India’s Submission to the 86th Academy Awards

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.

13 thoughts on “India’s Submission to the 86th Academy Awards

  1. JustMeMike

    Well said Kathy. I was hoping that No One Killed Jessica would garner a nomination. it came out in January of 2011 – but I can see why It didn’t get very far. It was a film which condemned the police and the judiciary in India.

    Which likely means the FFI must play ball.

    While I wasn’t aware of the intellectual property issues surrounding Barfi, I thought that film was an attempt to drive on the same ramp – with a silent character that The Artist took to Oscar glory. While I enjoyed the film – I couldn’t find a way to do a review of it.

    Lagaan – was a film that put aside the communal differences – with the British, of the Raj days as the target. A political film wrapped around a sporting competition set in a period film seemed a good idea at the time. And it was a good film. But it was also a very safe choice.

    I also saw Peepli Live – and had a good feeling about it but it was set in an underdeveloped region and was concerned with the farmers suicides. Likely it was even too remote for many urban Indians, much less international audiences, I also saw Harishchandrachi Factory, a film about the beginnings of the Indian film industry a century ago. But it didn’t really strike me positively.

    I think the FFI walks a very narrow line in balancing politics, communities, history, and entertainment. and I wholeheartedly agree that they are mishandling their own mission. Especially since Irrfan is known on the world’s screens for his role in Life of Pi., it does seem puzzling why they chose a regional film rather than The Lunch Box.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      I can’t remember where, Mike, but I think I read that the committee’s rationale for choosing The Good Road was that it best depicted India. That’s the job of of the tourism board, not the film board!

      Regarding Barfi!, I found a link to this article in the comments of my review. It’s got some great video clips of scenes from other movies that Barfi! copied shot-for-shot.
      http://ibnlive.in.com/news/barfi-vs-hollywood-homage-inspired-or-copied/293100-8-66.html

      Reply
  2. Deepak

    Very well said.

    I’m also very surprised that The Good Road was selected, though I honestly thought Ship of Theseus was supposed to be the front-runner, and my personal choice would’ve been Lootera. It seemed like a lock — period piece, doomed romance, great aesthetics, music, and acting, plus the bonus of Adil Hussain, who Americans know from Life of Pi.

    This whole controversy reminds me of 2005, when Black was universally expected to be the Oscar submission only to be overruled in favor of Paheli, a decent but forgettable fantasy-romance. Both had Rani Mukherjee and Amitabh Bachchan, but Paheli had Shahrukh Khan and was far more accessible and entertaining, so it got chosen.

    The FFI doesn’t seem to realize that what’s new and progressive for Indian cinema has been done all around the world for years. Just because Taare Zameen Par was the first mainstream Indian movie to deal with autism in a fairly realistic way (Koi Mil Gaya obviously doesn’t count in this regard…), they think non-Indian audiences will love it the way Indians have, but it doesn’t work that way.

    Also, why didn’t 3 Idiots get chosen in its year? Not that it’s a great movie by any means, but it got so much publicity and public support that Fox Searchlight released the movie on DVD in American retailers like Target! That’s gotta be the most exposure any Indian movie has gotten since Saawariya.

    And then there’s the Indian bureaucracy, which is plagued by corruption; whoever pays the most money gets their voice heard the loudest, though I doubt that’s what happened here since The Lunchbox had Karan Johar supporting it and we all know he’s got money to blow.

    Haven’t seen Lunchbox or Theseus or Good Road, so I can’t comment on their quality, but I hope India gets the nomination. And that the FFI starts modifying its selection process/weeding out the corrupt members. Unfortunately those things are probably mutually exclusive…

    Indian movies are finally getting to a competitive level with those of other nations, both technically and creatively, now the FFI just needs to do its job properly and really select the cream of the crop for Academy Award consideration.

    By the way, what do you mean by the intellectual property controversy regarding Barfi? Never heard about that.

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Thanks, Deepak! I totally agree about Lootera. It’s shot so beautifully, and it’s based on an O. Henry story that may already be familiar to Oscar voters. I had no idea about Black being passed over for submission in its year. That’s another movie that would’ve seemed like a slam dunk for nomination. The movie is based on the life of Helen Keller, an inspirational historical figure that every American child learns about in school. 3 Idiots should’ve been a lock, too. Just serves to reinforce your point that the Indian committee keeps making its selections without considering the audience.

      I added a link to this story into the article above, but here’s a link to a great piece on Barfi! ripping off several different movies.
      http://ibnlive.in.com/news/barfi-vs-hollywood-homage-inspired-or-copied/293100-8-66.html

      Reply
  3. Nicky

    Kathy,

    The Good Road may be a great film but what FFI should have thought is that we need to select a film that would make it to the final 5,get us an Oscar.That need not necessarily be the best film it needs to be the right film.

    Academy awards are not the same as Indian National Awards.The FFI doesn’t get this point,they go through a certain process every year to select a best film for National Award just like they did in case of The Good Road.Now you don’t go over the same National Award selection process and select the film for Academy.The logic works differently for Academy in terms of Indian Story setting but Universal in appeal,reviews at International Film Festivals,US Studio as distributor(this one pretty vital i believe).
    A 25 year old ordinary movie going citizen like me understands that you need to select a winnable film for the Academy which doesn’t necessarily be a Great film but the FFI with all its collective wisdom doesn’t get this point.

    Lastly,in one of your above comments you said that you read somewhere that the FFI committee thought it(TGR) best depicted India,if that was their selection logic then that straight away knocks out The Lunchbox.The Lunchbox doesn’t best depict India as a whole but the setting is very unique only to India and in specific Mumbai yet universal in appeal.Anyway,India is far too a diverse country to be depicted by a single film.

    Please correct me if i am wrong,you are a very good critic and have a very good understanding of Cinema and the relevant stuff 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Your assessment is spot on, Nicky. Ruling out a movie because it doesn’t represent the whole of India is just as silly as if an American committee had ruled out a film because it only took place in New York City. I really hope the FFI is listening to the backlash it’s getting for its recent selections, and perhaps it will heed the message next year. 🙂

      Reply
  4. Nicky

    Thanks Kathy.As you said hope they learn their lessons and also hope that the Universe aligns itself again next year and out comes a movie like Lunchbox again 🙂

    Reply
    1. Kathy Post author

      Whoa! What a huffy response. It almost sounds as if the FFI deliberately didn’t select The Lunchbox just because its director, Ritesh Batra, had spoken publicly as though he expected a nomination. Batra responded to the letter with a polite apology, making the FFI look even snootier than it already did:
      http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/entertainment/bollywood/news-interviews/Ritesh-Batra-uninterrupted-reveals-future-projects/articleshow/23394663.cms

      Reply

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