A prize too far

Despite being the country which produces the highest number of films every year, India has never bagged an Academy Award in the best film category

Last year, a small-budget film revolving around two Seoul families – one wealthy, and another underprivileged – made history. Bong-Joon-Ho’s South Korean film Parasite won the Academy Awards for Best picture; the first time a foreign language film to be honoured thus.Making it loud and clear that language might not be a barrier anymore to bring the Oscars home!

India, unfortunately, still hasn’t bagged Oscars in this category – despite being the most prolific country when it comes to output. This year, much hope was bestowed upon Lijo Jose Pelissery‘s Malayalam film Jalikattu, which was India’s official entry to the Oscars. Being a film which had a unique tonality, exceptional cinematography, background score and narrative – it definitely stood out amid the crowd.

When the news of Jalikattu being out of the race for the 93rd Academy Awards came out, an air of despair that prevailed in the Indian film scene. But soon enough, the hopelessness seemed to diminish when it was announced that Bittu had been shortlisted under the Live Action Short Film category. The film is presented by Ekta Kapoor, Guneet Monga, and writer-director Tahira Kashyap Khurrana under the banner Indian Women Rising (IWR).

Bittu, based on a poisoning accident that took place in a school in 2013, is set in rural India. The film focuses on the friendship between two little girls. In 2019, an Indian documentary Period: End of Sentence bagged the Academy Award for the Best Documentary short film. This too had a rural backdrop, with a touching tale of women empowerment.

Poster of Black Sand documentary

Apart from this, the other common ground which both these short films share is Guneet Monga – who is the co-producer for both the projects. Thus, we all are hoping that Bittu, like Period: End of Sentence, also manages to create a miracle.

Other than this, India still has another documentary Black Sand which has qualified under the Documentary Short Category section. Directed by Sohan Roy, it highlights the unparalleled damage caused by sand mining at Alappad in Kollam district, Kerala. Also, Suriya starrer Tamil film Soorarai Pottru which is directed by Sudha Kongara is still in the running. However, all these films are still competing to make it to the final nominations, which will be announced on March 15.

But the matter that is of concern is how an Indian feature film hasn’t yet bagged the highest honours at the Academy Awards. The only films that ever made it to the final five were Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1988) and Lagaan (2001). Other than that, films like Gandhi (1982), Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and Life of Pi (2012) also bagged Oscars – though they aren’t ‘Indian’ films to be precise. Despite having Indian actors or backdrop, the creators were non-Indians.

Thus, it’s been more than a decade that any Indian film – let alone winning – has made it to the final five. Debates have often surfaced regarding what could be the cause behind it. Aren’t Indian films good enough?

This is not the case, that one can rest assured given how with time our films are reaching new highs. Even ages back, with filmmakers like Satjyajit Ray, Mrinal Sen, Shyam Benegal and so on – Indian cinema was richer than many other countries.  Thus, one factor could be selection. Controversies have always shrouded the Indian fraternity responsible for the selection of the country’s official entry. Many times it has failed to make the right choice, whatever the reasons might be. But such isn’t always the case.

According to many, publicity is also a factor that India often lags behind in. The funding and capacity that one requires to make a foreign language film reach a global audience is often not sufficient. But one question that is debatable is: Do Indian movies lack global appeal? Because with Parasite’s Oscar win, one thing is for sure: content is, literally, king. A strong plot and great execution can do wonders – doesn’t matter what’s the budget or the setting or the language.

Nevertheless, one can always hope for better days ahead, when an Indian feature film too will have its Parasite moment. After all, we too are a land full of stories to be told – one that encompasses all barriers. Till then, let the short films and documentaries make us proud!

(Cover: A still from Bittu)

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