I had an interesting email discussion recently with Anup Kurian, director of Manasarovar, who’d mailed me some of his thoughts on the Oscars. One of the points Anup made was that while the awards in general are whimsical, the winners in the foreign-language category tend to be deserving. In this context, he said that in the year Lagaan was nominated, No Man’s Land (which won the award) was a better film, and so was the Brazilian movie Central Station.
I disagree with some of the specifics of Anup’s mail. For instance, I don't think either Central Station or No Man's Land is a demonstrably better film than Lagaan. More to the point, in my opinion the three movies come from such different cultural backdrops/filmmaking schools that comparing them is a pointless, even impossible, task. And this is one of the problems with the foreign-language film category: it pretends that there is one common critical yardstick by which movies from around the world can be judged. That’s a ridiculous notion, and an insult to the great variety in the medium. Why should US-centric or Euro-centric benchmarks for Good Cinema be applied to mainstream Hindi films, for instance? Sticking with just India and the US (only two among the hundreds of countries and moviemaking schools in the world), we have countless examples of top-of-the-line Indian films being dismissed or completely misunderstood by critics in the US. Check this link via Alok’s blog, about an American film critic who refers to the Jai-Veeru male-bonding relationship in Sholay as "pure camp". As Alok observes, some things just do not translate across cultures.
[Conversely, of course, there are movies recognised as trash in India but extolled by Hollywood because they go so far over the top that they can at least be categorised as masterpieces of kitsch: like Bhansali’s Devdas, which Time magazine’s Richard Corliss lovingly placed in his year-end top 10 because (among other reasons) “the flouncing frocks worn by Madhuri and Aishwarya were so pretty”.]
Having said all this though, one can’t ignore the fact that the foreign-language film category does exist, and that winning the award can be immensely beneficial to the movie and even to the film industry of the country it represents. So instead of making some kind of judgement on what is actually “the best Indian movie of the year” (another futile task anyway, for there are so many different filmmaking schools within the country), the practical requirement is to pick and submit something that has a chance of winning. In his mail, Anup made some valid points about the idiocy shown by the Indian Producers’ Association when selecting India’s submissions for the Oscars. “The ‘racism’ lies more in our own selection process,” he wrote, “than with Americans or the Motion Picture Academy. There are excellent films happening in regional languages. But there is a collective myopia and now Indian cinema is internationally recognised only as Bollywood musicals - this gross misrepresentation is tragic.”
(Incidentally Patrix makes related observations here.)
Moving beyond the foreign-language film category to the Oscars in general: I’ve had a love-hate relationship with that show (and it is a show more than anything else) for over 15 years now. As a movie buff I've always enjoyed watching it, right from the pre-nomination buildup. I’ve speculated on possible nominees and winners, drawn up detailed lists of the permutations and combinations, exulted each time there’s been an upset. But very early on I also realised that there isn’t much sense in holding the Oscars up as indicators of the “best” in any category. (This is of course true of all competitive awards, even the most professionally organised ones, like the Booker Prize.) The whole thing is too much of a lottery – as anyone familiar with Oscar’s history will know, even with the best intentions, there are too many factors apart from merit that go into determining the winners. And even merit is subjective anyway.
Besides, once you have five of the best contenders in any category (and to be fair to the Oscars, their nominee lists are usually quite strong), it’s an incredibly silly exercise to pick out one from those five and anoint it the “best of the best”. (As Henry Fonda once said, "take the finest performances of Laurence Olivier, James Stewart, Jack Lemmon, Dustin Hoffman and Woody Allen, and tell me how you can possibly pick the best among them?") Personally I’d have a lot more respect for the Oscars if they just ended the show at the five-nominees stage. But of course a commercial awards show can’t work that way.
What the show definitely is, is immense fun, as well as a halfway decent pointer to some of the better American and British films of the preceding year. And I’m sure I’ll be sitting with my notepad in hand, waiting for the nominees announcement, even 40 years from now. But take it seriously? Nah. (Unless I’m senile then, in which case I will.)
P.S.Just checked and found that Central Station wasn’t made the same year as Lagaan and No Man’s Land. But that doesn’t affect the points made in this post, so I’m not editing.
[Cross-posted, in a slightly different form, on Desicritics.]