Every year, a bald and naked golden-coloured man holding a sword shows up to inflict deep and unkind cuts on our collective psyche.
Every year, this unsheathed man reminds us Indians that the largest film industry in the world has as many Oscars to its name as Marlon Brando (two). Actually, it’s not even clear if we have as many Oscars as Al Pacino (one). Bhanu Athaiya shared hers with John Mollo for Gandhi’s costume design, while the other statuette, for Lifetime Achievement, was awarded to Satyajit Ray as he lay on the sickbed in Kolkata. The first was actually a half. The second was given rather than won.
Classic: Sharmila Tagore and Soumitra Chatterjee in Satyajit Ray’s Aranyer Din Ratri.
This year, the Oscars have an Indian flavour not because of India’s official entry, the lachrymose Taare Zameen Par (which didn’t make it to the final list), but because of a boisterous British production about all that India hasn’t managed to leave behind in its pursuit of wealth and global influence. Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire is a bold blend of realism and fantasy that has put India in the hot seat globally. However, the encomiums that have come Slumdog’s way have led to an outbreak of violent emotions back home. A.R. Rahman may have won a Golden Globe for Slumdog’s musical score, but every Indian worth his Tata Sky connection wants to know when an Indian director is going to bring home an Oscar or a Globe. Chat rooms and television studios are demanding to know why India interests the West only when seen through Western eyes. I can already see a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) flunkie working hard on a slogan that will rhyme with “Danny Boyle hai hai”.
Poor Boyle has committed the original cinematic sin against India—he has swung the spotlight on our poverty and benefited from it. Ironically, the same accusation was hurled against the only Indian film-maker of truly international stature. Satyajit Ray ensconced himself in Kolkata and made movies that mattered to people living all over the world. Actor and member of Parliament Nargis Dutt accused Ray of exporting India’s misery to the world through his Apu trilogy, but all these years later, we still haven’t produced a film-maker who can approximate the precision and compassion that inform the trilogy and Ray’s subsequent films until the late 1970s.
Ray travelled in a way that other Indian masters such as Ritwik Ghatak or G. Aravindan haven’t. His sharply observed and elegantly orchestrated dramas had the right balance of detail and expansiveness to make sense to viewers watching them anywhere on the planet.
Ray’s body of work did eventually get him an honorary award—after lobbying by the likes of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant, and backing by Martin Scorsese—but you don’t have to live in Hollywood to know that the Academy saves the Lifetime Achievement trophy for those it has chosen to studiously ignore over the years.
It may be quite a few years before a sherwani or a sari is spotted on the stage of Hollywood’s Kodak Theatre, which has been hosting the Academy Awards for several years. A quick glance at Bollywood’s so-called A-list throws up several names that aren’t competent enough to tell a story that can travel the distance between Ladakh and Latur, let alone London and Los Angeles. Rather than trying to meet a largely American jury halfway and sending a movie that actually stands a chance of raising huzzas rather than chuckles, we insist on bringing the Oscars down to our level. We insist on Bollywoodizing the world in the same way we have Bollywoodized our pop culture. We can’t accept the truth that the Bollywood style doesn’t travel too well outside Indian borders unless it’s accompanied by irony. We equate box-office success with artistic achievement. We insist on assaulting American sensibilities with the likes of Devdas and Paheli. If it’s good enough for the Filmfare awards, it must be good enough for the Oscars.
Only Shekhar Kapur, and to a much lesser extent, Mira Nair, seem to have what it takes to get hired by a Hollywood studio. Kapur’s Bandit Queen and Elizabeth were fine films, but neither is of the stature of a Pather Panchali or a Charulata or a Jalsaghar. Nair, on the other hand, is many years away from making an Oscar-worthy movie. Our only hope is Boyle, who came to Mumbai, smelt opportunity rather than shit and garbage, and spun a tale so fantastic that you could make a movie about it.
Write to Nandini at firstname.lastname@example.org