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Bollywood’s Oscar Curse

Why does the most glamorous, celebrated and venerated award spurn Bollywood, the world’s largest film industry?

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Bollywood’s Oscar Curse

It’s that time of the year again, folks, and everyone, including their demented uncle, entered a state of hyper excitement — including Bollywood. Strange, you might say, considering the complete humiliating disconnect between B-town and the Oscars. Unfailingly the largest movie manufacturers on earth continue to send their entries to the coveted, hallowed and revered awards and unfailingly, they are politely, but firmly rejected.

Barring three exceptions (Mother India in 1957, Salaam Bombay in 1988 and Lagaan in 2001) our over half-a-century lage raho drive has paid zilch dividends, there. This year’s entry too, the Malayalam film Adaminte Makar Abu, alas, suffered the same fate. A huge downer for the chest-thumping, B-town devotees forever screaming the Bollywood goes global anthem. What is the problem? Why this systematic cold shoulder to a country that has (in the past) been appreciated and awarded at many of the most prestigious forums — Cannes, Venice, Berlin — celebrating quality cinema? Where have we gone wrong?

Avid film-society freak Abhay Neogi says: “Let’s not get aggressive, defensive, emotional or patriotic and face some hard facts straight. The Oscars is not another corny, dumb, over-hyped B-town-specific tamasha, flashed across TRP-hungry TV channels or those award functions catering to the crazed NRI’s abroad, yelling ‘Shahrukh, love, u, marry me, want your child!’ It is the mother of all glitz n’ gloss events on planet earth with a captive audience of over 750 million TV viewers and beamed at over 100 countries. An Oscar award — unlike our Filmfare or any of the trillion awards constantly being doled out — makes big waves in terms of glamor, prestige and market value. It is said that it lifts BO collections to the tune of $10 million plus, not to speak of publicity, trade, press and image fillip. In many instances, fees go triple. Do we compare anywhere in this zone? With our pathetic track record, why do we consciously bother to be so masochistic and invite ridicule, year after year? Forget it boss … and carry on dancing to Chikni Chameli & Chhamak Chhallo and be happy. Oscars hamari bus ki baat nahin hain, simple!”

Fact is, a different mindset operates at the Oscars. Most of our Bollywood products are, understandably, targeted to the Indian sensibility and hence the style, substance, form and content — over-the-top, song-dance-melodrama-comedy-tragedy-color-costumes-locale, etc. — is put together to meet this precise requirement. Be it Bodyguard, Zindagi Na Milegi, Don 2 or Agneepath (all top-grossers at home and abroad) the movies follow a particular made-in-India/Bollywood pattern. Problem is, that this kind of narrative is, at best, seen as exotica, enjoyed for a few minutes. The movies are considered too long, vague and too culture/region specific.

 

The Oscar mantra is local roots with a global — read universal — embrace and that, mostly doesn’t happen with most of the India/diaspora-flavored stuff dished out by Bollywood. Critics also point fingers at people who comprise the jury. Are they really qualified to judge a film that should go to the Oscars? Do they know the language of cinema, are truly cinema-literate, aware of the brand of global cinema narratives needed to rock with the Oscars in the prestigious Foreign Film Category? They also emphasize the fake, superficial and bravado-driven indifference that many in B-town play-act regarding the Oscars. These myopic souls pretend to believe that B-wood has become so hot globally that it doesn’t need any seal of approval from anybody anywhere! However, given half (even quarter) a chance, the same gang will rush to Los Angeles in a flash, after several tweets and press conferences about “how humbled we feel to be nominated!”

Lyricist Javed Akhtar refuses to be cute or politically correct and believes that we haven’t made the cut simply because “our films are not good enough. We have to push the envelope further and raise the bar to come up to a level that attains global standards, whatever they may be. Clearly, we continue to fall short and instead of whining, it would serve us well to introspect and move forward.”

Filmmaker Aparna Sen believes too much importance is accorded to the Oscars. “Why — because it is a Hollywood-sponsored award? I don’t hear or see half this kind of excitement or hype when the far more classy and prestigious Cannes or Venice awards are held. Does it really award the best of the best? How many times, if ever, have the acknowledged great masters (Satyajit Ray, Ingmar Bergman, Akira Kurasawa, Francois Truffaut, Michaelangelo Antonioni, Frederico Fellini) featured in these awards? Who are the people, here, who comprise the selection committee — are their profiles commensurate to the requirements of the job? Frankly, it’s a Hollywood-specific event and its glamor, market value and reach is so overwhelming that it dominates over every other criteria. This is not to dismiss its positives. It does salute great talent, occasionally and that is encouraging.”

Director Shyam Benegal concurs: “Beyond all other criteria, Oscars is ultimately about marketing and networking. How many of our film industry guys are even remotely aware or knowledgeable of the dynamics or mechanisms required to play the Oscar game? Save the Aamir-Asutosh Gowarikar duo, I have doubts if any qualifies. Lagaan should be treated as a case-study.”

The last words must come from someone best qualified to comment — someone of Indian origin, about to embark on his 101st Hollywood production (you heard that right) based in Los Angeles with a track record of movies that have grossed over a billion dollars and a personal connection with all hot, movers ‘n shakers of that magic land — Ashok Amritraj! “Indian films haven’t really reached the western audiences. Their penetration and future will all depend on Indian film-makers and stars who are willing to take chances on themes and writers who understand what a global audience wants — and distributors to take that crucial leap of faith and spend money on marketing their films in theaters that are traditionally English-language. Right now, Indian films cater to a dedicated niche audience — NRIs and Indian audience — and there is curiosity about the costumes, dancing and fun … but it needs to impact on a more universal and serious level if it means business.”

So, whether it’s the kind of films we make, sensibilities we cater to, selection committees that we are saddled with, political compulsions that have to be accommodated or networking and marketing-powerplay that needs to be addressed … the Oscar-Bharat-sangam appears doomed to hear only one tune: Nahin, Kabhi Nahin!

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Bollywood | Arts & Entertainment | March 2012

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