The selection of ‘Chhello Show’ stirred up a controversy with the Film Federation of India (FFI) coming under the scanner over their choice. While some opposed claiming it is not an Indian film, others found a striking similarity with the 1988 Italian-French co-production ‘Cinema Paradiso’. Some even alleged that it was in the running for Oscars in the previous year as well. FFI President TP Agarwal tells ETimes that the makers requested the Academy to allow the film for selection once again as it could not be released earlier due to the pandemic. “That permission was secured from the Academy. The jury members unanimously selected this movie. We are following the correct procedures,” he said.
Setting that record straight, in today’s #BigStory, we look back at the Indian selection of films for the Oscars over the years. Seeking perspectives from filmmakers, writers, actors and critics, we evaluate why an Indian film has not won an Oscar yet, whether the selection process needs a change, do we need to amp up our marketing in the international circuits and more. Read on.
Has India had the right selection of movies for Oscars?
While ‘Gandhi’ (1982) and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ (2008), both set in India with a majorly Indian cast, have each bagged 8 Oscars, neither was directed by an Indian. When it comes to Indian movies, only three films have made it to the final nominations – ‘Mother India’ (1957), ‘Salaam Bombay’ (1988), and ‘Lagaan’ (2001). Three of Satyajit Ray’s films were selected over the years, but none bagged an Oscar. The Academy however awarded the filmmaker an honorary Oscar in 1992, which was sent to a hospital in Kolkata where he was admitted.
Shaji N Karun has been the Chairman of the jury at FFI. He believes the popularity of content is not a yardstick for selecting movies for the Academy Awards. “Hence the case of ‘RRR’ won’t stand,” he says. “They are looking for films with the flavour of the respective country. Usually, there are greater chances for films recognised by Cannes, Venice, or Berlin film festivals to make it to the Oscars. Venice Film Festival has recently wrapped up, and a French documentary ‘Saint Omer’ won the Grand Jury Prize and the award for Best Debut Feature. Austrian film ‘Corsage’ made it to Cannes this year. Looking at these films, you can understand that the type and quality of the films is what matters.”
Shaji however believes someone who is familiar with international cinema should be a part of the jury for selecting India’s entry to Oscars.
President of Indian Film and Television Directors’ Association Ashoke Pandit believes the FFI has always had a very casual attitude towards selection. “The same mistake was repeated this year, as in 2019 they sent ‘Gully Boy’. A private body cannot be entrusted with the responsibility of such a major decision,” he argues.
Producer Sheetal Talwar dragged the FFI to court in 2007 for biased selection of Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s ‘Eklavya: The Royal Guard’ over his film ‘Dharm’. He says the problem is that we are always trying to second guess what the Academy wants to watch. “Everyone is looking for a story that has universality, but also has the grammar of our individual language. The reality is you have to have a jury selecting based on certain criteria. We are not selecting the right films for Oscars. Some privately held organisation is choosing the films that don’t even make it to the top 5,” he says.
Sheetal also questions how many of the jury members have seen the last 20 academy nominations. “You need directors, writers and actors choosing the films and not the producers. Producers watch cinema from a commercial point of view; whereas directors, actors, writers watch cinema from a grammar point of view. You have to make it a more democratic process and have votes, a more creative oriented process and keep producers out of it,” he opines.
Writer-director KL Prasad agrees we do not have an experienced jury that knows what works at the Oscars. Talking about ‘Chhello Show’, he says, “I haven’t watched it yet, but read its synopsis and found similarities to that of ‘Cinema Paradiso’. Therefore I felt it is not a new subject, either to the Oscars or to the other Film Festivals. Whereas the Academy jury will look at either the new subject/genre that either has human emotions that moves the audience or the technical excellence that enhances the visual storytelling platform.”
Shaji N Karun recalls last year there were better entries than ‘Chhello Show’ and hence they selected Tamil film ‘Koozhangal’. “But this year, the entries that came with ‘Chhello Show’ were ‘RRR’ and other commercial films. The Academy Awards do not recognise a film based on its commercial potential. Human documentaries are being recognised there, and they also look at the academic aspect of a film. And only the right jury would be able to recognise it,” he says.
