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Updated: November 27, 2012 09:24 IST

Why serving Barfi! at the Oscars leaves a bitter aftertaste

Rajrishi Singhal
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ORIGINAL COPY: Actors Ranbir Kapoor and Ileana D’Cruz at the DVD launch of their film in Mumbai. Photo: PTI
ORIGINAL COPY: Actors Ranbir Kapoor and Ileana D’Cruz at the DVD launch of their film in Mumbai. Photo: PTI

Through an opaque selection process, India has sent to the Academy Awards a Bollywood film of dubious originality, once again losing the chance to showcase the best of its diverse cinema

Philosophers tend to say that art imitates life though Oscar Wilde would beg to disagree. He thought it worked the other way around. Whichever way you may look at it, one fact is inescapable: the symbiotic relationship is nowhere as sharply defined as it is in India. This is true especially of the film industry. The selection of a film called Barfi! as India’s official entry to the Oscars highlights in capital letters the same deficiencies that hobble governance and give Indian industry such a bad reputation.

Indian cinema is a booming industry and despite the numerous logistical hurdles and business uncertainties, doughty financiers — much like the innumerable intrepid Indian entrepreneurs — keep braving the odds to back nebulous ideas and dubious scripts. According to data on the website of the Film Federation of India (FFI), a total of 1,255 “Indian feature films” were certified by the Central Board of Film Certification during calendar 2011. This is a proxy metric for estimating the number of movies completed during a year.

Number of films made

This number includes movies made in India in all the regional languages. Topping the charts is the number of Hindi movies released during the year at 206, followed by Telugu (192), Tamil (185), Kannada (138) and Bengali (122). Surprisingly, six movies in English also received certification during the year.

The Indian film industry can, therefore, rightfully boast of tremendous diversity, vitality and depth. But, going by all the movies selected as India’s official entry to the Oscars, it would seem that Indian film-making is still trapped in infancy. There are two valid reasons why selecting Barfi! might send all the wrong signals to the international business community.

Film federation’s role

First, like many decisions involving the Indian government, the selection process for shortlisting India’s official entry is shrouded in opacity, random discretion and arbitrariness. The rules framed by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the organisation which hands over the fabled statuettes, stipulate that “Selection of that picture shall be made by one organization, jury or committee that should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.” In India, the FFI is the body “authorised” to select that one film.

The FFI is studiously silent about the composition of that selection committee. Nobody knows the background of the committee members — whether they are film professionals with knowledge about the art and history of the craft, film theorists, students or film distributors or exhibitors (who actually occupy most of the FFI posts). The FFI has to submit to the Academy a list of the screening committee members even before they shortlist the movies. Therefore, the federation probably ensures that the one eligibility criterion mentioned in the rules (“...should include artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures”) is scrupulously followed, even though the rules leave enough wiggle room.

The FFI website is also uncommunicative about the other films that were in contention, why they were jettisoned, or the reasons behind choosing Barfi! to represent Indian films at the Oscars. The FFI website only outlines its own rules: “FFI is authorized to select one film for the consideration of Oscar Award in the category ‘Best Foreign Language Film Award’. The selection committee set up for this purpose will view the films entered for selection from 15th September in Chennai as we have to submit the film to the Academy not later than October 1, 2012.”

The choice of Barfi! has obviously triggered a howl of protests, especially on why a Bollywood movie should get selected almost every time. That’s a good point, because while Bollywood accounted for close to only 10 per cent of all certificates granted last year, Hindi language movies have been monopolising India’s Oscar entries ever since the Academy began awarding a “Foreign Language Film Award.” In fact, of all the entries submitted by India since 1957, only three have been nominated by the Academy so far for the final stage — Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan — and not a single film has won the award till date. This is rather unfortunate because the Indian film industry has constantly claimed that its scale is industrial, which would automatically imply a minimum quality and aesthetic matrix. It is also rather paradoxical that, despite enormous diversity, the FFI tends to end up favouring Bollywood, without having to explain its position. This is all the more ironic since FFI’s seemingly private decisions are sent as the nation’s official entry.

