India is shining, although I will argue that it is a temporary acceptance until India once again makes a mega-successful film like RRR or another beautiful, moving, documentary like The Elephant Whisperers, notes Aseem Chhabra.
Of all the excitement of two Indian films — RRR and The Elephant Whisperers — winning Oscars and the top winning films being an Asian American comedy (Everything Everywhere All At Once) and a German anti-war film (All Quiet on Western Front), one comment on social media stood out for me.
In a provocative Facebook post, veteran script-writer (Taxi Driver) and director (American Gigolo) Paul Schrader wrote that the Oscars used to be an American awards show.
Like the Césars that recognise the best of French cinema, Schrader wanted the Oscars to go back to its roots of celebrating Hollywood productions. He also alluded to other national awards such as Israel’s Ophirs and India’s National Film Awards (which does not even consider non-Indian productions).
In response to the Oscar-So-White campaign, the Academy’s board decided that diversity was important for its membership base. But instead of limiting the diversity to reflect the different ethnicities and shades of colour within the US, the Academy expanded its national boundaries to add members from across the world.
I do not know the statistics but a decent number of Academy members now are non-Americans.
India has a large number of Academy members — many added in the recent years — actors (from Salman Khan to Priyanka Chopra, Suriya and Ali Fazal), producers (Guneet Monga and Ekta Kapoor), screenplay writers (Sooni Taraporevala) and casting agents (Tess Joseph). Similarly, members have been added from other countries and continents.
Surely, that is one of the reasons why a South Korean film (Parasite) won the Best Picture Oscar for the first time in the history of the Academy Awards, besides three other trophies.
It is the reason why a group of Mexican film-makers have won Best Director trophies in the recent years, twice each for Alfonso Cuarón (2014 and 2019) and Alejandro González Iñárritu (2015 and 2016), and one for Guillermo del Toro (2018).
Surely it is the reason why an American indie EEAAO with Asian and Asian Americans actors was wholeheartedly accepted by the Academy members although Los Angeles Times’ Critic Justin Chang argued in a piece that in a lot of ways, this year’s top Oscar winner is much like the conventional American films.
The Oscars is the most globally watched film awards show, even though its producers continue to grapple with declining ratings.
One way for the ratings to increase is to nominate more international projects like RRR, but that is perhaps also the reason why Schrader believes the show’s ratings are declining within the US.
As Indians, we get excited to see our top star Deepika Padukone introduce the song Nattu Nattu, or watch Guneet Monga speak briefly in Hindi and end her acceptance speech by saying Jai Hind. Even see other South Asian faces present awards like Riz Ahmed and Mindy Kaling.
It is a sense that we have made it on a global stage and India is shining, although I will argue that it is a temporary acceptance until India once again makes a mega-successful film like RRR or another beautiful, moving, documentary like The Elephant Whisperers and it streams on a global platform such as Netflix.
Diversity in its membership base is not the only reason for the way the Academy Awards are handed out.
The Academy voters are also influenced by other factors.
Russia’s war against Ukraine led to the Best Documentary award to be presented to Navalny over the more deserving Indian film, All That Breathes.
But the diversification of the Academy membership may have partially led to a shut out of a film like Steven Spielberg’s personal The Fablemans.
When we first heard about the film last year, it was supposed to be a sure-shot, Oscar-worthy film. It won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, usually a bellwether for the Academy Awards.
But while Spielberg is one of the most respected American film-makers, I believe the time for his style of film-making has passed. That is certainly one of the reasons why The Fablemans failed at the American box office. And Academy members rejected the film over the edgier EEAAO.
I think Spielberg may have also realised that. I saw the expression on his face when EEAAO was announced the winner. He was gracious, smiling, but perhaps also accepting of the fact that this is no longer his time, until he produces another film from the factory called Jurassic Park.
Paul Schrader’s argument that the Oscars should go back to being provincial has lost its edge and in any case, that ship has sailed.
The Oscars will remain the only significant film platform where international film-making is recognised, albeit a very limited part of that what is produced globally.
To me, the most important aspect of the Oscar ceremony will remain the moving speeches, especially where the attempts at diversity and its results are evident.
It is when the Best Supporting Actor winner Ke Huy Quan — born in Vietnam, who spent time in a refugee camp in Hong Kong — broke into tears and said, ‘Mom, I just won an Oscar.’
Or when his co-star Michelle Yeoh said in her Best Actress winning acceptance speech: ‘For all the little boys and girls who look like me, watching tonight. This is the beacon of hope and possibilities. This is proof that dream big and dreams do come true. And ladies, dont ever let anybody tell you, you are past your prime. Never give up.’
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