Hey India, back off. It's Ang Lee's Oscar, not yours (despite the namaste)

by Sandip Roy  Feb 26, 2013 14:25 IST

#Ang Lee   #Bombay Jayashri   #CultureDecoder   #Life of Pi   #Oscars2013  

And the Oscar goes to… India.

India’s bona fide Oscar hope – Bombay Jayashri’s nomination for Best Song – was as some media put it “dashed” when she lost out to Adele.

Never mind, we can all get ourselves a slice of Pi.

Thankfully Ang Lee not only said “My India crew, I love you” he also ended his Oscar speech with a Namaste.

"Namaste caps a life of surprises" reads the glowing headline in The Telegraph. The story quotes Ang Lee as apologizing backstage that he “screwed up” because he couldn’t mention the other desis in the cast – Irrfan Khan, Tabu, Adil Hussain, Ayush Tandon. “I couldn’t say them very fast so I skip(ped) them,” he confesses rather endearingly.

The Department of Tourism in Puducherry is ready to cash in on the film’s success reports the Indian Express. It wants to develop all 18 locations associated with the film – the botanical gardens, the beach road, the temples - as tourist spots. “The news of Ang Lee’s ‘Life of Pi’ bagging a big number of awards is most thrilling and exciting,” Director of Puducherry Tourism Dr AS Sivakumar tells PTI.

Getty Images

Ang Lee collects the Oscar for Best Director. Getty Images

The Deccan Chronicle has a photograph of what looks like the entire staff of Hyderabad-branch of the  animation company Rhythm and Hues which worked on the special effects of Pi, including Richard Parker, the tiger. “We got to visit the sets in Pondicherry and while we couldn’t interact with Ang Lee directly, we did happen to meet our supervisor Bill Weston Hoffer who received the Oscar,” says Kabir Verma, the head of the team in Hyderabad.

At least in the case of Pi, the India connection is genuine. Today’s T2 also photoshops Jennifer Lawrence into a Sabyasachi ivory lehenga for a centrespread for its own daydreams about what it wanted the stars to wear. The headline on the cover reads "Jennifer in Sabya - Don't tell us you missed it."

Sometimes the Indian connection is real but a little egg-in-the-face like the one the Hindustan Times uncovered for India and Argo. Apparently the real inspiration for the CIA plot to smuggle those six Americans out of Iran has two Indian antecedents. One was Stalin’s daughter Svetlana defecting to the West while visiting India in 1967. The other was a KGB spy who worked for the Novosti news agency being smuggled out of Delhi right under the nose of the authorities by the same Tony Mendez who did the Argo operation. HT writes:

The only specific details Mendez offers are that the "job" took place in a "densely populated capital of the Asian subcontinent" and that Nestor was finally waved through by a turbaned official at an airport surrounded by a thick haze of 'smit' - "smoke and burning shit".

I guess we are not going to play up that connection as a tourist attraction.

It’s only natural that we want to piggyback on success. Who doesn’t? Certainly not Mr Anupam Kher. As soon as Ang Lee won, he was quick to tweet out “Congratulations to the entire team of "Life Of Pi" and to the Genius called Ang Lee. Proud to have worked with him (in "Conquest, Lust?").

Shobhaa De tweeted “Ang Lee's "Namaste" during his Oscar's acceptance speech worth more than the Golden Statuette in his hands.”

But in our rush to find the Indian connection, we ignore the other more important thing he said later. “This movie really belongs to the world.” From its beginnings in Puducherry, to its filming in a water tank in Taiwan, to its ending in Canada, this was a film that was truly a global enterprise.

Ang Lee is inspiring because he both honours his Taiwanese roots but isn’t bound by them. He made Lust/Caution set in post-war Shanghai and he also made Brokeback Mountain, a most unlikely film to entrust to a heterosexual Asian immigrant. “When I do an English-language film I don’t think about what I bring as an Asian man,” he said in an earlier interview. “(But) because I am different, the film will be different.”

While Taiwanese radio stations called him the “Glory of Taiwan” Lee once said in an interview with this author “In reality, I am an outsider anywhere even in Taiwan. The real world has changed so much I am afraid I am forever an outsider.”

In an earlier story I had rued that even Pi cannot quite avoid a bit of the National Geographic special view of India with a thousand flickering diyas and spiritual homilies. But luckily it soon sets out to sea and then the wonder of Pi is that it actually belongs to no one. It’s Lee's outsider status that actually allows him to unmoor a Life of Pi  from its Indian roots and turn into a global hit, raking in at least half a billion dollars worldwide.

We, on the other hand, are still all about looking for our reflection in the Oscar’s golden eye. Sometimes it’s not even enough to just see our Indian selves. We need to dig even deeper.

A colleague pointed out how Malayalam papers have been besides themselves about the Malayaliness of Suraj Sharma’s Keralaite origins. So when Ang Lee said “Suraj, where are you? You’re a miracle” it was practically a shout out for Malayali pride.

It’s wonderful that the Life of Pi has so many Indian connections. But what’s truly worth celebrating is that despite all those Indian connections, Ang Lee didn’t make a Passage From India.

He made, as he said, a film that belonged to the entire world.

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