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India’s distant Oscar dream

India – the country which produces the largest film in the world – has not won a single Oscar in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Who is to blame?

Expectations were high this year when Rima Das’ Village Rockstars was declared as India’s official entry for Oscars in the Best Foreign Language Film category. Unfortunately, it could not even make it to the final nine. The last Indian film which made it to the Oscar nominations was Asutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan – that too 18 years back! Thus, let alone winning one, making it to the final nominations is a big deal in itself for Indian films.

Before delving deep into the reason behind India’s Oscar ‘jinx’, let’s take a look back at the times when Indian films did make history at the Academy Awards.

Flashback

Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1958) was the first Indian film to be nominated in the Oscars. Then it was Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) which received a position in the Academy Awards nominations.  After over a decade, in 2001, Asutosh Gowarikar’s Lagaan made it to the nominations. All these films were appreciated – both nationally and internationally.

Till now, only five Indians have won the Academy Awards. Bhanu Athaiyya – the first ever Indian to win an Oscar – won it for the Best Costume Design for Gandhi (1983). Then it was Satyajit Ray – who received the honorary award for his lifetime contribution to films in 1992. Then came 2009 – when three Indians – Resul Pookutty (Best Sound Mixing), A R Rahman and Gulzar (Best Original Song) bagged the award for the same film: Slumdog Millionaire.

The film also received the Best Film Award in the Oscars, but this decision was heavily criticised as it was produced and directed by non-Indians. Also, it did not portray India in a good light. Thus, many were of the view that this film cannot be considered as a ‘big win’ for India, as it might boast an Indian cast and is set in India, but was termed as a ‘product’ of the West. The films Gandhi (1982) and Life of Pi (2012) were also criticised for the same reason.

Controversies

51 entries. 3 nominations. 0 awards. This is the data of Indian films at the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars. Being the country which produces the most number of films in the world, this is indeed disheartening. Countries like Italy – 65 entries, 31 nominations, 14 awards and France – 65 entries, 39 nominations, 12 awards have proved themselves time and again, and are helmed as the top countries to bag Oscars in this category.

What do these countries have that India doesn’t? Well, among many things one can point out to the process through which the films are selected. Both France and Italy keep their selection process – from the call for submission to the announcement of the final film – out in the public domain. Even the names of the jury who select the film are declared. But such is not the case in India.

The whole process of India’s selection for the Best Foreign language film in Oscars is kept a ‘secret.’ FFI has got into legal trouble once (during the selection of film Eklavya) alleging biases in its selection process. It has received flak numerous times for sending mediocre to plagiarised films – with the result that controversies are its constant companions.

Delving deep

In search for answers, Patriot interviewed President of Film Federation of India (FFI) Firdausul Hasan to get the official point of view. He talks about why Indian films have failed to win an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language category till date and why the names of jury members of the board (of the Selection Committee) are kept a secret. Excerpts:

We produce so many films but never seem to get Oscars. What is the reason behind this?

India is the largest film producing country in the world, with approximately 1,800-2,000 films being made every year. FFI organises the nomination – the one film which is India’s Oscar entry. We are doing it from 1957. Till now, three films have been nominated – Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan. This is the scenario.

It’s not that Indian films are not good or up to the mark for an international market. Indian films have definitely improved. Commercially, Indian films have got a very good market – in Middle East and other parts of the world as well. But the reason for this is maybe that for Oscars, they look for certain parameters – which our Indian films might not be fulfilling. But we don’t make a film to win an Oscar. We make it for the mass. So a film is made keeping the business, censor rules and other aspects in mind.

Every year 60-70 films are submitted to FFI for Oscar entry, and thus it is very difficult to choose one. There are various reasons for that, and it’s tough to pinpoint one reason. I think we – the producers and directors – don’t work on films keeping in mind that we are producing a film just to get an Oscar. We don’t do that maybe. We work differently – we have our own audience. Hindi films have songs and music – something that doesn’t happen in the real world.

Are there any set guidelines as to how the jury which decides upon the film to select?

There is no particular guideline – like this has to be done in this way or that way. It is up to the jury to decide. But they do provide a basic guideline — not only on how films are being selected, but also on how the jury members will be chosen.

Is there any particular reason as to why the names of the jury members are kept a secret?

It should be a secret, and not be an open thing. Because they should not be disturbed. If you disclose the names in public, then people might disturb them. Thus, we never mention their names. At the most, we mention the name of the Chairman who is heading the jury.

FFI got embroiled in various controversies regarding its film selection for Oscars. What do you…

(Interrupting) I have heard about these, but I became the President of FFI this year only. Controversies will always be there. People will think what they want to, you cannot change their mind. But as I said, from 1957 we are doing this. We have certain authenticity and a brand of our own. We have certain genuineness and we stick to that. For so many years we are doing this, so this is not a matter of joke. You have to leave it to the jury, you cannot dictate.

Who decides upon the process of the selection of the film (India’s Oscar entry)?

Yes, the jury go through their own process – which is a fair one – and then they zero in on a film.

Many a time there have been allegations of bias among the jury. Your comment?

That’s what I am saying – the jury consists of very reputed people. We select the jury on the basis of their track record.  There are also certain norms by the Oscar Board to select the jury. So, they give their best. But one cannot avoid controversy when the aspirants are more, and the winner is one.

If people want, they can stir up controversies. We never practise bias, neither do we encourage those things. We want the best film to go. The jury are like Supreme Court judges – they are the best persons to judge and thus whatever they say, we go by that.