryan.” We should have a Harvey Weinstein over here, managing our Oscar submissions :-)

    MANK: Yes, I wasn’t talking about these as necessarily the best Ray films, but just as films that hew to a particular grammar.

    Dinesh Aditya: LOL!

    Jo: I agree, in a sense, with your point. Then again, that’s Cannes. These are the Oscars. The mindset of the jury/voters is radically different. Also, “Dancer in the Dark” is a musical along the lines of — say — the Bob Fosse musicals (“Cabaret,” “All That Jazz”). As opposed to the our films, which resemble the MGM-musical format. I’m generalising, Of course, but I do think there is are viewers who can cross “filmic languages” with ease and those who like to see what they’re familiar with, comfortable with — and when the Oscar voter is like the latter, I feel it’s better to make a play to *those* sensibilities.

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  9. It’s a point you’ve often repeated but it bears repeating:

    Their backyard, their rules. Simple.

    You want to have your entries noticed, it must either have certain universal themes (underdog/inspirational ones find it easier to travel) or Weinstein-like clout and moolah to stage a Shakespeare In Love-like upset.

    And for the love of God, Indian filmmakers need to park their hubris and stop thinking every film that manages to squeeze in a smidgen of special effects without completely bungling the execution deserves a shot at the Academy. I’m still laughing at the Jeans consideration (even for a mass entertainer, it joins Kadhalan on the bottom rung of the Shankar oeuvre)

    Am waiting for next year’s entry: Kochaidaiyaan, India’s “ground breaking entry into visual effect spectacle” ahem!

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  10. Glad you made that point about Ray and the baseball films. We’ve discussed this before, but (to take one very obvious example, and one of many) Ozu was never nominated at the Oscars, right? There’s an example of arguably the most “Japanese” of the great filmmakers from that country, whose work took a lot of time to cross the cultural divide, and who barely registered in the West for years. (Apart from Tokyo Story, which was strongly inspired by an American film anyway.)

    And about this myth of a universally applicable gauge for a “quality” movie – I can only roll my eyes at it. I find it astonishing that so many people who think of themselves as “film buffs” honestly believe that even the best mainstream Hindi films are simply inferior in some easily quantifiable sense to anything made by Ray.

    Wrote this post about the Oscars many years ago. Reading it again, I think it’s simplistic and I wish it had been longer and more thought out (also I don’t personally rate Lagaan as highly as that post makes it seem), but I stand by the central point: it’s silly to pretend that films from completely different cultures can meaningfully be compared and rated.

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  11. I think the backlash this time had to do with the fact that for once there was a film that could actually compete. The Lunchbox had the backing of Sony Pictures Classic – so money would not be problem in putting out advertisements and sending DVD screeners. It also has generated enough buzz to land up on several international critics’ top 5 choices for the category at the Oscars. To select a virtually unknown, even in India, The Good Road seems a bit foolish when you have a much better option in The Lunchbox.

    It gets compounded when you actually watch The Good Road. Its an interesting idea executed quite shoddily. It is not a question of filmic language in this case I think. Based on the chairperson’s comments it seems like their decision in picking these films is based on what kind of India the films shows and not what kind of Indian cinema. In this case it seems like its been picked exclusively for the exotic looking Rann of Kutch.

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  12. The route to the oscars is through cannes. We should be focused on producing and sending art house films to cannes. A win there will generate interest for the film in the US.

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  13. Vaguely remember that there was a similar discussion a few years back and the film that lost out on being an official nomination went ahead with an independent nomination all by itself. Can’t the makers of ‘the lunch box’ do the same? Do you recall it? Or have I got it wrong?

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  14. I can’t think of anything this year that would have been a great fit, but being in America I’ve yet to see The Lunchbox, Ship of Theseus, and some of the other big ones. But regardless, The Lunchbox had one thing that no other Indian film in years has had, and that is a big American distributor and a lot of festival buzz. I’m really confident that it would have been nominated had it been chosen. Sony Pictures Classics knows what they’re doing, and this is a huge missed opportunity. Of course, the committee claims that it isn’t about choosing the film that has the biggest chance of winning, it’s about choosing the best film. I respect that, but why bother going through this process of submitting in the first place if you aren’t going to choose the film with the best chance? Even though some of the reactions have been kind of obnoxious, I totally understand why The Lunchbox team is upset because this really affects the entire industry, not just the one film. Look at how the profile of Iran’s cinema has risen after A Separation.

    The funny thing about this is that it seems, at least to me, that the choice of Barfi was (misguidedly) pandering to the Oscar tastes. I liked that film but I think it was too uneven to work with them. I think last year Kahaani could have been a good choice. The Secret in Their Eyes won a few years ago and that was little more than a well made thriller. Also, though this goes against the conventional wisdom of submitting something that is palatable to American tastes, I really think the uniqueness and inventiveness of something like Eega could have done well. I’ve met a surprising amount of Americans who love 3 Idiots, which I think would have been a good choice for its year. Specific to India without requiring a learning curve.

    Of course, the trouble with those films is getting voters to see them, which brings us back to why The Lunchbox would have been such a great choice. Oh well.

