Sunday, February 05, 2006

Obligatory Oscar pontificating

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.]


  1. About not being able to judge films across cultures and countries: every film competition in the world is engaged in doing exactly that; not just the foreign language category of the Oscars. Venice, Berlin, Cannes, Pyongyang, for heaven's sake--all of them attempt to pick the 'best' from world cinema, and who is to say what that could possibly be?

    The only difference is, with those festival juries, you know who's heading it, how much they've seen of world cinema (well, maybe). And you know that there's likely to be a showcase of cinemas that has nothing to do with what's best or worst.

    the only thing more laughable than judging across countries is judging across times. and you've covered that with central station and no man's land! :-)

  2. talking about film juries, guess who made it to berlin this year?
    yes our very own Yash Ji, you know why? because there is a lake in switzerland which has been rechristened 'CHOPRA LAKE', this man single handedly doubled the revenue of the swiss tourism industry, coz we love to take our chunnus munnus and watch the beautiful locales where govinda did the jig with manisha. Now the germans want him, real bad.

  3. Great post and some great points! Yes, how does one expect US- or Euro-centric film reviewers/critics/jurists to understand our cinema, the Indian film idiom, if you will?

    As for the whimsical nature of the awards, one example that comes to my mind is when LOTR was adjudged best picture ahead of Mystic River (may be you don't agree). There was almost a sense that the jury wanted to redeem itself for having ignored the first two LOTR films!

    IMO, though, No Man's Land was a better film than Lagaan, even as I agree with you that the comparison is somewhat awkward.

    As for the Indian representation at the Oscars, the least we can do is not send in entries of the likes of Jeans. Sigh!

  4. Plenty of Americans don't take the Oscars seriously as well, especially the young, urban kind. Women in Middle America watch the show only to check out the gowns the actresses wear, which explains why they are so ridiculously over the top (it adheres to the image of Hollywood glamour that people have).

    They tried to make it hip and edgy by having Chris Rock present last year, and I don't think anyone still cared. The problem is, the Academy is run by a bunch of fuddy-duddies who are hopelessly out of touch with contemporary Hollywood. I wouldn't be exaggerating if I say that the Oscars are taken way more seriously in India than they are here (at least in LA). Most of the filmmakers I know of (including one Oscar winner) do not care for an Oscar over and above any other peer recognition.

    I'm just glad they moved the show out of my neighbourhood. There was the incessant drone of security helicopters during Oscar week, and throngs of celebrity gawkers who'd almost take over our campus (given that we are right next door to the Shrine auditorium).

  5. I think No Man Land was demonstrably a better film than Lagaan - it makes sense to somebody who hasn't a clue about either Balkan history or the cultural context. You could set it in any civil war situation anywhere.

    It is also a "spare" script, which gets its points across with just three characters hanging around on a single set.

    Now I do understand the cultural context of Lagaan and even the game of cricket but I was bored silly by the movie and by the superfluities of form it displayed.

    There! I'm writing like a veteran movie critic now.


  6. I had some hopes when Shwaas was nominated for the Oscars, but for some reason nothing came of it. when I saw the movie I thought it was just the kind to win. The Oscar kind, simple effective magical - in a third world kind of way.

  7. Not only Mystic River, omissions which are laughable(in last 15 years): GoodFellas(1990), either The Shawshank Redemption or Pulp Fiction(1994), absolutely slick L.A. Confidential(1997)(ouch! Titanic made it), Saving Private Ryan(1998) and The Pianist(2002).

    That makes it an error rate of approx. 33 %!!!???

  8. Jai: While I agree that the Oscars have a fairly formulaic view of what constitutes a good film, and are pretty much a crapshoot anyway, I do think there's a risk in taking the different cultures have different standards argument too far. The risk there is of getting too relativistic - it's like choosing the yardstick that you measure up to. I'm fascinated, for instance, by the way people are always telling me (usually after I've trashed a film they liked) that they thought it was "pretty good for a Hindi film". Making the argument that Hindi films are a different genre and need to be judged by their own standards means risking that kind of cop-out.

    What we need (in addition to the point about picking the right movies to send to the Oscars, which I completely agree with) is a truly credible film award of our own - one that recognises and celebrates genuine talent, especially off-Bollywood talent. From what little I've seen of Bollywood film awards, they're even more self-congratulatory than the Oscars, so that it feels as though the real competition in Bollywood is to make films that are money-grossers, not artistic statements. To give the Oscars their due - they do help to highlight a bunch of movies that aren't necessarily the most successful at the box office (especially if you take the trouble to explore the nominees) and thus create incentives for film makers to focus on making 'Oscar'-worthy movies, as opposed to Die Hard XIV.