President of Telugu Film Directors Association Y Kashi Viswanath felt a bit unhappy over the jury not selecting the ‘RRR’ which is one of the biggest hits of the year. “Our Telugu filmmakers aren’t generally very serious about awards. We either do not apply to them or apply and forget about them. Whereas other industry people will not just apply, but fight until they are given the award. Coming to ‘RRR’, I hope all good will happen to the film at least under the independent category,” he says.
Marathi film producer Akshay Bardapurkar says India can have a better selection by including various formats, languages and regional films as entries. “We need to be more proactive in giving due recognition to good films and sharing the spotlight, rather than having a myopic view. Our entries can definitely be better. The selection process in our own country needs to be inclusive. We need to create a larger, inclusive and more diverse pool of film professionals who will be involved in picking the films which go as entries,” he shares.
Vivek Agnihotri’s film ‘The Kashmir Files’ was not selected. “Just sending a film because it celebrates poverty doesn’t qualify your film,” he says. “Oscars are a politically motivated award ceremony. It is a soft power of the US. So the narrative which is playing is sometimes black lives matter, sometimes about women, racial discrimination etc. They generally give awards to those kinds of films. It is highly political and you have to spend millions of dollars.”
Are Indian films a long way off from cracking the ‘Oscar formula’?
94 years and not a single Oscar for an Indian film. Do we really know what it takes to claim an Oscar? ‘RRR’ writer KV Vijayendra Prasad says, “Oscar has no particular theory that if we do a film this way, we’ll get a nomination, in turn, the award. It is not even about art cinema. If we see the Academy winners in the past, there are out and out commercial movies such as ‘Gladiator’ (2000), ‘Braveheart’(1995), ‘The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King’ (2003) that have won a lot of awards. Correspondingly, I have noticed some people who tried different genres have got some awards, also some hard-core art films too have got the awards. Therefore, there is no particular rule/yardstick that if you try and experiment this way, you’ll get an award!”
Prasad also notes that culture specific movies have won more awards at the Academy. “‘Life is Beautiful’ (1997), ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’ (2000), and ‘Parasite’ (2019) were given awards along similar lines. ‘The Hurt Locker’ (2008) has won big and competed with a huge film like ‘Avatar’ (2009) due to the strength of the content. So, our jury might have selected ‘Chhello Show’ over ‘RRR’ for the above cultural reasons, as ‘RRR’ might have many competitors from across the world,” he adds.
Filmmaker B Narasing Rao gets very critical about Indian films as he states ‘RRR’ cannot be selected for the Oscars, because it is made for box-office. “Filmmaking is a different ball game altogether than many think of what it is. There were people in the past who risked their lives to make films like ‘Ben-Hur’ (1959). If we make a film that has no time frame, no history, no honesty in filmmaking and nothing, and if you request to nominate such films for Oscars, it doesn’t work. We are inefficient filmmakers when we talk about world-class filmmaking. If you say our films are doing well overseas, they are only doing in such places where there are Indian diasporas, but not in Arab countries or other foreign countries where we have not existed!” he critiques.
Film analyst Sreedhar Pillai thinks we need not compete for an Oscar. “Indian films have done extraordinarily well in the US and there is a huge market there. They can also make movies for that particular audience so they can earn accordingly well instead of making movies for Oscar. It is a good option to sell Indian movies to new markets where there is an opportunity to earn more. I strongly feel India is making good commercial films and it is perfect. If we need a movie for an Oscar then we have to make a movie that rather shows India in poor light that focuses on commercial or emotional story elements. Many have tried that in the past but it hasn’t worked out,” he says.
Are we marketing our movies internationally?
Jo dikhta hai woh bikta hai and the same applies to Oscars as well that receives best of the best entries from around the world every year. It would always add a leverage if filmmakers go out there and market their films in the international circuits. Telugu writer-director P Sunil Kumar Reddy notes that marketing plays a crucial role in Oscar selections, something that Indian productions fail to do as compared to other foreign productions. “It’s an elite group that votes at the Oscars. Therefore, one should make sure that they know about our film. This time we also have heard the names of Kajol being on the Oscar voting jury. Also, US media management plays an important role in promoting a film, such as you campaigning for your film in the US, and media reviewing your film will help to watch your film,” he shares.
