Mumbai: Could the handful of people who picked Barfi! as India’s official entry in the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Academy Award have done it differently? Let’s look at the other Bollywood hopefuls on the list (since we haven’t watched most of the other films in Marathi, Tamil and Telugu).Gattu: Sweet but simplistic. The Dirty Picture? Too local, too formulaic. Kahaani: Tightly scripted, but neither extraordinary nor very different from typical genre thrillers regularly churned out by Hollywood studios. Gangs of Wasseypur (1 & 2): accomplished, but lengthy, especially in the second half. Ferrari Ki Sawaari: ordinary script, ordinary everything. Paan Singh Tomar: works mostly, and could have been a stronger contender than Barfi!.Heroine: Enough said.
Barfi! is already the feel-good movie of the year, but it isn’t Life is Beautiful, which won the award in the category in 1999. This isn’t to say that Roberto Benigni’s film is a masterpiece, but it is an accomplished tearjerker and has enough crowd-friendly elements to sway jurors—a heroic father, a winsome kid, the Holocaust, tragicomedy. Anurag Basu’s Barfi!’s other problem is not that it references Charlie Chaplin, but that it rips off scenes from another tearjerker, The Notebook. Had Kahaani been selected, similar questions would have been asked about its nods to the Angelina Jolie movie The Bone Collector. The best Foreign Language Film is given to directors who display originality and imagination. What does Barfi! say about Indian cinema—that it has to borrow from previously created material to have an impact?
India has more Olympic gold medals than it has Academy Awards. Bhanu Athaiya won a statuette for Best Costume Design in 1983 for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi, which we can claim for ourselves since an Indian (Suresh Jindal) is one of the producers. In 1992, an ailing Satyajit Ray was given a Lifetime Achievement Award just weeks before his death. India’s poor record at the Oscars has begun to hurt only now, in the post-liberalisation years. Since the 2000s, sections of the Indian population have displayed serious ambitions in the global arena, from managing the world’s most powerful banks and companies to owning businesses in foreign countries. The mainstream narrative has been one of aggressive conquest, of showing the world what Indians are capable of. Bollywood has championed the cause wholeheartedly, expanding its markets around the world, showing up festivals like Cannes and Venice seriously, and making bigger and brighter films.
Aamir Khan showed the way in 2001 when his production Lagaan made it to the short-list, along with the French quirkfest Amelie, the Bosnian war film No Man’s Land, the Argentinian family drama Son of the Bride, and the Norwegian comedy Elling. Lagaan lost to No Man’s Land—a better film and also topical for American jurors because of the country’s peace-keeping efforts in the Balkans. Khan took the battle into Los Angeles and directly lobbied with Academy voters instead of sitting in Mumbai and waiting for a miracle—a route that few Indian producers have the money or the confidence to walk on.
India is a unique film producing nation in that it has at least four major cinema hubs (Mumbai, Chennai, Hyderabad and Kolkata) and churns out movies in a range of styles in more than one language. Which language should the Film Federation of India, or FFI (made up of producers from around the country), represent? What parameters should be used to name the “best Indian film of the year”? Should FFI worry about whether the chosen film is the best example of the country’s cinematic talent or simply pick the one title that has a good chance of winning? Should the movie be technically accomplished or simply sentimental (which can charm American jurors unfamiliar with Indian tropes like song-and-dance sequences and virginal love?)
Choosing one movie out of a list that reflects the diversity of the Indian experience can’t be an enviable task.
The committee that picks the best foreign film doesn’t have an unblemished record in any case. In 2011, the Academy chose the Argentinian thriller The Secret in Their Eyes over the superior White Ribbon and A Prophet. White Ribbon, directed by Michael Haneke, might have been too severe for the Academy jurors, but his latest film, Amour, about a couple that struggles with aging and illness, might just do the trick. It’s that rare thing from a famously severe filmmaker—a warm and moving drama that has the potential to melt heart, American or otherwise.