Indian Films at the Oscars and the Need for a System Overhaul

Is the issue preventing India’s Oscar chances about selecting the right film, or is there more to it?

5 min read
Poster of <i>The White Tiger </i>and <i>Jallikattu.</i>

With Jallikattu long out of the Oscar race and Adarsh Gourav unable to double up his BAFTA nomination, Indians will cheer from the sidelines on cinema's big night, come 26 April. Again. It's a familiar feeling after all. Oscar glory has forever been elusive for Indian filmmakers. Getting nominated for Best Foreign Language Film — never mind Best Picture — has been a once-in-a-generation honour. It doesn't mean our country's film industry hasn't produced a single movie worthy of Oscar recognition since Lagaan.

When films set in India have been recognised by the Academy, they have usually been helmed by non-Indian directors. Consider Ramin Bahrani, the Iranian-American director who has been nominated for ‘Best Adapted Screenplay’ for The White Tiger this year. Or Garth Davis, the Australian director behind 2017 Best Picture nominee Lion. Or Danny Boyle, the British director behind 2009 Best Picture winner Slumdog Millionaire.

Here's where things get sticky, in a way which puts the whole Oscar selection process under scrutiny. All three films are based on books from Indian writers or writers of Indian origin. But if these books were given similar English-language adaptations by Indian directors, and produced entirely in India, they would not have been eligible for ‘Best International Feature Film.’ Because one of the Academy's rules for selection in the category stipulates at least 50 per cent of the dialogue in the film must be spoken in a language other than English.

A still from <i>The White Tiger</i>.
A still from The White Tiger.

(Photo Courtesy: Pinterest)

This absurd rule became a subject of controversy ahead of the 2020 Oscars. Genevieve Nnaji's Lionheart, which was Nigeria’s first-ever submission for Best International Feature, had been disqualified because its predominant language was English. But English is the official language of Nigeria. As Ava DuVernay noted, by deeming Lionheart ineligible for selection in the category, the Academy is virtually barring the country from "ever competing for an Oscar in its official language." Commenting on the complications of linguistic imperialism, Nnaji made a great point in response: "We did not choose who colonized us. As ever, this film and many like it, is proudly Nigerian."

So, had Dibakar Banerjee directed The White Tiger retaining the same percentage of English dialogue as Bahrani’s adaptation, the film wouldn’t have been eligible for Best International Feature. However, had he given the Aravind Adiga novel a more authentic treatment in Hindi, devoid of the Netflix version’s Western gaze, the film may not have won over Academy voters to the same degree.
This brings us to another vital issue preventing India’s Oscar chances: selecting the right movie.

It's true a majority of Indian film industries — be it Hindi, Tamil, Marathi or Malayalam — are populist fare catering to the widest possible demographic in the country, but not outside of it. But this insular attitude hurts the perception of our cinema in the eyes of the rest of the world. Still, making the most viable submission from the country's populist and burgeoning indie wave is paramount.

A poster of <i>Portrait of a Lady on Fire</i>.
A poster of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

What critics may deem to be the best movie may not always be the best choice. For instance, Celine Sciamma's Portrait of a Lady on Fire was without doubt a masterpiece for the ages. But France still chose Ladj Ly's Les Misérables because there was an urgency to it with the ongoing crises of migrants and police brutality. Its dissenting ethos resonated not only in France, but even in Hong Kong as protestors marched to denounce Beijing's growing influence over the city. With the socio-political climate as it is around the world, it is important to consider a film's thematic as well as aesthetic appeal.

To be sure, Jallikattu had both. It was no doubt a bold choice, but opinions differ on whether it was the right one. Hansal Mehta believed The Disciple stood a better chance, as it had already won plenty of acclaim in the festival circuit. Not to mention the backing of Alfonso Cuaron. Rohena Gera's Sir and Devashish Makhija's Bhonsle too would surely have divided the 14-member committee of the Film Federation of India, and rethink their endorsement. It's a privilege but not an easy job. Imagine having to choose between Thithi and Visaranai ahead of 2016 Oscars. Perhaps, The Lunchbox and Ship of Theseus may have fared better than The Good Road in 2013. Perhaps not. Hindsight is 20/20.

But to turn any of these movies into an Oscar-winner requires a relentless and persuasive campaign.

Before the Oscar nominations are announced, it’s the campaign trail that often decides who makes it and who doesn’t. Getting the influential voters to watch the film is not easy or cheap of course.
A poster of the Tamil film <i>Visaranai.</i>
A poster of the Tamil film Visaranai.
(Photo Courtesy: Twitter)

This is why the bigger studios and streaming platforms stand a better chance at winning those coveted statues. Netflix reportedly spent over $100 million to create and maintain buzz around its 2019 titles, The Irishman and Marriage Story. Besides billboards, parties and lobbying, the streaming giant shared dozens of interviews and featurettes to ensure the films remained in conversation throughout the awards season. Though the campaigning didn't win them the all-important Best Picture, it earned them enough nominations to increase their credibility in the industry.

Parasite, the film which did end up winning Best Picture at the 2020 Oscars, benefited from the awards campaign led by its American distributor, Neon. Though a much smaller company compared to Netflix, Neon helped create a narrative around Bong Joon-ho's film through a clever theatrical and VOD release strategy which relied on word-of-mouth buzz. But its victory was really an exception, rather than the rule. Jallikattu was released in the US way back in October 2019 by a similar indie distributor called XYZ Films. Not only is it hard to keep any film in the awards conversation for that long, but to create a campaign within the strict budget limitations of smaller companies. How can XYZ Films compete with Disney and Netflix?

The Academy insists the name change to Best International Feature Film was "to reflect the inclusive and universal nature of cinema." But their own outdated eligibility rules hinder its goals. Not unlike how the Indian film industry's often myopic approach has prevented its films from garnering universal appeal. Perhaps, the Academy should introduce changes beyond nomenclature. Perhaps, there's cause to allow countries to send more than one submission. Perhaps, there needs to be some curbs on lobbying, which reduces the best of cinema to a sales pitch in a bidding war. What is certain is the whole system needs an overhaul.

(This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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