The mid-September period is when the Film Federation of India (FFI) selects a film that is sent to Oscars as India’s official entry. Just one film is sent and for the ones that don’t make it, their makers and fans cry foul and sometimes, it takes an ugly turn. This year is no exception. After Rajkummar Rao-starrer Newton was selected, the makers of the Marathi film Ventilator claimed that they are disappointed. Fans of Dangal and Baahubali 2 – The Conclusion slammed the FFI and felt that their favourite film should have been sent.
Honestly speaking, all this fight and mud-slinging is useless. Because let’s face the harsh truth – one can send any film to the Oscars this year and it’s not going to make it to the final list of nominations! There are a lot of factors that come into play. To understand this, let’s rewind back to 2013. This was the year when The Lunchbox was expected to be sent as India’s official entry to the Oscars, and rightfully so. Most of the Academy jury members watch the films at certain important film festivals. The Lunchbox was shown at all these places like Cannes, Toronto International Film Festival etc and the response was unanimously positive everywhere. It won’t be wrong to say that the kind of excitement it generated was a first for any Indian film. Western media was already talking about this film’s Oscar prospects and how it cannot just make it to the final list but also even win the golden statuette! Based on this perception, Sony Pictures Classics picked up the film for distribution in North America which was a big achievement. They had even distributed Lagaan, the last Indian film to have been nominated for the Oscars.
But what did FFI do? They simply didn’t select The Lunchbox! Instead, an unknown film called The Good Road was sent. Unlike The Lunchbox, The Good Road had made absolutely no noise in film festivals for that matter. It had a theatrical release in India but it was very low-key and limited one. This was the only time that the rant over Oscar selection was absolutely justified. It was a golden chance for India to finally win the coveted trophy but we lost it. It’s impossible to now say when an Indian film would make similar noise worldwide like The Lunchbox. It might happen next year, or it may happen after 2 years or 3 years or 5 years or 10 years or it might never happen at all!
Newton is certainly better than The Good Road. At least, it has got screened at the Berlin International Film Festival and Tribeca Film Festival. But again, the hype is not on the lines of The Lunchbox. It will have to compete among 80-90 films that come from all over the world and only 7-8 films will be shortlisted. For Newton, it will be next to impossible to make it. Talking about the business of the film, it has done around Rs 11-12 crores in the first week which is quite less and shows its niche appeal.
Besides making noise at the film festivals, a film also needs to be pitched in the right way at Los Angeles once it’s sent as official selection. Even here, we falter big time. Firstly, we send out films too late. Aalif Surti, the executive producers of Visaranai, India’s official selection for Oscars last year, made a very a valid point that – by the time our films reach the Oscar race, the best screenings and publicists/agents are already booked by other films. Even though we start our game late, we don’t play it well. When the Marathi film Shwaas was sent for the Oscars in 2004, the makers were completely clueless on what to do next. They ended up holding screenings for Marathi-speaking Americans which was useless and didn’t help in their Oscar endeavour in any way!
Money is another problem. This year, the government has been praised for granting Rs 1 crore so that Newton can make it to the Oscars. But the earlier films have struggled a lot. Shwaas pooled in money from everywhere – school students made lamps, cleaned cars to collect money for Shwaas, believe it or not! Siddhivinayak Temple in Mumbai installed a donation box so that people can donate for Shwaas. A prominent veteran actor who could have easily given a few crores instead gave just Rs 1 lakh to the makers!
While the government’s decision to grant Rs. 1 crore for Newton is praiseworthy, it’s simply not enough. There has to be some body of Indian Cinema or some authority in government that can help India’s official entry to make the cut. The makers need help in ensuring their film makes noise and the excitement gets generated. One needs contacts with the right people. As Aalif Surti correctly said, “Lobbying is an accepted practice there and we must play by their rules to make a mark. The atmosphere in the USA right now is like Chandni Chowk in the wedding season. They mean business and so should we.”
Sadly, the Newton makers don’t seem to know these rules. They still don’t have a game plan and are figuring out how to go from here on. In short, if things continue this way, Newton maybe out of the race in a few months!
The problem is that we don’t take Oscars seriously. Many feel that it shouldn’t be given importance and it’s also prone to cheating and favouritism. Naseeruddin Shah famously said, “Oscar is just as rigged as any damn pan-masala award (in India)”! But Oscar is not just any award ceremony. It is seen by crores of people throughout the world and the recognition it has brought for several countries is remarkable. When a film gets nominated, not just that film but also the country’s cinema gets into spotlight like never before. Iranian Cinema was always respected but it got a boost when Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation won the Best Foreign Language Film Award at the Oscars in 2012. Our cinema has grown but we could do much better and that’s where Oscars can help us.
But the unfortunate aspect is that there is no will, either from the industry or the government, in doing something about it. Most of the times, we send useless films which have no chance at the Oscars and when a decent film like Newton is sent, we simply don’t extend any help in ensuring that it gets a real shot at the award. The Newton makers are now left all by themselves with of course Rs. 1 crore in their kitty. Let’s see how far they go but one thing is for sure – the recognition at the Oscar is going to elude our cinema once again!