DIFF 2017: My Pure Land, UK's official entry for Academy Awards, is product of globalisation
My Pure Land, an Urdu film directed by Pakistan-born British Sarmad Masud, was screened at the Dharamshala International Film Festival this year.
There is a serious gochi in the world of international film awards, and it has to do with the English language. The UK's gift of the English language has united a significant part of the world through a common tongue, including a linguistically diverse nation like India.
Ironically, the English language is a big stumbling block when it comes to the UK submitting its entry for Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. This is because to be eligible for this Oscar, the feature film must be produced outside the US, and be predominantly a non-English film.
So the UK is unable to submit its regular English language films, and has submitted to the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film category films made not only in Welsh and Irish but also in Russian, Spanish, Swahili, Bemba, French, Afrikaans, Dari, Pashto, Filipino, Turkish, Persian and Urdu.
In fact, this year, Sarmad Masud's My Pure Land, shot in Pakistan, in the Urdu language, was sent as the UK's entry for the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. Masud, who is of Pakistani origin, is British and was born in Nottingham. It is an emphatic sign of the globalisation of cinema. If Taiwan-born Ang Lee can direct Sense and Sensibility, that most English of films, and James Ivory-Ismail Merchant (American and Indian respectively) can direct Howard's End (1992) and Remains of the Day (1993), My Pure Land's Oscar entry is only further vindication of the steady globalisation of cinema.
Based on a true story, My Pure Land is about a young rural teenager in Sindh, Pakistan, who fights armed goons who try to grab her home and land. Land grab is common in Pakistan and there are 1 million land dispute cases pending in its courts. "Originally I had wanted to make a film on police corruption in Pakistan like Cop Land, but I read about the real life Nazo Dharejo, who had defended her home with guns against armed bandits. I was impressed by her courage and strength and had to tell her story," Masud tells me at the 14th Dubai International Film Festival, where his film is playing.
"Her father was very liberal and progressive, raising his daughters to feel like equals to his son. I wanted people to connect with the universal qualities of the story, so I avoided location landmarks or period markers, because the story is timeless. I also avoided masala and the dialogue was truthful. I'm proud of the iconography of a lead girl without a head scarf. In the last scene, she's looking at the camera with such strength, as if saying, 'I'm not going anywhere.' If that image stays with you, that's good enough for me," he says.
Masud's My Pure Land in Urdu is not the sole film in an Asian language submitted by the UK for this Oscar category. There have been two British Oscar submissions, Paul Turner's Hedd Wyn (1993) and Paul Morrison's Solomon and Gaenor (1999) — both in Welsh — that won Oscar nominations. Beyond those, one could say that Asian cinema in the UK is benefiting from the UK's inability to submit local English language films. A significant number of the UK's submissions for the Oscar for best foreign language film — five features — have been in Asian languages. These include films in Dari, Pashto, Tagalog, Turkish, Farsi and Urdu. They are Havana Marking's Afghan Star (Dari, Pashto, 2009), Sean Ellis' Metro Manila (Tagalog, 2013), Nihat Seven's Little Happiness (Turkish, 2014), Babak Anvari's Under the Shadow (Farsi, 2016) and Sarmad Masud's My Pure Land (Urdu, 2017). In fact, Hansal Mehta had remade Metro Manila as City Lights in Hindi, starring starring Rajkummar Rao and Patralekhaa in 2014.
Things have not always been smooth in the category of Best Foreign Language Film Oscars, since Vittorio de Sica first won this award for Bicycle Thieves in 1949. There was a furore when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences disqualified Asif Kapadia's The Warrior, starring Irrfan Khan, shot in India, in Hindi, when the UK submitted it as its Oscar entry in 2002, because the film was neither shot in the UK, nor made "in a language indigenous to the United Kingdom." These eligibility rules were changed in 2005, which opened the floodgates, so to speak.
Certainly at the Oscars — like elsewhere, other than merit of the films, other factors, including politics, come into play. There were controversies as Oscar members debated the nation status of films submitted from Afghanistan, Palestine and Hong Kong, depending on the international relations of the USA with those nations and America's political views. So when we howl in protest at decisions by, say, the National Film Awards or the Indian Panorama jury, it is worth remembering that even the Oscars are not immune from controversy.
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