The only two Indian nationals to have bagged the Oscar in its 80-year history are Bhanu Athaiya (Gandhi, 1982) for Best Costume design and Satyajit Ray, who was conferred an honorary Oscar in 1991 in recognition of his “rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences through out the world”.
The high points:
A decade after Italy’s Shoeshine became the first foreign film to receive a special academy award in 1947, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India (1957) made it to the top five in the category. The film still remains the closest that India came to winning the golden statuette — the film lost by just one vote. But cinema lovers can derive some solace from the fact that the winner that year was Federico Fellini for The Nights of Cabaria (his second Best Film win after La Strada, 1956).
Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s An Encounter with Faces was nominated for an Oscar in the short, non-fiction film category in 1979.
Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988) made it to the top five but lost to Denmark’s Pelle the Conqueror by Bille August.
Aamir Khan’s Lagaan (2001) rode on high expectations and some great moments to make it to the top five.
It wasn’t always that India sent mediocre, highly contestable entries. Sahib Biwi Aur Ghulam (1962), Reshma Aur Shera (1971), Garam Hawa (1974), Manthan (1977), Saaransh (1984) and Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi (1978) failed to make it to the top five. Some of Indian cinema’s best missed the Academy’s eye.
Though India’s representations in the recent past would seem to be skewed in favour of mainstream Bollywood cinema and big banners, (Hey Ram, 2000; Lagaan, 2001; Devdas, 2002; Paheli, 2005; Rang De Basanti, 2006; Eklavya, 2007), the selection panel has also chosen from regional cinema. Among them are Deivamagan (A.C. Thirulogachandar, 1969); Swathi Muthyan (Vishwanath, 1986); Nayagan (Mani Ratnam, 1987); Thevar Magan (Bharathan, 1982); Indian (1996); Jeans (Shankar, 1998) and Shwaas (2004).
Deepa Mehta’s Water (ignored by the Indian selectors for Rang De Basanti) made it to the nomination list, albeit as a Canadian entry
When Shankar’s Jeans was sent to the Oscars, the reason given was that the film had a lavishly shot song at “the seven wonders of the world, featuring the eighth wonder Aishwarya Rai”. The officials thought that would be enough to impress the academy voters.
In 2001, Aamir Khan’s Lagaan was chosen over Mira Nair’s internationally acclaimed Monsoon Wedding. Several people thought it was an unfair choice.
Bhavna Talwar, director of Pankaj Kapur-starrer Dharm, moved the Bombay High Court, alleging a bias in the selection process as one of the jury members, Ranjit Bahadur, was the editor of the Making of Eklavya, a promotional snapshot of the film.
Those who have been there like Vidhu Vinod Chopra have on record stated that the post-selection campaign expense often ends up exceeding the budget of a film. Aamir Khan is said to have spent $200,000 on promoting Lagaan. Khan’s company took full-page advertisements in influential trade publications like Variety and Hollywood Reporter. Khan spent several days in Los Angeles, supervising the screening of the film for Oscar panelists. That’s where small, independent filmmakers like Talwar are at a disadvantage. Ronnie Screwvala, whose Rang De Basanti was India’s official entry for 2006, said the challenge lay in ensuring that each of the “500 people who constitute the jury in the foreign language film category actually got to watch the film”.
The process begins with every country being invited to submit its best film to the Academy.
In India, the Film Federation of India sets up the committee to select the official entry
English-subtitled copies of the selected film are sent to the Academy, where they are screened by the
Foreign Language Film Award Committee(s)
A secret ballot decides the final five nominations. Final voting for the winner is restricted to active and life Academy members who have attended exhibitions of all five nominated films.
Why we get it wrong
India’s contestable selections are often blamed on a mediocre jury that comprises mostly of second-level technicians, who allegedly often vote in favour of big banner entries to further their careers. This is also because leading filmmakers and technicians don’t have the time to sit, watch and deliberate on the increasing number of submissions every year. So the merit of a film often gets ignored for other superficial criteria like the ‘Indianness’ of a film and a filmmaker’s wherewithal to sustain the post selection campaign
A positive fall out of the Eklavya controversy is that the FFI has framed draft guidelines to ensure a fair and transparent selection process. The guideline said no person connected with the production or commercial exploitation of a competitive entry can be a member of the selection jury.
The elusive formula
Bottomline: there is no formula for securing a nomination, forget a win. Looking at past records, European cinema tops the list with 50 wins, while Asian cinema lags behind at a distant four. Bosnian director Danis Tanovic’s No Man’s Land was the only time a director from a developing country has won an award. —