Three reasons why Barfi! is a bad Oscar choice
Barfi! is blessed with great production values, strong performances, and a heartwarming story. None of this, however, will improve its Oscar prospects, and for entirely good reasons.
Barfi? Barfi! is going to be the Indian entry for the Foreign Language Film Oscar this year? A movie picked out of a shortlist that included Paan Singh Tomar, Dirty Picture, Kahaani, Deool, Eega, Vazhakku Enn 18/9 and Akasathinte Niram?
What were they thinking? I'm not exactly sure, but let's first acknowledge the one upside: Hey, it's not Jeans. Irrespective of Barfi!'s weaknesses, it's a cinematic masterpiece compared to past Indian entries, which include, most notoriously, Jeans (1998): The brain-dead Aishwarya Rai-starrer whose highlight was a song highlighting the seven wonders of the world. And it's certainly no Eklavya, the Vidhu Vinod Chopra box office bomb that was nearly withdrawn because of evidence of bias.
In comparison, Barfi! is blessed with great production values, strong performances, and a heartwarming story. None of this, however, will improve its Oscar prospects, and for entirely sound reasons.
One, there's little that is original about Barfi!. Blatant plagiarism aside, there's nothing wrong with making a Bollywood movie "inspired" by Western genres or plot lines. Barfi! is a good-enough movie for an Indian audience, but Anurag Basu wears his Hollywood "inspiration" on his sleeve. As the blog Tanqeed.com demonstrates, a number of its key scenes owe their debt to Charlie Chaplin's The Adventurer and City of Lights, while others have been borrowed from The Notebook, Singing in the Rain, and our very own Koshish. Even the background music sounds a bit too much like the tune used in Amelie. [You can see the side-by-side comparison here]
As for the acting, we may love Ranbir Kapoor at his Chaplin-esque best, but he's no Robert Benigni, who was able to put his unique spin on that school of acting. So why would an Oscar jury pick a movie that reminds them of the very many movies they've seen before -- and which include films that are now Hollywood legend?
Two, Barfi! is not uniquely Indian. The three movies that have made it to the Oscar shortlist could not have been made anywhere else in the world. Mother India, Lagaan, or Salaam Bombay, each told distinctively Indian stories, set in a distinctively Indian milieu, populated by distinctively Indian characters.
In comparison, Barfi! is a generic sentimental flick with a disability twist. Its selection is especially unconscionable at a time when Indian cinema is making waves for its unprecedented and meticulous attention to place, time, and character. Be it Kahaani, Dirty Picture, Paan Singh Tomar or Gangs of Wasseypur, these movies are deeply rooted in an Indian context and sensibility. Barfi! compares poorly even to a Shanghai -- which didn't make the FFI list of contenders -- as a specifically Indian movie.
As Mark Harris observed of the Best Foreign Language Film category, members of the Academy "like movies that depict the drawbacks, rituals, sociological peculiarities, class inequities, or historical scars of whatever country they’re from." Call it what you will -- exoticism, racism, ethnocentrism -- but it doesn't change the fact that Barfi! won't make their grade. Not when it's competing with the likes of "War Witch" which explores the lives of child-soldiers in Central Africa.
Three, it's just not good enough. The biggest Barfi! fan will be hard-pressed to argue that it was the best Indian movie to be made this year -- certainly not in a ground-breaking year marked by immense diversity and originality. The Film Federation of India's problem is that it continues to be a) Hindi-centric and b) enslaved by Bollywood hierarchy.
"In the last decade, we have always had a Hindi film as India's entry for Oscar, except in 2004, when Sanjay Sawant's Shwaas in Marathi was selected. This period saw some exceptionally creative efforts by Girish Kasaravalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and Buddhadeb Dasgupta, who made movies in their own languages and which told stories specific to Indian culture and customs, tradition and beliefs. Strangely, not one of their films has ever figured as India's nominee!" Firspost critic Gautaman Bhaskaran noted back in 2008.
Except for the selection of Adaminte Makan Abu in 2011, the FFI's record has shown little sign of improvement.
Worse, the Hindi films selected tend to kowtow to Bollywood's A-list. The FFI mantra: Better a big-ticket dud than a small budget gem. "The Academy won't award a film that doesn't understand its craft," says filmmaker Sudhir Mishra, "We ourselves disrespect our talent."
Pritish Nandy echoes the sentiment: "The problem with Bollywood is that it is not proud of its best products. It is only proud of its star cast products, most of which bomb at the box office. Yet the distributors, the trade, the investors, all swear by them because it's hip to do so. Kitsch is in. Excellence is not."
Lagaan, for instance, would not have been selected without Aamir Khan's clout. And despite making it to the final nomination round in 2002, it wasn't good enough to beat films, such as No Man's Land -- a brilliant Bosnian war drama. "All were hugely disappointed when Lagaan lost out, but when you see No Man's Land you realise it is a far better film," acknowledged PS Shyam, the executive producer of Rang De Basanti.
And when a rare small budget contender has a fighting chance, the very same FFI won't lift a finger to help it go for gold. As Shai Hussain notes:
[T}he marketing campaign is paramount to winning at awards ceremonies. Unfortunately for Adaminte Makan Abu which was made on a shoestring budget, there was insufficient funds available to do itself justice. However, it may only be Indian films like this that now stand a chance to win at the Oscars – small, independent films that vie for international acclaim, since the main concern for commercial Indian cinema tends to be all about the box office, with the majority of new releases now being remakes and sequels.
We can argue at length over the value of a foreign award, and whether Indian filmmakers ought to care about winning one. The largest film industry in the world has tootled along well enough without such honours. But if we are going to insist on entering the Oscar race, year after year, shouldn't we at least give ourselves a fighting chance? We send our very best to the Olympics -- irrespective of their medal prospects -- and would be up in arms if the selectors picked a second-tier player for the honour. When it comes to the Oscars, however, we're content to watch a "good-not-great" Barfi! dawdle toward expected failure. If so, why bother competing at all?
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