Picking Barfi! over Paan Singh Tomar, Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Deool, Eega, Vazhakku Enn 18/9 and Akasathinte Niram as the Indian entry at the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film, was quite a disappointing decision.
A two-and-a-half-hour musical about a deaf and mute boy called Barfi, which was widely criticized for 'borrowing' scenes from a host of other films such as Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer and City of Lights, The Notebook, Singing in the Rain, and our very own Koshish obviously couldn’t make a mark at the international field. But, that did not surprise us.
Back at the home ground, the winners of the 60th National Film Awards were declared on 18 March. And "India’s official Oscar entry", Barfi! did not feature anywhere in the winners circle. Instead Paan Singh Tomar won Best Film and Irrfan Khan was adjudged Best Actor.
Paan Singh Tomar, a true story about a man who went from being a soldier, to an athlete and ultimately one of the most feared dacoits was one of the best films of last year. Irrfan Khan did a brilliant job showing the changes in the character wrought by tragic situations. And director Timagshu Dhulia made us believe that Irrfan is actually a dacoit. Powerful performances, no song sequences, and brutally real cinematography—Paan Singh Tomar should have clearly overshadowed Barfi. But it didn't.
So, why was Barfi chosen over Paan Singh Tomar? And if Barfi was indeed our country’s best movie, why didn’t win any National Award?
Looking back at India’s Oscar entry
India’s obsession with movies is unquestionable. And every year, since 1957 we have submitted an entry to the Oscars for the foreign language film category.
But, it’s only three times that an entry from India has been found good enough to be nominated in the best foreign film category of the world’s most prestigious award.
The only five Indian nationals to have bagged the Oscar in its 80-year history are Bhanu Athaiya (Gandhi, 1982) for Best Costume design, Satyajit Ray, who was conferred an honorary Oscar in 1991, A R Rahman, who won the Original Music Score" & "Best Original Song" for the movie Slumdog Millionaire in the 2009, Russell Pookutty, who won Best Sound Mixing (with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke) for Slumdog Millionaire and Gulzar, who won the Best Song (lyrics) for the same movie.
Even developing third world countries like Algeria and Bosnia have won Oscars in the foreign film category in the last 69 years. It is to be noted that Bosnia became a sovereign nation in the 1990s and India has been making films even before it gained independence.
Why didn’t India ever make it? Is it because we are not sending our best movies?
Mehboob Khan's Mother India (1957) made it to the top five in the category. The film still remains the closest that India came to winning the golden statuette — the film lost by just one vote. It did leave a mark at the International market and we don’t doubt that it was well-deserved. Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1988) made it to the top five but lost to Denmark's Pelle the Conqueror by Bille August.
But was Vidhu Vinod Chopra's Eklavya worthy enough? The movie was nominated for an Oscar in 2007. In fact, Bhavna Talwar, director of Pankaj Kapur-starrer Dharm, moved the Bombay High Court, alleging a bias in the selection process as one of the jury members, Ranjit Bahadur, was the editor of the Making of Eklavya, a promotional snapshot of the film.
When Shankar's Jeans was sent to the Oscars, the reason given was that the film had a lavishly shot song at "the seven wonders of the world, featuring the eighth wonder Aishwarya Rai". The officials for some reason thought that would be enough to impress the academy voters.
Aamir Khan's Lagaan was chosen over Mira Nair's internationally acclaimed Monsoon Wedding in 2001. Several people thought it was an unfair choice but then Aamir had a way of whipping up a never-seen-before frenzy.
In 2011, it was reported that the jury of the 58th National Film Awards made a recommendation that movies winning the Best Film award at the National Film Awards ceremony every year should be the official Oscar entry. But no one knows what happened to the proposal.
Hindi over regional films
India has sent over forty films to the competition. But most of the films in the recent past seem to be skewed in favour of mainstream Bollywood cinema and big banners, (Hey Ram, 2000; Lagaan, 2001; Devdas, 2002; Paheli, 2005; Rang De Basanti, 2006; Eklavya, 2007).
Acclaimed Bengali filmmaker Rituparno Ghosh lamented on how regional cinema, including his own, is ignored. “I haven’t seen ‘Barfi!’. So I cannot comment on its suitability or unsuitability for the Oscars. What I’d like to point out is that all Indian Oscar nominations have come from Bollywood, barring a few ‘politically perforced’ Marathi films. Why this discrimination?” Ghosh tweeted when Barfi was nominated.
In the past five years, just two regional films — Marathi movie Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) and Malayalam movie Adaminte Makan Abu (2011) — were sent as the country’s official entries for the Oscar in the best foreign film category.
“India has a strong enriching tradition of regional cinema being made all over the country. Why then is this continuing emphasis on Bollywood work for the Oscars?” Ghosh wrote.
Ghosh is credited for helming critically acclaimed and national award-winning films like Dahan, Utsab, Chokher Bali, Raincoat, Dosor, The Last Lear, Shob Charitro Kalponik and Abohoman. He has won international honours too, but none of his projects have been sent for the golden statuette.
In 2004, the jury surprised everyone by selecting Sandeep Sawant's Shwaas, a Marathi film about a grandfather who helps his grandson come to terms with inevitable blindness. Shwaas had also won the National Award for best film.
The producer of Shwaas had no money to promote the film, and Amitabh Bachchan donated Rs 1 lakh to support it, so it could garner support for the Oscars. Unfortunately, Shwaas didn't make it to the final list of nominees.
Why choose commercial over good films
Those who have been there like Vidhu Vinod Chopra have on record stated that the post-selection campaign expense often ends up exceeding the budget of a film.
Aamir Khan is said to have spent $200,000 on promoting Lagaan. Khan's company took full-page advertisements in influential trade publications like Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Khan spent several days in Los Angeles, supervising the screening of the film for Oscar panelists.
Ronnie Screwvala, whose Rang De Basanti was India's official entry for 2006, said the challenge lay in ensuring that each of the "500 people who constitute the jury in the foreign language film category actually got to watch the film".
And that's where small, independent filmmakers like are at a disadvantage. But, should the Indian government or the film fraternity help these films make a mark?
Filmmaker Sudhir Mishra says, “We ourselves disrespect our talent. The FFI does not include films that are not subtitled in English for the jury to select from. As a result, those filmmakers who don’t have money to get their films subtitled are not even considered.”
The production house, when deciding between Barfi and Paan Singh Tomar as India’s official entry to the Oscars may have opted for the former keeping in mind its commercial viability.
Businessofcinema quotes a source, “They knew ‘Barfi!’ would not make it through, but as soon as it was announced as an academy award entrant the sales at the ticket counter shot up. ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ was a more deserving film, but would not have translated into so much more business at the Indian box office as a Ranbir Kapoor – Priyanka Chopra starrer.”
Why we get it wrong
Is the verdict of numerous, glamorous star-studded award functions more right than that of the Information and Broadcast Ministry’s National Film Awards? Is appreciation based only on the commercial viability of the film?
As long as we choose Paheli over Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi, we are in trouble. Not because Paheli is a bad film. But because Hazaaron is the kind of film Oscar judges and audiences worldwide can identify with. Maybe, the problem with Bollywood is that it is not proud of its films, it is only proud of its star cast. Maybe, the problem is that it only cares about money and not good films. Maybe, the problem is that they don't see the problem at all.
It's time we stop looking at the commercial success and send the country's best film. Otherwise, like always, many good films will go unnoticed, unrewarded and receive a hostile reception only because they are not economically practicable.