FFI and the Bollywood fraternity can argue that the Academy is probably biased against non-European movies, especially since Asian movies have won the award only five times. There could be a grain of truth in that allegation, but that still doesn’t take away from the fact that the Oscars represent a splendid opportunity for showcasing the best of Indian cinema, irrespective of whether it’s a commercial success or not.

Scant respect for IP rights

The second reason why the choice of Barfi! represents the worst of Indian business ethos is related to intellectual property rights. Indian businesses across the industry spectrum, including Bollywood, have shown scant regard for intellectual property and that gives businesses across the globe the heebie-jeebies.

It might be justifiable — though even this is open to debate — to relax the IP regime at the intersection of justice, morality and ethics, especially where lives of human beings are involved. But, unless it is markedly part of the “creative commons,” artistic works — whether they are movies, songs or plays — remain out of bounds for copying.

Social media has been atwitter about how several scenes in Barfi! have been lifted from different movies across the globe. While some of it may not amount to copying, and some of it might actually have been “inspired” by the works of great masters, the tsunami of status reports and microblogs ridiculing the “originality” of the film is definitely going to give the Academy second thoughts. The Academy views its role as a custodian of Hollywood’s output quite seriously and to thumb one’s nose at it might not be the best strategy.

Media companies across the globe view the subcontinent’s IP regime, its implementation and the regulatory framework with a bit of trepidation. Therefore, any creative endeavour from India which attempts to disregard that anxiety is not only shooting itself in the foot but is seen behaving like a petulant teenager. It’s definitely time for the Indian film industry to emerge from this extended period of adolescence.

(Rajrishi Singhal is a Mumbai-based business journalist.)


‘Barfi!’ gets standing ovation at BusanOctober 14, 2012

Barfi: Let there be lightSeptember 15, 2012

More In: Comment | Opinion

I am very much disappointed after reading your article. You have irrationally blaming bollywood..."because while Bollywood accounted for close to only 10 per cent of all certificates granted last year" sir quality matters not the quantity. What you have pointed out is true that the committee should be more transparent. But you should not call Barfi as a wrong selection. Then someone will raise question on the selection of Abu, Son of Adam...the very same system had selected that movie too.

The only point which goes against Barfi is that last year The Artist won the oscar...

Indian mfilm industry is booming...but how many are them will give a permanent mark in our mind??

from:  Arindam Bhattacharyya
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 15:19 IST

One fails to understand the desperation to get our movies nominated for Oscars. As it is the Oscar nomination process is far from being fair... Lot of money is poured in during the nomination process, connections are needed...

That being said, the movies being nominated (esp. Hindi) are devoid of originality. These carry the (negative) trappings of our culture - hero worshippism, knight in shining armour and are not at all realistic.

Haven't seen Mother India, but Lagaan was a crap movie... typical Hindi masala... Barfi is done nicely, but again its a cut and paste job with most of the scenes lifted as-is from other movies...The regional language movies - Marathi, Bengali, Malalayam, Tamil far better. In fact I recall watching the regional language movies during noons on Doordarshan around 20-25 yrs back, complete with the sub-titles. These were a treat to watch and far better than what passes of as a movie in Hindi film industry.

from:  Milind
Posted on: Nov 28, 2012 at 10:21 IST

Well! Amritraj and Aamir Khan managed to push through "Jeans" and "Lagaan" as
the Indian nomination to Oscars. This is just continuing the glorious tradition, the
primary aim being a pecuniary one as the producers can sell their movies in the US
as "nominated for the Academy award".

That being said, I fail to understand the hullabuloo regarding the Oscars. These
are meant to recognize American movies. That they also have a few awards for
foreign movies, like other film festivals ought not to distract from this central
point. Or have you seen any US producers scram to try and get their movies
nominated for our national film awards?

True, Hollywood is the most professionally run film business in the world, but it is
more a sign of our inferiority complex that we are so obssessed with the Oscars,
and to a lesser extent with the Grammys.

