(An edited version of this was put up here.)
On Saturday afternoon, if you were listening, there was a sound that is rarely heard in Bollywood: the rumble and crumble of heartbreak. (More here and here.) In an industry in which everyone has a publicist spouting statements for them, and fake smiles are the most popular currency, it’s rare to encounter genuine emotion. When the Film Federation of India (FFI) announced that it was sending The Good Road by Gyan Correa as the Indian entry to the Oscars, what we got from the people in camp The Lunchbox – courtesy social media – was unaffected, honest whimpers of pain. It wasn’t a lament for the nation, even though the tweets made it seem that way. India is going to submit an entry to the Oscars; it’s just not one that too many have seen.
The FFI is the organisation entrusted with the responsibility of selecting an Indian entry for the Oscars. For better or for worse, it’s been doing this since the 1950s. If the film the FFI selects wins over enough members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS), as Lagaan did, then it gets nominated for Best Foreign Film. Then if it gets enough votes, it wins the award. Three Indian films have been nominated in Oscar history – Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan – but we’re yet to win an Oscar for our cinematic efforts. This is not because the films aren’t good enough (a lot of rubbish films win Oscars), but because, until very recently, an Indian producer couldn’t afford the lobbying in Los Angeles that is a critical part of getting your toe through the Oscars’ door.
Unusually for a small film in India, The Lunchbox did manage to get Hollywood to pay a little attention. Its build-up, trotting around film festivals in Cannes, Telluride and Toronto, was perfect. Born an indie film, adopted by one of the most successful commercial studios in Bollywood, The Lunchbox brought together an unusual alliance between disparate camps. Its list of 21 producers include Lydia Dean Pilcher (whose credits include The Darjeeling Limited and The Namesake), NFDC (whose films win National Awards and are seen by almost no one other than the jury of the award, thanks to our overwhelmingly market-driven industry), Guneet Monga (producer of films like Monsoon Shootout, which was selected by Cannes, and Gangs of Wasseypur) and Anurag Kashyap. Karan Johar decided to present it to Indian audiences, raising its visibility and viability, and Disney UTV picked up the Indian rights of distribution. The film’s US rights were picked up by Sony Pictures Classics, a Hollywood heavyweight.
When The Lunchbox’s cheerleaders wail about everything having aligned itself in favour of the film, this is the confluence they’re talking about. It’s unlikely that NFDC, The Good Road‘s producer, is going to be able to come anywhere close to the lobbying skills of Sony, Disney, Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar combined. Forget skills, will the Indian government pay for NFDC officials to spend the time that’s necessary to score a nomination, let alone a win?
Till the FFI’s announcement on Saturday, the three Indian favourites for an Oscar nomination were Ship of Theseus (presented by Kiran Rao and therefore assumed to have Aamir Khan’s backing), Bhaag Milkha Bhaag (produced by Viacom 18 and Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra) and The Lunchbox. No one expected The Good Road to come out in front, least of all the director of the film, Gyan Correa who has since received much hate mail, as though he betrayed the country by making a National Award-winning film that the FFI’s selection committee liked.
Unsurprisingly, the rumours now circulating about why The Good Road made the cut are like a particularly drunk game of Chinese Whispers.
1. The FFI’s Oscar selection committee, headed by filmmaker Gautam Ghose, is supposedly made up of arty grouches who just can’t appreciate feel-good films, especially if they have the backing of a commercial producer like Karan Johar. (Never mind the fact that the in the past, the FFI has sent blockbusters like Jeans and Barfi! as Indian entries.)
2. They’re a bunch of fuddy-duddies who are totally out of touch with what’s creating a buzz around the world because most of them have only just discovered the internet. (This might well be true, but if it is, then it makes the committee ideally unbiased, which in turn makes their choice beyond complaint.)
3. The government interfered with the selection process, though precisely why it would want to champion a low-profile film by a first-time director is unclear.
4. And then there’s the ‘Narendra Modi did it’ rumour, according to which The Good Road is the selection committee’s attempt to ingratiate themselves with Modi (how would this work and why would a committee whose members must be unnamed bother to do so? Never mind. Why expect logic from a rumour?). And hey, since Modi tweeted about The Good Road, that rumour *must* be the closest to truth.
5. There’s also the theory that the committee, feeling squinched between Bollywood biggies like Karan Johar and Aamir Khan, decided to pick the film that had no backing. That way, the committee and the FFI can’t be accused of having favoured anyone important.
6. Finally, could it be that The Lunchbox had its Madhu Sapre moment? Sapre was rocking the Miss Universe contest until it came to the final round and she lost the plot as well as the title by naively saying she would try to set up better sports infrastructure in India instead of wishing for world peace. Similarly, The Lunchbox was doing everything right, but it seems that while it was ready to lobby in LA, it forgot that it had to register its presence with the producers, exhibitors and studio owners who make up FFI. Next thing you know, The Lunchbox has been stranded.
