Gully Boy heads to the Oscars, but is Zoya Akhtar's rap drama really the best Indian film of 2019?
A total of 27 films were in contention to be India’s entry to the 2020 Oscars, including the Tamil film Super Deluxe.
The room betrayed the time outside. Loud noises and claps erupted every few minutes. The packed auditorium of strangers seemed to be reliving a collective moment, despite the fact that it was the first day of the film’s release and one of its earliest shows in Mumbai. I confess that the energy of Gully Boy and its little moments frequently pierced my hesitancy towards the film. In fact, I made the declaration that it might be the year’s most enjoyable film. We were still in February.
Aparna Sen, the head of the jury which picked Gully Boy as India’s Official Entry to the Oscars, seems to agree with me. “The energy of the film was infectious. It will speak to the audience,” the director declared. The announcement re-invigorated the hype around the film while it was business as usual for the affair between Indian cinema and the Oscars. Out of the 51 films we have sent to the Academy for consideration since 1957, 32 have been in Hindi or Hindi-Urdu, with Gully Boy making it the 33rd such filing.
The Hindi Privilege
The recognition comes at an odd time for Bollywood as even the most die-hard fans and industry experts are recognising the fact that the so-called ‘regional’ film industries are outperforming Hindi cinema in both content and form. The phenomenon was further highlighted by Anupama Chopra last month in her Hindustan Times column as she revealed an audience question from a screening for the Malayalam film Virus. “Today, Malayalam and Tamil cinema are far ahead of Bollywood. What do you read? What do you watch?”
A total of 27 films were in contention to be India’s entry to the 2020 Oscars, including the Tamil film Super Deluxe. Released with an anticipation and hype akin to Gully Boy, the film marked one of the boldest Indian film-making experiments, for me. Director Thiagarajan Kumararaja collaborated on the screenplay with three prominent directors — Nalan Kumarasamy, Mysskin, and Neelan K Sekhar — to craft a slice of life, black comedy which combined a joyful nihilism with intense philosophical and social broodings. A few weeks had passed since my declaration and I already had egg on my face. Gully Boy was no longer the most enjoyable Indian film of 2019. In fact, it isn’t even the finest Hindi film I have seen this year. (I save that honour for Sonchiriya, whose bungled up release and cold reception merits to be a good tragedy of its own.)
As the credits rolled and Raghu Dixit’s voice boomed over the credits, I left the theater as a buzzkill for those around me. Friends and acquaintances were thoroughly impressed by the film while I was confused and turned off by a few aspects. The sequence showcasing the song ‘Doori’ still remains inexplicable - ‘an object lesson in how not to shoot poverty, all immaculate framing and gliding camerawork and meaningful close-ups’ as Livemint’s Uday Bhatia noted in his review. The story moves in a predictable fashion, with no story logic informing the romantic track between Sky and Murad. The musical collaborations on the album remain a huge accomplishment but stripping some of the earlier original compositions like Azaadi of their political meaning seems like a compromise. Moreover, the film decides to use the song as Murad and Moeen commit car robberies, trying to imbue the actions with a faux revolutionary vibe.
The film’s simple message seems to be that if you want something, you’re destined to have it.
Murad’s choices on his dream journey have consequences - until they don’t. When frenemy Moeen takes the fall alone for the carjacking, the audiences are expected to buy it because nothing can harm Murad’s dream, least of all his own actions.
My critique doesn’t take away from the fact that I enjoyed many aspects of the film. When I first learnt of the film’s selection yesterday, I breathed a sigh of relief that at least it wasn’t Uri: The Surgical Strike.
The fault then doesn’t lie solely in the choices we have made over the years but also with how we go about the selection of films to represent our 106 year old cinematic talent.
Lack Of Contemporary Initiative
Contrary to Aparna Sen’s statement, Gully Boy’s mission now is to not speak to audiences but members of the Academy and the western film-making community. The odds for a Best International Feature Film are now dependent on the same mechanism which decides the main contenders for the year – film festivals.
Gully Boy had a spectacle-filled premiere at Berlinale this year, only to be undone by the middling reviews it received internationally.
A stark contrast lies in the journey of the South Korean film, Parasite.
Bong Joon-ho’s Palme d’Or winner was an eagerly awaited title at the Cannes film festival, where glowing reviews and unanimous praise surprised few. The film’s most remarkable feat however comes from its box office. It’s South Korea’s second highest grossing local title of 2019 with a haul of $71.9 million, releasing in its home country just a few days after its win at Cannes. The film has sold more than 1.6 million tickets in France, becoming the highest grossing Palme d’Or winner in the country. Naturally, the film is a clear front-runner for this year’s international film prizes.
A general audience might still not be familiar with Bong Joon-ho but to many cinephiles and film geeks around the world, he has long been a talent to be reckoned with. His fame, which will now be termed as an ‘overnight success’, came from a journey through film festivals and showcases over a 15 year trajectory. In comparison, the Indian efforts remain scarce and devoid of a necessary support system.
In 2019, some of the Indian films which have been showcased at various international film festivals include Aamis, Jallikattu, Moothon, and Bombay Rose. As per the Academy and Film Federation Of India’s eligibility rules, ‘The films must be commercially released in India between 1 October, 2018 and 30 September, 2019. The film must run at least for seven consecutive days.’ None of these films have managed a release date in this time period, with Aamis still far from distribution.
Campaigning for Oscars is a highly expensive affair for even the biggest Hollywood productions and a good word of mouth goes a long way in curtailing costs for low budget Indie and foreign language films. Village Rockstars, India’s entry for the 2019 Oscars, premiered at TIFF in 2017 to huge acclaim and praise. The film was able to secure a small release only in 2018 and when it arrived on the international film season to begin its campaign, fresher Indian films like Mard Ko Dard Nahi Hota and Tumbbad had garnered more relevant praise and awards. The timing and lack of a huge campaign budget meant that the film failed to make a mark on the Oscar nominations.
Decades of systematic overlooking of independent and arthouse films, a convoluted distribution setup, and a lack of international POV in film selection contribute to India’s failure at securing Oscar nominations. In such a scenario, when even propaganda films are considered worthy of an Oscar, Gully Boy perhaps represents a safe and acceptable choice.
For me, yesterday’s formal announcement served as a reminder of the non-Hindi cinematic ventures such as Angamaly Diaries, Thithi, Court, Pariyerum Perumal, C/o Kancharapalem, Kumbalangi Nights, Fandry, to name a few, which deepened my love for the artform and floored me with their craft. As one of these maverick artists, Lijo Jose Pellissery, gets set to introduce his next film Jallikattu over the coming weeks, all I can hope is that our Bombay and Hindi tinted myopia ends soon. Great Indian cinema already exists. The question is: Iss epiphany ka time kab aayega?
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