With the 87th Academy Awards, thousands in India were again left to wake up groggy-eyed in the dark of the dawn as the famed red carpet rolled out to the celebrity world of Hollywood. The pale morning, lit up briefly by the likes of Emma Stone, Jennifer Aniston and Marion Cottilard on the red carpet shone brighter as Neil Patrick Harris aka Broman Barney Stinson aka Dr. Doogie Howser took the stage at the classily designed Dolby Theatre. Expectations were rightfully high, considering his reputation and his record as an awards host at the Tony and Emmy awards. Even the usually dignified acting ballots brimmed with excitement as people awaited the culmination of the two-horse race which has been between Boyhood and Birdman, one of tightest Oscar races in recent years.
When was the last time an Indian award show did that? Film awards, Television awards, any kind of award show? In our country, award shows remain a predictable affair, and sometimes sadly, even flat-out boring. And that has perhaps something to do with the fact that few of us actually care about who wins what at these awards. Most of the general audience at such shows turns up to watch either the dance performances, or the red carpet (And in some shows, the ‘green carpet’). Quality of cinema remains judged by its performance at the ticket counter and not as much as who wins these awards, unless they are of course cinema stars as well.
The biggest problem with Indian award shows is sadly the dearth of choice, a reality that does not appropriately reflect the abundance of acting talent in the country. Every other year, award ceremonies involve the same troupe of actors and filmmakers who had been nominated before. Take this for instance; Shahrukh Khan with the exception of the year 2010 has been nominated for a Filmfare in the Best Actor category every year since 1999 (Yes, even Chennai Express), winning five of them. And to put it in perspective, those are just the Filmfare awards. The reality remains, that even over two decades of their film debuts, the ‘Khans’ have won a lion’s share of the nominations, if not the black lady themselves. And that remains true of the non-acting class as well, with people like Karan Johar and Rakesh Roshan always finding themselves on the ballot.
True, instances like Vidya Balan trumping the likes of Kareena Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra does count for pleasant surprises from time to time. But, they are too few and far between. To put it in a different perspective, take the current debate on the format of the Cricket World Cup. There are those that say that associates must be excluded, to make way for more competitive games between the elites. And then there are those who say that exclusion of the associates will only reduce the larger purpose behind the game itself, making it more elitist than exciting. I would like to believe most people would agree with the latter, that the World Cup should include more teams and expand across the world. True, there might be quite a few upsets on the way (Football can attest to that) but, isn’t it human nature to cheer for the underdog.
The example of Hollywood will state that even the birthplace of motion pictures got tired of awarding its Fords and Hepburns year after year, and instead they chose to expand their talent pool, so much so that very occasionally does anyone fine their name on the ballot box for consecutive years.
That said however, it’s refreshing to see award shows in India slowly aligning itself to this perspective. Not only are new, conceptually-diverse films being recognized, but actors, even those not conventionally Bollywood-looking, are being rightly lauded. Additionally, by adding a Critics’ choice category, those films and actors are being recognized which ordinarily wouldn’t find much love. If recent trends are to be seen, premier award shows like the Filmfare have been expanding its talent pool, including many who most perceived to be part of independent or parallel cinema, which is why names like Irffan Khan and Manoj Bajpai have become a staple name in Bollywood of late and films such as Gangs of Wasseypur have attained an almost cult-like following. Underdogs after all, are coming to the party.
Another fair point is the National Film Awards, a ceremony which actually has had a decent track record of recognizing talent and quality. And unlike the locally held film ceremonies, the NFA’s actually have entries from all across the country from across all spectrums, in all languages. And fortunately, even the process of entry and competition isn’t one too complicated as blockbusters and independent films all stand an equal chance of making it to the merit of a National Award. This makes it thankfully better than the Academy, where unless a film is marketed and distributed by a major production studio, it’ll have no chance to premiere before the jury and panelists. The fact that the NFA’s exhibit the perfect co-existence of mainstream cinema and independent or ‘parallel’ cinema is reflective of the space India has given to both sets of film. Which is different from the West where festival favourites don’t usually win at the Oscars, and the ones that do (Like The Hurt Locker), are derided.
Growing up on a staple diet of Indian cinema, most cannot imagine an award show without the customary music and dance routines and the tacky props that substitute as stages every year. That’s the ingenuity (Yes, we must be proud of it) we bring to world cinema. That, and the quiet number of quality films we produce every year. However, none of it will count unless we give the deserved recognition to such actors and films, an accolade which was usually reserved for ‘Khans’ or any other blockbuster. As recent times go, we can well hope to see the day when films stereotypical of South Indians or shockingly physics-defying, do not find themselves on the ballot.
The Indian film industry may not have its Oscars yet. Perhaps, it need not require its Oscars. All it needs is to recognize talent, the abundance of it, and nurture it. Then, we’ll have our Oscars, only perhaps in the guise of the Filmfare, the IIFA or the Star Screen.