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.)