In Director Shaunak Sen’s Oscar-nominated feature-length documentary All That Breathes, three brothers run a makeshift hospital in their basement in Wazirabad, where they treat black kites that fall from Delhi’s polluted sky. After winning top awards at Sundance and Cannes film festivals, All That Breathes travelled to other similar events, eventually earning an Oscar nomination. Alas, the film failed to win the award last Sunday.
Last year, two of Sen’s fellow students from Jamia Millia Islamia—Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s documentary Writing with Fire was also nominated for the Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. But it too failed to get an Oscar.
We are celebrating the Oscar wins of Nattu Nattu from RRR and the short documentary The Elephant Whisperers. Both RRR and the short directed by Kartiki Gonsalves are streaming on Netflix and had strong public relations campaigns behind their success.
Indian Documentaries Get Global Spotlight
Surely there is some realisation about Indian cinema among critics and Oscar voters—Americans and the recently added foreign members who were brought in to add the faces of diversity to the Academy rolls.
Like RRR, there are so many more extravagant, commercial Indian films made in various languages, but they rarely get distribution outside the Indian diaspora circles in the US and very few of them get noticed by mainstream American critics. So far, none of that has changed, but one cannot write off the impact of RRR and especially the Nattu Nattu song.
The Oscar for The Elephant Whisperers was partly the result of the behind-the-scenes work by its producer Guneet Monga. Monga has successfully taken films that she produced to the Cannes Film Festival (The Lunchbox, Monsoon Shootout).
She was also the Executive Producer of 2019 Oscar-winning short documentary Period. The End of Silence and also on Jallikattu—India’s official entry for the Oscars in the same year. She is clearly familiar with the complex world of the Academy Awards and may have similar successes in the future.
But the fact that two Indian feature-length documentaries made it all the way to get nominated for the Oscars is a fascinating story. The films started their journeys in India from a mentoring lab called DocedgeKolkata. The lab is run by Nilotpal Majumdar who has been instrumental in what some refer to as the rise of Indian documentaries.
Majumdar also made a collective of senior documentary filmmakers. This collective guides, nurtures and prepares recent university grads and other young documentary filmmakers, advising them on fundraising, script development, and recommending other labs around the world where their films can go for mentorship.
Does the Illustrious Run of Films Abroad Become a Yardstick for Others?
So much is at play when Indian documentaries enter the global arena. The competition is tough, but if the film is picked up by a strong sales agent or lands a distribution deal with a global cable channel such as HBO (that is what happened with All That Breathes), then its journey to the Academy Awards becomes a lot clearer.
Like All That Breathes and Writing with Fire, a third Indian documentary is following that path. Against the Tide is once again directed by a Jamia graduate Sarvnik Kaur. And like the other films, Kaur’s documentary also started its travels from the Sundance Film Festival in late January, where it won the Special Jury Prize in the World Documentary section.
It is too early to predict if Against the Tide will progress all the way to the Academy Awards. We will only get a sense of that as it plays in other festivals. But the word is that there are quite a few other young Indian documentary filmmakers whose works are in the pipeline.
Last fall, another documentary from India—While We Watched premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. The film is directed by Vinay Shukla, whose previous work An Insignificant Man focused on the rise of Arvind Kejriwal and the Aam Aadmi Party.
While We Watched tracks the life and work of the former NDTV anchor Ravish Kumar, he begins to develop doubts about the impact of his work while he faces constant death threats from random trolls. The film won the Amplify Voices Award at TIFF and also the Cinephile Award at the Busan Film Festival.
Is Diversification of Academy Awards Good News for South Asian Films?
Of course, each film has to find its own way as it travels. But the diversification of the Academy Awards membership base is beginning to have its impact. The documentary branch of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences has quite a few non-American members whose votes impact the success of non-American films. Both Thomas and Ghosh were inducted into this branch of the Academy post Writing with Fire’s nomination.
This key voting bloc has already had a taste of two documentaries from India in 2022 and 2023. So naturally, they will keep their minds open to other non-fiction films coming from India.
The paths may be different, but finally, Indian films are finding a foothold on the global stage—especially with Academy Awards which is slowly taking on an international face.
It is a remarkable change from a few years ago when Indian films were still struggling to be noticed in the US during the awards season. That ship has sailed, and we should expect more films from India to attract attention in the near future.
(Aseem Chhabra is an actor and producer, known for Sita Sings the Blues (2008), Iftar (2015) and Pulse: The Desi Beat (2007). He is also one of the organisers of NYIFF. He tweets @chhabs. This is a personal blog and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)