Only critic Nandini Ramnath had the temerity to suggest that The Good Road was selected because it is a good film. For too many, it’s become a vitriolic campaign to bring down one film or the other. Now suddenly The Lunchbox is over-hyped or there’s the other deeply unfair conclusion that The Good Road is unworthy of Oscar nomination because it hasn’t been selected for festivals or screened widely.
What all this hand-wringing about The Lunchbox and The Good Road really shows, however, is the worrying state of the cultural dialogue within India. Including the National Awards, we’ve got more than a dozen events that claim to celebrate good cinema in its various shapes and sizes. Filmfare, Stardust, IIFA, Apsara, CineMAA, Zee Cine and Colors Screen awards are just a few names. They come with Oscars-style nominations, red carpets and live performances, and they’re telecast to millions of (South Asian) people around the world.
But in real terms, they’re irrelevant and have zero value. Since there’s no respect for either the awards or the process by which the winners are chosen, the hankering for a pat on the back from something like the Oscars becomes that much more intense. It’s not just an award, it’s validation for the entire Indian film industry that lets us say, “Look, we’re not crap! A real film industry with a real critical establishment said so!”
For years, it seemed the importance we gave to foreign critics and awards came out of a national sense of insecurity and an ingrained habit of needing the white man’s approval. Postcolonial baggage, as the academically-inclined would term it. In the 21st century, things are a little different. We’re confident enough of ourselves to the point that today, the image of the young Indian abroad isn’t meek as it was 20 years ago, but brash. Our books are being read internationally, our politics are being reported by news agencies from the world over, Indian art is in prized international collections, people around the world read and listen to what we’re saying – it all looks pretty darn groovy. So you’d think that at this point, we’d be less eager to please foreign juries and institutions, but actually we’ve become more desperate than ever before.
Having dismissed debate and stifled critique for years, we’ve turned Indian arts and culture into a little well of insincere flattery and polite avoidance. We’ve laughed off the idea that creative fields are more than hobbies, that they are professions or practices that require training, rigour and nurturing. The number of educational institutions that offer respectable courses in filmmaking, art, music, creative writing and cultural criticism are laughably low. Over the years, these have actually dwindled instead of flourishing. The work and study that most practitioners and critics put in is deplorable, making “self-taught” a synonym for “lazy”. It seems anyone can become an artist or a critic, and consequently our aesthetic yardsticks have dropped to the point where an average work seems brilliant. This is particularly true of film because its peers have traditionally been local players, whereas many writers, artists and musicians have exercised the option of being compared to and contrasted with practitioners from other countries. But no matter the genre, there’s little respect or acceptance for critical debate, whether from a peer or a critic, because most have landed up in these professions by chance, rather than as a result of training and ambition. You can trust neither praise nor disapproval. Whatever opinion anyone offers is suspect and dismiss-able.
Net result: India has a cultural playground that is simultaneously fertile and barren. We’ve got the potential and the ambitions, but we don’t have the critical debate that is essential to nurture good art.
We value the Oscars not because it’s the best-marketed awards spectacle or because the American film industry is holier ground, but because we respect that opinion. (The reason so many more know the Oscars, as opposed to the BAFTAs or the Cesar, is its marketing, but that’s a separate matter.) Even though everyone in the industry – and many outside it – know that it takes bushels of money and relentless politicking to win an Oscar nomination, the fact that the award is given by a group of professionals, whose work we regularly see and frequently admire, makes it command more respect than any of the Indian statuettes. It matters a little more than film festival acclaim to Bollywood because it’s acknowledgement from Hollywood, a respected peer. For a long time, recognition from the Oscars too ambitious a dream because our cinema seemed too modest in comparison. Now, though, we’ve got American studios in Mumbai, we’ve got filmmakers and technicians who have studied in the same film schools as people working in Hollywood. This year, particularly, the Oscar, one of the few arena for commercial film where players from all over the world can go head to head, felt almost within reach.
In the rest of the world, there are usually awards other than Oscars to give a film some sense of worth, especially if the film is from a country with a thriving film industry. In India, all a film has are box office numbers. If we had even one award within the country that the industry and audiences could respect, then the Oscars would be less of a big deal. If there were a cultural institution or jury that we found credible and worthy of respect – one that wasn’t considered a collection of groupies, grumps or ignoramuses – then there could be an award with that kind of standing. It doesn’t have to begin as an elaborate affair (after all, the Oscars started out as a little industry party) but it does need to have credibility and trustworthy standards of excellence. If we can trust the talent – creative and critical – within the country to evaluate itself honestly, then we’ll move towards a scenario where such an award can exist and thrive. When that happens, it won’t feel quite as catastrophic if you have more than one good film in a year and it doesn’t get nominated for the Oscars. Considering the crop of good films this year, it’s a shame we’re not there yet, because this was a year in which Indian cinema deserved to be celebrated.