A week ago Court, director Chaitanya Tamhane’s bi-lingual feature was picked to be India’s entry to the 2016 Academy Awards, to almost universal adulation. Court, a scathing indictment of the nation’s labourious legal system was selected by a jury headed by veteran filmmaker Amol Palekar, amongst several worthy contenders like the beautiful Killa. The film, by many accounts is expected to be India’s best bet at the Oscars since Aamir Khan’s Lagaan in 2002.
Usually, it is typical of most of us to criticize much of the selection that happens with regard to the Oscars. And to be honest, most of the time there is good reason. For instance, you don’t send a film like Barfi, a mish-mash of several Hollywood and Foreign films and musicals to the Oscars. In fact, knowing the legacy of Anurag Basu, his credentials should read something like ‘serial copyist.’ (Remember the Sharman Joshi-Kangana Ranaut track in Life In A Metro? A complete rip-off of Jack Lemmon’s The Apartment). In other cases, such as the selection of The Good Road in 2013, the reasons are more complex.
To be, or not to be Indian?
Sending a nominee for the Best Foreign Language film category at the Oscars, a category which has over 150 submissions every year is an arduous process in itself. But, what kind of film does the jury like? Which film is more likely to bring a golden statuette finally to the land of the World’s biggest film industry? Today, the consensus is that the submission should be a film with a crossover appeal to Western audiences but, one with Indian sensibilities.
But, that wasn’t a consideration that has been for long, is it? It has developed only recently, after years and years of defeats in the longlist process. In some cases, India has chosen films that just perpetuate Bollywood stereotypes (Devdas), and in some other cases, it has chosen horrible films, which were ‘Western-looking’ (Remember Jeans? Advertised as the Eighth Wonder of the World dancing in front of one of the Seven). And, I won’t even talk about Eklavya or Paheli.
The point is, we need to choose a film that is ‘Indian’ but, one that appeals equally and universally to foreign audiences. This is exactly why a few years ago, Ritesh Batra’s ‘The Lunchbox’ was touted as a heavyweight contender for the Oscars. Not perfect by any means, the film was beautifully crafted over the universality of loneliness and food. It may have been an Indian film but, its characters were universally recognizable. And then, the panel went on to choose an unheard of film by the name of The Good Road. I’ll admit I haven’t seen The Good Road like most of the rest. Therefore, it is entirely possible it is a much better film that The Lunchbox (Although, the reviews weren’t so encouraging). But, the issue here is, do you send the better film or, do you send the film that has the best chances?
What makes an Oscar Contender?
There is far more to an Oscar nomination than just choosing a better film. All the best contenders in this category have certain pre-requisites that they need to fulfill to stand a chance. First, the Universality of characters, a point I think I’ve made. Second, create genuine buzz for the film on the Festival Circuit. Third, be loaded enough to splurge excessively on posters, magazine covers and special screenings for the film in question (One of the reasons Lagaan did so well was the fantastic advertising and PR campaign led by Aamir Khan).
Back to The Lunchbox fiasco
Let us consider the case of The Lunchbox. It was a film produced by Anurag Kashyap and Dharma Productions, in partnership with French and German production companies and distributed internationally by Sony Pictures Classics. It was received well, and won a couple of awards too, in festivals across the world such as Cannes, Torino, Dubai and London. It was received positively by notable publications like Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. Clearly, with the pedigree at hand behind a film such as The Lunchbox, it was our best chance at the Oscars. It had the money (Unlike The Good Road, which sadly, didn’t even have the money for screening the film to the jury), it had the Festival buzz (TGR had none) and lastly of course, everyone loved it, while hardly anyone saw TGR.
What are Court’s chances?
Fortunately, this year’s submission, Court checks all these boxes as well. It has had a terrific response at International Film Festivals and has thus been picked up by notable International Film distributor Zeitgeist Films for a release abroad, which means it may have the money to at least ensure a screening for every member of the jury, and perhaps an ad in THR, an ad which costs over $15,000.
Big Bucks, Big Rewards?
But, does that imply that we should only send films that have the muscle, or the money to make the cut? Of course not. Some of the best films we have are those built of the small scale, by independent filmmakers. But, the sad reality remains that unless you have a loaded producer, the quality of such film will barely register, at the box office or in awards ceremonies. It is for this reason that it is particularly heartening to know that the government may be setting up a Central fund to finance and publicize our Oscar contenders. Now, one can only imagine the millions that are annually spent on such campaigns, and whether the government will sanction such a bounty but, such a fund which would be co-funded by the film industry themselves, is a step in the right direction.
Court is a finely crafted film that deserves a wider audience than it has. Only time will tell how well it does with the Academy of Motion Pictures and Arts. Here’s to a successful year at last.