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Snubbed by the Oscars…Again, When Will We Ever Learn?

The  OIC (Optimistic  Indian  Critics)  brigade had  its  eyes set on  the  Tamil film   Koozhangal. We were  hoping(against hope) that this  one would get us the Oscar for best International  film.  Forget  about  making it into the shortlist. We didn’t even  get beyond  Round One.

Why do we  get snubbed repeatedly at international awards?  Are we sending  the wrong films? In  2020 many felt   Jallikattu the Malayalam  film that went to the Oscars would  “crack it”.It’s a cracked film for sure.  Variety called it a “bonkers”  film.Sure enough there  is an element  of madness  in the storytelling and in the way the  characters  erupt in a  sea  of anarchy at  the  bullish  provocation.  .As a bull goes on a rampage  in a  village, the locals  go off in the deep end with their own personal agenda, settling scores in  an unsettling wave  of  selfinterest.As the fractured community goes into  toxic gear  ,it’s hard to tell which  is  more rampageous,  the  bull  or  the  local community.

OIC (Optimistic Indian  Critics)    felt   if  Bong Joon Ho’s Korean  film Parasite  could win the Oscar for Best Picture why couldn’t Jallikattu crack it in  the  Best International  film category?  Firstly I don’t know  how Parasite  managed  the miracle.  It is  an overrated and deeply flawed  film leaving many questions on class difference unanswered.Secondly Parasite had  a massive marketing campaign in operation for the Oscars.  The  Jallikattu team barely had ticket fare to  fly to LA for the Oscars.

In  2018  Rima Das’ Assamese  film  Village Rockstars missed the Oscar.Like Koozhangal it peddled the Great Indian Poverty for  Western  audiences.  For long stretches, nothing happens in this film about an impoverished little girl in Assam who dreams of owning her own guitar.  Inert silences are considered a huge asset in films that glorify the Great Indian Poverty for a certain section of the Western audience which sees India and Indian cinema in two ways: either there is too much singing and dancing or there is too little to eat and to hope for.Village Rockstars falls into the latter category. It fits in rather snugly with the western audiences’ perception of an impoverished India.

A pre-pubescent girl Dhunu (Banita Das) wishes to own a guitar and form a musical band. It isn’t very clear where and how Dhunu’s yearnings sprouted into a veritable passion. Or how and why she wants to play rock music and own a rock band. The aspirational peg gives the debutant director a peg to pan her inquisitive camera across long stretches of silently stirring paddy fields and shots of adolescents running across middle hinterlands.

The film looks and feels like Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali, one of the three Indian films so far which have  been shortlisted  in the  Oscars’ Best Foreign Language  film category(the other  two being Mother India and Lagaan). But it lacks the vision and lyricism of Ray ‘s exposition on rural poverty.Director  Reema Das seems to use the theme of Indian Poverty as a peg for her aspirational story.

In 2016  the Marathi film Court directed by Mahesh Tamhane headed to LA for the Oscars after being selected by a jury headed by Amol Palekar, and returned home empty-handed.Last year the Tamil film Visaranaai was similarly snubbed at the Oscars.

Ketan Mehta who headed the  jury for the selection  of  India’s official  entry  into the  Oscars  in 2017 says, “We’ve to understand that selection of a film is only a part of the process towards  winning the Oscar. Marketing the film in the US, pitching it to the Oscar jury in Los Angeles is very important.”

Here is where Indian entries get thwarted and expelled from the Oscars race.

The legendary   filmmaker Shahji Karun who headed the  jury this year for the selection of our Oscar entry  told me, “If you  look at  the  movies that we  are going to  compete  with at  the Oscars, it’s like  on the level of the Olympics.We should know what we are  up against. Looking at the festivals  across the world which win awards ,they all have  one common thread  of humanism in them. The idea of  the human heart triumphing  over all obstacles. That quality is  common to all  cultures.  We wanted to select a  film that celebrated humanism. If  we  selected a political films or a film on a specific cultural  event, they could easily be bypassed(at the Oscars) if they don’t match  with the political ideologies of  the people viewing the  film at the Oscars.”

In 2019  a  ‘period’ Indian film unlike  Lagaan , Devdas  or Baahubali, entitled  Period End  Of Sentence had won  the  Oscar in the  Best  Short Documentary category. But is this really reason for us to  rejoice  after the  repeated  rebuffs we’ve been subjected   to at  the Oscars? And why  must poverty still be the  benchmark for  international attention  ? Has nothing changed  since Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali?  Every time  the Academy Awards  deign  to look at us it always for  films that  highlight  the  squalor and deprivation  at  the  grassroot level . Just take  a  look at  the films from or about  India that have  received attention at  the  Oscars:  Mehboob  Khan’s Mother India, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay,  Deepa Mehta’s Water,  Danny Boyle’s Slumdog  Millionaire…

What do  we see in common here? Poverty, of course. Though  this film about menstrual  hardships in  rural India  is  not technically an Indian  film—its director  Rayka Zehtabchi is an Iranian-American and its producer Melissa Burton is American–  Period  End Of Sentence is about empowering the rural Indian  women , and its  co-producer Guneet Monga is an Indian.

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