The Film Federation of India (FFI) announced India’s representative in the Best Foreign Film category at the 86th Academy Awards, and the choice has generated its share of controversy. In selecting a largely unknown Gujarati film The Good Road over movies that have already garnered a considerable amount of international acclaim — such as The Lunchbox and Ship of Theseus — it raises questions as to what the FFI considers its goals for the Indian film industry and how it believes it can best achieve them.
In a perfect world, the best film would win every award, but that’s not the way award shows work, either in India or in the U.S. The Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars is particularly tricky because it consists of multiple phases. First, all of the submissions from participating countries are winnowed to a short list of nine candidates. The short list is further narrowed to five final nominees, from which an ultimate winner is chosen.
Given that dozens of countries participate every year, even making it to the short list is a considerable challenge. Faced with a stack of approximately sixty DVD screeners, committee members will naturally begin with titles they’ve heard of before, those films that have already created a buzz in the popular culture. Submissions like The Grandmaster (Hong Kong), Renoir (France), and Wadjda (Saudi Arabia) are currently available in theaters throughout the U.S., while others are coming off of successful runs at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).
One of those films is the Hindi movie The Lunchbox. It’s been getting good word of mouth for a while now, and a successful showing at TIFF prompted Sony Pictures Classics to purchase the rights to distribute the film in North America. This is a big deal, because Hindi movies aren’t normally publicized in mainstream media in the U.S. Sony, on the other hand, is sure to spend at least some money promoting The Lunchbox to an audience beyond the Indian-American community, the traditional audience for Hindi films.
While The Good Road may be India’s best film, it’s hard to turn down the publicity The Lunchbox is already guaranteed by its deal with Sony. Instead, the FFI will have to foot the bill for promoting The Good Road by itself. I fully expect to be able to watch The Lunchbox in a local theater in the near future. That won’t happen with The Good Road. It may be a great movie, but no one’s going to see it.
Given the sheer volume of movies made in India every year, India should have a perennial presence in the list of Oscar nominees. However, the FFI has shown a penchant for short-sightedness in its Oscar submissions in recent years. Taare Zameen Par (2008) and Peepli Live (2010) were more effective for Indian audiences than international ones. Barfi! (2012) was plagued with suspicion of intellectual property theft. Harishchandrachi Factory (2009) was good, but not great. One has to look back to Rang De Basanti (2006) and Devdas (2002) for films that had a real shot at a nomination. India’s last Oscar nominee was Lagaan in 2001.
Earning a nomination would bring prestige and attention to the Indian film industry as a whole. One of the FFI’s stated missions is Popularizing the Cinema: “To popularize the film industry and its products in India and abroad.” One of the best ways to do that is by securing an Oscar nomination, and few Indian films in recent years have been better poised to do that than The Lunchbox. Again, The Good Road may be the best film — perhaps even by a wide margin — but the FFI seems to have ignored its own mission in selecting it over The Lunchbox as India’s 2013 Oscar representative.
Update: Now that critics are finally taking a look at The Good Road, its selection as India’s Oscar submission seems even more questionable. Variety has some suggestions for how to revamp the Best Foreign Film category so that well-regarded movies like The Lunchbox can still compete for the award, even if they aren’t selected by their country’s committees.