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  15. Rangan here talks about the ‘kind of movies’ we send out for the Best Foreign Film consideration and the analogy of “asking a nation of baseball players to officiate a cricket match”. Rangan speaks about “the baseball movies” which are “global enough” that can play anywhere in the world with “saris and the bindis and the dhotis and quaint traditions” which make them “foreign enough”, ‘rooting them in a particular culture’, forgets the fact that these materialistic specifics are not the only acculturation that source a film in a specific culture. For them to be “foreign enough” to the foreigners, they need to tell our tales which may or may not end up being culture specific in the sense of wearing a turban or a ‘chunni’ and what not. The talk about our films speaking a language- their essence being- alien or “cricket” as Rangan puts it, to the rest-of-the-world’s “ baseball” and the solution lying in “learning to play baseball rather” is not just sad but plain disastrous. Just to make such films which “won’t put off a typical Oscar voter, who is an American and flooded with thousands of DVDs during Oscar season and who just won’t have time or inclination to learn the new rules of the new game”, is to advocate the fact that the Foreign Film Category is not really foreign after all. It is but a genius of a director catering to his/her own sensibilities which may (actually mostly will) have a cultural bias that should be awarded and not what is ‘standard American foreign appeal’ with exoticism of an alien land and its culture. Rangan himself admits that the films which ‘defeat this line of thought’ (of courting the Americans) are Mother India and Lagaan, ‘both of which found a place in final five in Best Foreign Film category’ being very long, filled with songs and melodrama, typical of our culture. But the argument here is that these are not exceptions to this silly notion of Americanization of films but rather seem to prove the point further that the “universal” elements are not really required if such is the content of the film.

    Regarding the analogy, the changing from ‘cricket’ to ‘baseball’ when one is adept at playing the former exceedingly well is no manner to conduct especially when cricket is a passion and has grown with you. So the two epic ‘ultimately Indian’ Oscar nominated movies which had an ‘Indian feel’ to them but not by the standards of being “global but foreign enough” talked about by Rangan to woo everyone, especially the Americans just illustrate a case in the contrary. Thus, a film should be seen in relative cultural terms coming from diversity, after all ‘every movie is cultural-reflective’. This is especially to say of the Foreign Film category movies as they need to be viewed keeping in mind a different perspective of a cultural difference and judged accordingly taking in consideration the background of the movie- the country, the viewership and the quality relative to the portrayal and weight of the subject touched. Now if the ‘international’ jury knows and rests only on ‘baseball’ but goes on to judge ‘cricket’, the cricketers are not to blame or to be told to play baseball altogether. Rather the Oscar voting committee needs to revisit its judgement criteria and even the thought process of what goes into deciding the fate of the film, by adequately possessing knowledge of the culture-specifics, just like we know theirs to the extent that we are ready to forgo ‘our cricket’ in favour of ‘their baseball’. They need to know our game and not just the surface similarities, and only then the judgement will be fair for all.

    Finally, the objectivity of the judgement of a “good” film deserving an Oscar can be judged by the subjectivity of the term. If they are merely about ‘taking out “For Your Consideration” ads in trade publications or recognizing realities like a film by a big name director will stand a better chance of cutting through the Oscar season clutter’[Rangan], then to allege it’s unjust or unfair is to say the least. And who really cares if “the Oscar doesn’t go to…” one’s film, provided the film is replete with passion and sensibility to the best of a director’s ability, especially in case that such bias (not just cultural for that matter) and ignorance still prevails. A ‘mere national award’ is then preferred to the ‘prestigious Oscar’ if that is the situation. As to our approach to relinquish our cultural roots or ‘cricket’, it is really a sorry reminder of the cultural estrangement so characteristic of the colonial times when the natives became rootless with the profound changes in the overall ethnic patterns and practices

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  16. kainattu: “In this information age the more local you go,the more global you become.An Indian film with its template of melodrama and songs has more chance of wiining an oscar.”

    Gerat point. Films which are local done with genuinely and integrity will get international acceptance even if they have song or dance. The ‘film language’ is never a barrier as Rangan proposing.

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  17. This article does not have much relevance or new insight, since it does not carry a comment on the quality of “The Good Road”.

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  18. nice discussion here.

    ‘simple entertainers’ like Moulin Rouge(a cricket match :) ) have been nominated sir in the best film category(a not so tough category compared to foreign language i guess).But I get irritated at that gaudy MTV video being so much lauded by everyone there. I’ve seen/read/heard the reaction of most of the western audience on Devdas and I think with the proper exposure and publicity even our well made entertainers have a chance.

    [Adding to the list- Driving Miss Daisy over Do the right thing].

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  19. you’re right Shikhar, I too was appalled at the amount of admiration shown to Moulin Rouge and to Chicago as well which was a better movie than MR,but pale in comparison to our musical dramas. As for Driving Miss Daisy over Do the right thing, well it is a huge topic on its own about the anomalies in best picture Oscar winners. The greatest i believe was in 1976 with Rocky triumphing over the likes of All the president’s men. Network,Taxi driver etc. Martin Scorsese wasn’t even nominated that year

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  20. Dear Rangan, thank you for the clarity of thought amid all the noise. The recent letter form FSI to Ritesh Batra, which asks inane questions like, “are you suggesting that the Oscars are rigged?” betray a complete lack of understanding of how the selection process at the Oscars works, even within an apex body of selectors in India. On the other hand, some reactions to this blog confirm that most Indian viewers, including those who pretend to have some taste, have no understanding at all about cinematic language. Hence the confusion between ‘global’ sensibility and ‘American’ vs ‘Indian’ sensibilities. I’m sure, for example, that a film like Children Of Heaven which speaks to audiences around the world, doesn’t in the process compromise its appeal to audiences in its own country.

    I personally don’t find Anurag Kashyap’s public outrage very graceful, but at least, behind his passionate belief in the ability of The Lunchbox to make it to the shortlist, is a pragmatic understanding of what goes into an Oscar win. An understanding that is completely missing in most debates going around.

    Also, thank you for not delving into an analysis of The Good Road, because questioning the merit of our nomination is completely beside the point. Even Kashyap in all his ranting hasn’t made that mistake.

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