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

Posted on September 27, 2013


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.

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