Sunil also touches upon Korean cinema and Chinese productions gaining the advantage lately after the success of ‘Parasite’ and ‘Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon’. “This sort of lobbying should be done to the Indian cinema as well. Of course, we are now seeing such a thing happening for ‘RRR’ in the US,” he adds.
As reported by Variety, ‘RRR’ will be submitted for Best Picture, Director (SS Rajamouli), Original Screenplay (Rajamouli and his father KV Vijayendra Prasad), Lead Actor (for both Junior NTR and Ram Charan), Supporting Actor (Ajay Devgn), Supporting Actress (Alia Bhatt), Original Song (Naatu Naatu), Original Score (MM Keeravani), Cinematography, Production Design, Film Editing, Costume Design, Make-up and Hairstyling, Sound and Visual Effects. The campaign will go on from October to February and can cost up to $20mn!
“In the majority of the cases, our filmmakers are not applying for the nominations as we need to pay Rs 1 lakh to consider our film for nominations, which sadly many filmmakers fail to pay,” Sunil reveals.
Ex-Censor Board member Machiraju Sai Prasad recalls we sent only one Telugu film for nominations in 55 years because ‘we are not interested in such things’. “There is one Telugu filmmaker who made a film recently on ‘Ego’ titled ‘Aham’, and it is a sure shot film to get selected under Best Foreign Language Film category. It was also selected under the Indian Panorama section, but the producer says he is not willing to send it for the Oscars as its application fee is around Rs 1 lakh. We Indians don’t send movies under the independent category due to high Oscar fees and we have no confidence that our film will do well at the Academy Awards,” he notes.
Telugu filmmaker Tammreddy Bharadwaja points out that campaigning for ‘Lagaan’ in the US did not work. “Therefore we stopped such things from then. And we send one film out of 900 films that we make in a year. Therefore, several films that did well here don’t go for Oscars itself for a variety of reasons and still we feel bad that we didn’t get an Academy Award!” he says.
How does one decide whether a film is deserving or not?
Here comes the big question. With hundreds of films produced in India every year in multiple languages, how does one decide which is the best contender for an Oscar? When art is so subjective, no formula or criteria can help come down to that one film that is ‘deserving’. South actor Shiva Kandukuri known for his stint in films like ‘Choosi Choodangane’ and ‘Gamanam’ agrees, “Each individual in cinema has a different expression for emotions. However, the Oscar committee has been around for a long time that has been formed to honour films that fit into its spectrum of specifications. Although evolving, it requires that a film is present with those certain specifics.”
Sreedhar Pillai believes the most important criteria is that you need to do a lot of promotions. “You should make an extra effort to ensure that the film is well known there. I personally feel content is king. Any movie should have a striking contrast apart from just VFX or story line or any other element,” he says.
Punjabi Producer Mansi Singh jots down three things that should matter when it comes to selection for Oscar, “First – what is the concept, second – how well it has been weaved with the work of a director and actor, and third – is it something that we want to stand as a representation of Indian cinema on the global platform?”
Shaji feels South films are gradually getting traction. “Earlier, the panel comprised people from the northern side of the country. But it’s not like films from the South have not been chosen,” he says. “The films are chosen based on their quality, and there is no point in getting emotional. We have to trust and respect the decision of the jury. Also, going forward the selection of the jury too will be scrutinised. It’s the FFI’s job, and there is no need for a debate on it.”
Filmmaker Ashwini Chaudhary strongly believes that a small film, high on content with universal appeal stands more chance in the Best Foreign Language Film category than big films. “Once a film is officially selected by the jury for Oscars, we as filmmakers should support and stand behind the film rather than creating unnecessary controversy which may harm its chances at the Oscars,” he asserts.
Shekhar Kapur has had a personal experience of the Oscars with ‘Elizabeth’ and another one when the then Indian government wrote to the Academy not to consider ‘Bandit Queen’. “I don’t believe this system of a single film being nominated from each country will last,” he says. “It evolved at a time when the Academy members had no way to be aware of films made outside of Hollywood. Now in a global world, Academy members would be (or should be) aware of films from all over the world. In fact, we at the Academy should do away with the category of Best Foreign Language Film, for 90% of the films in the world are not in English,” he concludes with a remark to ponder upon.