Why India doesn't win the Oscar

62 years ago, 'Mother India' had almost won an Oscar. No Indian film has won the Academy Glory since.

A scene from 'Mother India', the 1957 Indian submission that won a nomination.

India has been sending films to the Oscars since 1957, which was also the year the country stood closest to winning the ‘Best Foreign Language Film’ award.

That year, Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’ lost to Federico Fellini’s ‘Nights of Cabiria’ by one vote.

India has sent 50 films after that. Only two out of the next 49, 1989’s ‘Salaam Bombay!’ and 2001’s ‘Lagaan’, would go on to get nominations. The judgement on the last, Zoya Akhtar’s ‘Gully Boy’, is still pending.

The competition this year is not going to be easy, the toughest contender to beat being the South Korean entry, Bong Joon-ho’s dark comedy thriller ‘Parasite’.

‘Parasite’ was unanimously chosen by the jury at the Cannes Film Festival as the Best Film, and holds a 100% approval rating at film review website Rotten Tomatoes.

The Academy Awards never present a simple race, and what makes it complicated is that the winners are not chosen by a jury, but through an election by thousands of Academy members, most of whose identities are a secret.

And India’s challenge every year is the same: lack of visibility.

“Visibility is very important, but visibility is also very expensive,” says Rima Das, whose Assamese film ‘Village Rockstars’ was the 2018 entry.

For visibility, producers must throw lavish parties, of which alcohol and good food are major components.

“Your first job is to get them to see the film. The second job is to make sure they are in the right frame of mind when they see it,” Gyan Correa, whose Gujarati film ‘The Good Road’ was the 2013 entry, says.

But promoting your film is a slippery slope. The Academy’s 35-page strictly rules out a lot of your options.

“You have to pay for advertisement, but the advertisement can’t campaign for the film. If you campaign, you will be barred. But there is an inherent disadvantage to this: that your film has not released in the US,” Correa says.

Baradwaj Rangan, film critic and editor of Film Companion South says, “When you send a film to the Oscars — of course, it has to be a good movie — the filmmakers have to be in a position where they are interested in lobbying. Otherwise, it’s like saying I am going to enter a 400-metre running competition but I am going to sit in the stands.”

That’s where your publicist comes in.

There are well-established agencies in Los Angeles that specialise in getting the word out without restrictions coming in the way. They don’t break the rules, they bend them.

Predictably, they don’t come cheap either.

“You can’t do anything there without at least Rs 3 crore,” says Salim Ahamed, whose Malayalam film ‘Adaminte Makan Abu’ was the 2011 entry. Rs 3 crore is more money than the budget of an independent film. The Assam government gave Rima an amount of Rs 1 crore but she says that too was not enough at the Oscars.

Most Indian entries do not have US releases before the official submission, so it’s a scramble after that to get the attention of the Academy members, entertainment news media and big film critics, who, Correa says, are the “major opinion-shapers”.

Time is a factor, too. In India, a film starts work at the Oscars after the Film Federation of India has selected it as the official submission. Many other official entries don’t wait for their countries to choose them. They do so well at big film festivals like Cannes, Venice and Berlin that they become their country’s natural choice, as with ‘Parasite’. The festival glory acts as an Oscar campaign that happens in advance because many Academy members attend these festivals.

Rima says this happened in 2018, too. “The Mexican entry ‘Roma’ (Winner of ‘Best Film’ at Venice, which eventually won the Oscar) and the Japanese entry ‘Shoplifters’ (Winner of ‘Best Film’ at Cannes) were very much aware that they are going to be nominated.”

This is harder on independent filmmakers, because not only are they already behind some other contenders in the race, they have to spend more time finding the money to start campaigning.

Rima lost a whole month this way: her entry was announced on September 28, but by the time she started campaigning, it was November.

Geetu Mohandas, whose Hindi road movie ‘Liar’s Dice’ was the 2014 entry, jokes that as soon as she got to know of the submission, she “had to get the rich uncles involved.”

Many Indian filmmakers who enter the race, however, send their film to Los Angeles and stay away from the world of publicity and campaigning, hoping the inherent merit of their work would win them the prize.

While this is a time-tested formula at the National Film Awards, Oscars seem to work differently.

Shyam Benegal, whose Hindi film ‘Manthan’ was the Indian submission in 1977, told Showtime that his producers generally don’t have the money for lobbying and that his movie was sent to Los Angeles like a “lost lamb”.

Rajeev Anchal, whose Malayalam philosophical thriller Guru was the 1997 entry, says he packed the film off with his friend’s wife, who was working in LA at the time. He says he and his team had no clue about what was happening with the film in America.

“She was keeping track and told us that the film got up to four screenings because people were interested in the film’s fantasy and philosophy despite the horrible subtitles,” Anchal says.

Were there any expenses? “I packed the film off with my friend’s wife. What expenses could there be?” he says.

M S Sathyu, 89, is the oldest living filmmaker to have his film sent to the Oscars. His Hindi film ‘Garam Hawa’ was the 1974 entry. The film told the story of a Muslim family in Agra during partition, which led to protests from conservative groups, and a refusal by the censor board to certify it for 11 months. “Mr (L K) Advani wrote a review of my film without seeing it,” he says.

So, the selection of ‘Garam Hawa’ as India’s official entry was not done by an Indian committee.

“My premiere was held in Paris. From there, it was selected for the Cannes festival, and from there, it went to the Oscars. It’s not like any Indian committee sent it,” he says.

“I got an invitation to attend the Oscars, but I didn’t have the money to go so I didn’t go, but I sent the film alright. They sent me a certificate of participation later on,” he says. What happened with the film in LA? “I wasn’t in LA, so I can’t say,” he says.

Some other filmmakers like Geetu and Ahamed go with their film but don’t have the money to splurge.  When asked whether she threw any parties, Geetu says, “We didn’t do all that nonsense. If you want to do it that way, you can do it that way. We just had enough cash for these screenings and to host people for those screenings.”

“We didn’t have money for alcohol, just for samosa and chai,” she jokes.

Apart from the parties and the lobbying, there is also the question of what the Academy wants to watch. “The film has to be ‘good’. There are topics that one presumes that they would connect with. There is a racial demographic profile that they follow,” Correa says.

Apart from ‘Salaam Bombay!’, ‘Lagaan’ and ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and one Oscar for costume designer Bhanu Athaiya in British film ‘Gandhi’ (1982), the closest India has come to Oscar success has been another British film, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’, which brough home four Oscars. “India’s biggest success story at the Oscars was ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and that involves a scene where someone falls into a pit of shit,” Rangan says.

Taking all factors together, the reason ‘Gully Boy’ stands a chance is that Zoya ticks many of the boxes many of her predecessors didn’t. She has made a film about a struggling India, which she premiered with the international audience at the Berlin Film Festival this year and she has rich producers.

Perhaps all that is left is to play the game right.

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