Oscars 2017 countdown: Why Indian movies don't make the cut for Best Foreign Language Film
Every year around the time the Oscar nominations are announced, there is a collective hullabaloo about India's tryst with the world's most famous film awards. On the one hand, for better or for worse, an Oscar nomination has been elevated to a hallowed position and on the other, every year there is some controversy or the other regarding the film officially picked to represent India. For the last two years the choice of the film has not been incorrect if there is any such thing; for the Oscars 2017 it was Vetrimaaran's Tamil film Visaranai (2016) and last year it was Chaitanya Tamhane's Court (2015). But regular nominations and the statute both still remain elusive.
So, is there a code to crack when it comes to the Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars? The answer to this is yes and of course, yes! The fact of the matter remains that simply picking up a film that best represents the cinema of the country, which is how the Academy views official submissions, is not enough. For one, it doesn't make any difference to the approach the average Academy member would have towards the film. After a country sends its official entry, the film with English subtitles is screened for the Foreign Language Film Award Committee whose members select the five final nominations by a secret ballot. Needless to say, this is where preferences and/or prejudices come into play. A member need not see each and every film to make a considered choice and if the film has generated enough buzz via advertisements, previously being released or winning accolades on various film festivals is perhaps enough to convince one way or the other. Following this when it comes to the final voting, which is restricted to active and life members of the Academy, only those members who have attended the official screening of all five films can vote.
Amongst India and Hong Kong, the two cinemas that according to Quentin Tarantino have not only survived Hollywood but also managed to create a special place for themselves, neither has ever won an Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Film. Perhaps somewhere it is the “one-country-one-film” rule that doesn't let the Academy honour non-English films as much as they deserve. Some observers of cinema find the whole category to be fundamentally flawed in itself.
But is something else the real factor when it comes to 'cracking' the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film? Take a look at the two countries that have won the most number of awards in this category and you would notice how these are the very cinemas that have had the biggest impact on Hollywood in terms of influence. Pick up any filmmaker in the last 50 years from the US and chances of them citing the Italian Neo-Realist and French New Wave cinema as their learning ground would be really high; hardly surprising then that Italy and France have won the highest number of Oscars in this category.
There is nothing wrong in Italian or French films dominating the category. But what it says about the way things operate at the Oscars is that films from the countries that a majority of the voting members like are the ones that don't really have to try hard to make an impression. For no other reason but simply that they may not be wary of giving them a chance. Consider this — an average Academy member has to watch the new French film by Paul Verhoeven or the next Italian film by Paolo Sorrentino of The Great Beauty or La grande bellezza (2013) fame and a police interrogation drama from India in Tamil called Visaranai; which film do you think he or she is going to pick up first?
Indian films have been nominated four times — Mother India, Salaam Bombay, Lagaan, and Water — but have never won. Mehboob’s Mother India (1957) lost to Federico Fellini's Nights In Cabiria by one vote while Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay (1988) was beaten by Pelle the Conqueror, Ashutosh Gowarikar's Lagaan (2001) went up against Amèlie and No Man's Land before losing to the latter and Deepa Mehta’s Water (2006) lost to Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck’s brilliant German film Das Leben der Anderen or The Lives of Others. Technically, Mehta’s film was in Hindi but it was a Canadian submission and not Indian. A few years ago Ritesh Batra’s Lunchbox (2013) would have had a strong-ish chance of making it to the final five based on the success it had enjoyed on the festival circuit. There was enough buzz about the film and while it might not have won the award it definitely stood a better chance of making the cut as opposed to The Good Road, the film that was India's official entry. This year, too, Visaranai was the ideal choice and had the same film been a Chilean or a Venezuelan entry with the kind of theme it had, it would have surely made it to the final five.
Since 1947 the Best Foreign language Film Award has been won by Europeans 56 times, six times by Asians, and thrice each by films from African and the Americas. In an ideal world, there should be no separate category for a Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars. In fact, in a criticism of the segment in The Guardian, writer Guy Lodge observed that after eight decades the Academy is yet to honour a film that is not predominantly in English and this says “everything about their limitations and nothing about those of world cinema”. So, what should India do to make the cut and at some point win the Best Foreign Language Film Award? For one there should an effort to ensure a theatrical release of more Indian films (not just Bollywood) in the US besides a sustained marketing plan to tell the average American Academy member that there is more to our films than naach-gaana. The year when Lagaan was nominated, the clip the was played at the time of the Award being announced was from the song, 'O rey chhori' as opposed to the others from Amèlie and No Man’s Land that said a lot more about the film — and therein lies the conundrum for films from India when the west views them.