All eyes on the Golden prize: What will a win at the Oscars mean for India?

With the 95th Academy Awards ceremony nearing and with India having its most nominations ever, bigwigs of the Indian film industry weigh opinions on what another win at the Oscars would mean

Updated - March 13, 2023 12:06 pm IST

Published - March 11, 2023 12:55 pm IST

Stills from ‘The Elephant Whisperers’, ‘RRR’, ‘All That Breathes’

Stills from ‘The Elephant Whisperers’, ‘RRR’, ‘All That Breathes’ | Photo Credit: Netflix and @allthatbreathes/Twitter

As the world looks upon the grandest stage in the world of cinema, a billion people will once again hold their breaths awaiting glory.

Three Indian titles — RRR, All That Breathes, and The Elephant Whisperers — have been nominated under different categories for the 95th Academy Awards. This is by far the most number of nominations from the country to the Oscars. What will this mean for the Indian film industry?

“We have been doing resoundingly well across festivals such as Sundance and Cannes — for consecutive years — and now in Berlin and Toronto,” says All That Breathes maker Shaunak Sen, who is currently in the States for the Oscars, while reflecting on the unprecedented success of Indian documentaries. Competing in the Documentary Feature category, Shaunak’s documentary narrates the tale of two brothers from Delhi who rescue and treat black kites in their basement.

Two of the three nominations from India are for non-fiction titles — signs of a positive shift for an art form that hasn’t received its due. It all started last year when Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’ Writing with Fire was nominated for the Oscars. There’s also Kartiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperers competing for the Best Documentary Short Oscar. It narrates a heartwarming tale of a Tamil couple, Bomman and Bellie, who raises an orphaned elephant named Raghu.

This of course isn’t an overnight change. Shaunak credits the works of earlier generations of documentary makers for this welcoming shift. “The works by filmmakers like Deepa Dhanraj, Anand Patwardhan, Supriyo Sen, and Sourav Sarangi have been very formative for all of us. But a lot has clearly transformed.”

Shaunak Sen

Shaunak Sen | Photo Credit: Chris Pizzello

Shaunak believes that there will be a real change in how documentaries are funded in India if one of these titles wins. “Foreign distributors and channels will immediately pay more attention. More audiences will get more attuned to stories from South Asia,” he says, adding that more initiatives like DocedgeKolkata, a documentary incubation-cum-pitching forum, will further give docu-filmmaking a push. “But we have to be cautiously optimistic because there is still quite a long way to go in terms of the dissemination infrastructure for non-fiction.”

The ‘RRR’ effect

Of course RRR mania will be most spoken about on Oscar’s eve. The Naatu Naatu track from the SS Rajamouli directorial has been nominated under the Best Original Soundtrack category, a first for an Indian film in history. Though, MM Keeravani won’t be the first Indian music composer to get the Oscar limelight if he wins; AR Rahman already has two in his kitty for Slumdog Millionaire.

To gauge what a win for RRR would do to Indian film music, we need to see what changed post-Rahman’s win in 2009, and singer Hariharan says that it effectively changed the way other Indian composers think. “Rahman brought a change in sound and an international standard to the quality of recording and mixing. The Oscar win percolated this way of thinking to the smaller music directors as well,” he says. A win for Naatu Naatu, Hariharan believes, will boost the popularity of Indian music in the international arena.

Singer Hariharan

Singer Hariharan | Photo Credit: RAMESHKURUP S

Keeravani’s music and vocals by Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava might have enthralled audiences all over, but the credit for the success of Naatu Naatu, as Keeravani himself said after his Golden Globe win, also goes to the brilliant dance choreography, the visuals, and the actors themselves.

Choreographer Prem Rakshith’s steps for Ram Charan and Jr NTR didn’t just bring British soldiers to the dance floor; theatres across the world turned into a stage. Choreographer Brinda is confident that an Oscar will have one major after-effect on Indian cinema: “There will be an increase in songs and dance in our films,” she declares, adding, “The number of songs in films has been gradually decreasing and now, some of them have only one song. Or lovers of film music have to make do with the background score. A win at the Oscars for Naatu Naatu will change that.”

Songs and dance, as Brinda says, have been an integral part of who we are. “Even when we are leaning back in our seats, a song like Naatu Naatu will get us to sit upright,” she says. Hariharan agrees, stating that this has seeped into the many fragments of our culture. “Normal people, who are not artists, dance and celebrate at weddings; there’s so much music in our lives. The westerners too have started liking it now because a film, even when realistically shot, is a fantasy,” he says. Then adds, “We are different people; we like seeing a hero/heroine, who doesn’t know how to sing, break into a song.”

Dance choreographer-filmmaker Brinda

Dance choreographer-filmmaker Brinda | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The rise of desi-pop culture

When it comes to how films are being consumed, a win at the Oscars will take Indian culture across the globe as it happened to South Korean cinema, says filmmaker Pushkar of the Pushkar-Gayathri filmmaking duo. “It was a very conscious decision on the Koreans’ part. They started with their films and music, and now, we can hear K-Pop everywhere.”

Pushkar says while it is mainly Indians consuming Indian content, even abroad, an Academy Award win will change that. “It’s like what Oldboy and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon did earlier or what Squid Game and Parasite did recently.” Further, Pushkar believes this re-establishment of Indian pop culture to the world will help even the smaller films and not just the big-ticket spectacles.

Pushkar-Gayathri

Pushkar-Gayathri | Photo Credit: SRINIVASAN L

On the other hand, Pushkar believes that Indian content will retain its distinctiveness, saying that though it may be tempting to make more homogenous content to please the international audience, “That’s a path I believe we won’t take. I feel we will make our films and the world will start understanding our storytelling method. This will lead to newer markets — not restricted to the presence of the Indian diaspora — opening up to Indian films.”

Pushkar adds that this will also make filmmakers look at the “strengths of our style of storytelling and how we have been traditionally connecting with our audience.” He says, “Film festival routes always lead to a place where it feels like Indian cinema is not aesthetic enough for these festivals and we haven’t had much success there. Even the success we have had have been for our parallel and independent cinema. Our mainstream cinema finding audience across the world will be the biggest benefit of a win.”

Cinema that has come of age

Actor Madhavan, however, believes that though Indian cinema cannot yet compete with Hollywood’s technology or budget, it has come of age. “We don’t need validation from other parts of the world regarding the stories we tell or how we tell,” he states, adding that what the industry really needs now is more funding and more theatres.

Actor Madhavan

Actor Madhavan | Photo Credit: TANIA VOLOBUEVA

Interestingly, all three titles that are nominated for the Oscars touch upon ecological preservation directly or indirectly. Shaunak believes that this points towards a positive geist. “All of us are grappling with these issues and the fact that there’s some degree of commonality only indicates how much this is increasingly front and centre in our imagination.” With more awareness regarding climate change, one can certainly hope for more titles that explore this universal issue.

More and better song and dance; newer markets for Indian films; more funding and forums for documentary filmmaking — this Oscar season brings a lot of newfound hope to Indian cinema. May it fly high like a Black Kite, unite us all like Bomman and Bellie, and roar like Bheem.

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