It’s easy to say “Jeans” and “Saagar” aren't worthy of Oscar nominations. It's tougher to say which films are
I was relieved that the Oscar Nomination Committee of the Film Federation of India selected “Adaminte Makan Abu”, the National Award-winning Malayalam film, as India's official entry for the forthcoming Academy Awards. I haven't watched the film, but it has won a clutch of National and Kerala State awards, and the synopsis — an elderly couple plans to make the pilgrimage to Mecca — makes it sound lovely and worthy. But its selection is also something of a no-brainer.
We'll never know if this was India's best ‘Oscar worthy' film this year because the other entrants in the race were “Guzaarish”, “Chillar Party”, “I am Kalam”, “No One Killed Jessica”, “7 Khoon Maaf” and “Dhobi Ghat” (all Hindi), “Endhiran”, “Ko”, “Deiva Thirumagal”, “Muran” and “Aadukalam” (in Tamil), “Moner Manush” (Bengali), “Urumi” (Malayalam), “Mala Aai Vhhaychy” (Marathi) and “Ala Modalaindi” (Telugu). Which film would you choose to represent your country at an international awards ceremony — a modest and sensitive drama with senior citizens at its centre, or a multi-crore Rajinikanth lollapalooza?
Why is “Endhiran” on this list? Why is the heavily derivative “Guzaarish” on this list? “No One Killed Jessica” is a fine film for an evening at the multiplex, but haven't Oscar voters seen these fight-the-System dramas a gazillion times? Why would they be impressed by yet another feisty variant? “Aadukalam”, I can understand, but considering the films the director himself listed at the end as his inspirations, can we expect the Oscar voter to be as impressed as we were?
I Googled up the films I hadn't watched. “Ala Modalaindi” appears to be a harmless-enough romantic comedy — but nothing more. “Mala Aai Vhhaychy”, based on foreigners who use Indian women as surrogate mothers and which was selected for a screening for President Obama, seemed worthy of consideration, along with “Dhobi Ghat”, which is not just exquisitely made but exquisitely made in a style familiar to international audiences. But do its style and its focus on a teeming metropolis that could be a burgeoning megacity anywhere in the world make it uniquely ‘Oscar worthy'?
If history is to be trusted, then the surest way of sneaking into the final five nominees for “Best Foreign Film” is to select a motion picture that is unabashedly rooted in the Indian ethos and unapologetically made in an ‘Indian' way. Only three of our films have ended up with nominations, and two of them (“Mother India” and “Lagaan”) are Indian films in every imaginable way.
They are set in the dusty hinterlands of India. They address the very Indian issue of deprivation. They are filled with song and dance and colour and melodrama. Both films were hugely successful in India, which means that they spoke a cinematic language that could be understood and appreciated by the local Indian who watches only Indian films (as opposed to the global Indian who watches festival films). On this basis (and the ‘success' factor apart), the pick from this year's list could be “Aadukalam” or “Urumi”.
And yet, the third film that managed a nomination blows away this theory — because that film was “Salaam Bombay”, which was not watched by all that many people and which was as far removed as possible in terms of style and technique from “Mother India” and “Lagaan”. (And based on that instance, the film to send this year would be “Dhobi Ghat” — small-sized, sensitive, Indian in theme but not in treatment, urban-based, made by a woman, and attuned to festival-filmmaking conventions; it even has music by Oscar-winning Argentine composer Gustavo Santaolalla).
There's something else, though, which makes selecting the Indian nominee for the Oscar something of a parlour game combined with a crapshoot, because it's not just about picking the right film but picking one whose team has the muscle and the motivation to campaign tirelessly and woo the Oscar voters and ensure that they see, in enough numbers, what is essentially a strange little foreign film. Forget Mecca — does the team behind “Adaminte Makan Abu” have the resources, financial and otherwise, for a pilgrimage to Hollywood?