The important part are not the awards, but the quality of our films. Let's ask
ourselves if we are upto scratch.

from:  Vivek
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 18:05 IST

its not only question of hindi movies only, but its also of choosing
good movies, and i dont think even that criteria was met for Burfy..
Paan Singh tomar was way better movie and that should have chosen, but
obviously it didnt have support of lobbies

from:  Satyendra
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 14:22 IST

It was an important issue raised by the writer. The movie had so many
scenes which were copied from the Charlie Chaplin series and Mr. Bean
series. This shows lack of creativity and originality in our film
industry. this commercialization of film industry had led to lost in
real art and the Federation is doing no good to it. Why our system
cannot be transparent. It is the ill motives of few people which is
making our film art to suffer. this is evident from the number of Oscar
awards we won.

from:  Akshay Dhadda
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 10:48 IST

The author has touched on a very often experienced feeling of frustration and dismay. There are so many times we are left wondering what the rationale is for choosing a film to be presented as the Indian official entry to Oscars. I wish your paper would do some more follow-up on this and throw light on the procedure and guidelines followed by FFI for choosing a film to represent whole of Indian film industry. The fact that over so many years, only so few made it to the final round in LA, shows poor quality of selection process. We have some wonderful and original films in India which deserve a better recognition and representation. And, your author is correct – these films may or may not be commercially successful, nor they may have some ‘cute’ scenes.

from:  Sreenivas
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 10:02 IST

Lets face it - barfi! is a good bold movie that has unashamedly copied
its best sequences from a dozen different movies as clearly evident on
social networking sites. My advise to the producers / directors is not
to go an international forum with a blackened face and get scorned

from:  Ajit
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 09:29 IST

Nice and true one! Though Bollywood produces flashy movies, the quality
and originality is lacking compared to even other Indian movies(ie.,
Bangali, Tamil etc)

from:  Mahe
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 09:20 IST

The article gives an insight into the affairs of FFI and the way film selection to OSCARS is made by that Body.While ,i tend to aggree to the views that BARFI is not an Oscar stuff ,We need to know which other films were in the fray.The article seem to suggest that FFI is biased towards bollywood. In order to take away even seemingly remote feeling .it is time that Govt. entrust the selection to autonomous Body to be constituted with eminent personalities and in whom a truely a good cinema gets representation for OSCAR nomination.Let the process begin from the next year.This only provides Pride in every Indian about the Quality of CINEMA produced in our country

from:  anmadhusudan
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 08:58 IST

I think this article hits the nail on the head. There are great Indian
movies with original story lines that could have had a fighting chance
at the Oscars, if only they had been given the opportunity.

from:  CS Venkat
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 08:51 IST

I agree to everything said above except for the last line..."It’s definitely time for the Indian film industry to emerge from this extended period of adolescence."
Indian mainstream film-makers pirate the story ideas from foreign films. Then they blame Indian citizens of pirating their pirated films. What a conundrum!!!

from:  Avasaravadi
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 08:47 IST

Fabulous article !!i would like to commend you on writing a very lucid and well thought article...
in fact, barfi does not even pass the smell test for an award...

from:  Anand Shah
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 08:31 IST

True that ... rightly pointed out. Nice Eyeopener Article!!!

from:  Rajeev Prathi
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 04:17 IST

a nice article...
the points highlighted are very true...
looking forward for more such fact specific articles.

from:  arun
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 03:57 IST

The article is justified on it's own right. The FFI needs to remember
that an unbiased nomination pushed for the Oscars will increase the
chances of success, which has eluded Indian cinema (at an international
level)barring a lifetime achievement award to Satyajit Ray in 1992.
Also, it is unreasonable to unduly favour Bollywood per se, when Indian
cinema has multi-pronged aspects that need due attention and exposure.
Our multi-lingual stance and disparate cultural admixture ensures
cinema of substance and variety- an essential component that needs
effective portrayal.

from:  Upasana Bose
Posted on: Nov 27, 2012 at 02:14 IST
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