    Finally, on specifics, I have to say that on Lagaan vs. No Man's Land I'm entirely with Anup - though to your point that's probably because of all the cricket.

  9. the oscars are basically like any other awards show. Strategic film marketing and studio backing and advertising result in less than worthy movies being nominated. The oscars also tend to reflect what movies are "in vogue" in america culturally and politically. Is it that wrong to expect movies to be judged by occidental standards?

    Why do we as Indians crave approval of Bollywood from the west itself? In fact, i'd go as far as to say that our attitude of seeking approval from the world in general and Hollywood in particular for Bollywood films indicates that somewhere we all believe that Hollywood and the western press is the authority on all things film related. Of course, this approval seeking extends to all other areas of Indian culture also, which is why whenever an American senator or person of interest says something positive about India, its a guaranteed news headline. Like a little boy being patted on the head and getting a lollipop for doing something to make the elders happy.

    It is only of late that people have begun to view Bollywood through the eyes of Indians. I'm not saying that all Bollywood films are excellent or award worthy. In general, as Indian tastes, thought and culture starts mirroring the west, we tend to expect more Hollywood-like standards from our films too. A movie like say, Rang De Basanti would have been inconceivable a few years ago and definitely not a success. But for every Rang De Basanti, we also have a Zinda that blatantly copies from Oldboy, scene by scene. We also have writers like Nikhat Kazmi (who praises Zinda) and Taran Adarsh, a number counting hack, who predicts the commercial success of a movie in his "reviews" by deciding if it will appeal to the masses and by using words like "hoi-polloi" and "elan".

    Perhaps film writing, film theory and filmmaking are all in their infancy in India. I digress though. The oscars are supposed to be a celebration of movies...of eclectic filmmaking, of the people that work behind the scenes. This is their night. But lately it has all been reduced to money, ad campaigns and red carpet fashion. Not recognizing Bollywood cinema is IMO not a cause for concern. The fact that more people watch Indian films than western films should be enough.

  10. I know I am bit late but this is too important to let it pass. Don't miss this year's Oscars. Forget the movies, leave the notepad behind and just watch this helluva funny man hosting it this time. Probably the funniest man right now in American media.
    I have a feeling Oscars will never be the same after this. Plus there is a great potential to come up with some fantastic Brokeback/DickCheny jokes.

    I hope you are reading this comment, if not do let me know I will send you an email on the same :p

  11. Came to this page through googling Manasarovar (uneven though interesting). Re the Oscars does anyone take them seriously as anything other than spectacle? Whether you agree with them or not, most critics agree that it generally rewards middle brow fare. The foreign language section is always a generally life affirming and/or socially, politically relevant movie (to the Academy that is) and not the best the world has to offer - hence the roll call of Life is Beautiful, No Man's Land, Nowhere in Africa, Paradise Now, Joyeux Noel et al. I think this is the reason Lagaan made it to the top 5 too - not because its an instrinisically superior movie. Wish we wouldn't go over the top with it or that silly Paheli/Black controversy (neither movie had a chance).....I live in Sydney and I also agree that Bollywood has become so synonymous with India that a) one can't find a serious movie these days without the mandatory garish song n dance and b) I have a hard time convincing my colleagues that not all Indians love Bollywood and that we have (or should that be had) other kinds of movies. It may show the world that Hollywood is not the only form of entertainment but there are many days when I could slowly strangle the hold Bollywood seems to have on our collective imagination....

  12. #What It’s Like to Chill with the Most Ruthless Men in the World
    Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic:
    Confessions of a Female War Crimes Investigator

    Retrospectively, it was all so simple, natural and matter of fact being on a boat restaurant in Belgrade, sitting with, laughing, drinking a two hundred bottle of wine and chatting about war and peace while Ratko Mladic held my hand. Mladic, a man considered the world’s most ruthless war criminal since Adolf Hitler, still at large and currently having a five million dollar bounty on his head for genocide by the international community. Yet there I was with my two best friends at the time, a former Serbian diplomat, his wife, and Ratko Mladic just chilling. There was no security, nothing you’d ordinarily expect in such circumstances. Referring to himself merely as, Sharko; this is the story of it all came about.