On September 22, 2013, when the Film Federation of India (FFI) announced that debut director Gyan Correa’s Gujarati film The Good Road was India’s entry to the Oscars, all hell broke lose on Twitter. Many a disappointed and accusing finger was pointed at the selection and the selection process followed by the FFI. The largest noise came from the camp of Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox, which was touted as the “best possible” choice the federation could make.
Ever since FFI has been authorised as the body for conducting this selection by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in 1957, the country has sent 40 films to the Oscars. Of this 33 were Hindi films, and only three–Mother India, Salaam Bombay! and Lagaam–have got to the final five. And, despite being the industry which makes the largest number of films in the world, we have never brought a golden statuette home. Is it that films we make are not good enough to win at a platform like the Oscars?
“Not necessarily,” says Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty, who has also worked in TGR. “There is a lot that goes into the time between being nominated and actually winning an Oscar. We have never won maybe because we do not have the infrastructure and resources in place to get our films noticed by the right number of people.”
Pookutty also disagrees that there is any bias towards Hindi films. “The FFI invites entries through public notice,” he says. “So the question of a bias doesn’t arise at all. I feel they just select the best from the available lot.”
Agrees Bijay Khemka, chariman, FFI, who feels that the federation gets pulled up irrespective of its selection. “Last year, we selected Barfi! and we were accused of pandering to the masses and being biased towards Hindi films,” he says. “This year we selected TGR and they are blaming us for ignoring films backed by big banners and not giving due attention to Hindi films.”
In 2012, there was a huge hue and cry over FFI’s choice of Anurag Basu’s “heavily inspired/plaigarised” Barfi! over the festival circuit favourite Gangs of Wasseypur directed by Anurag Kashyap. Manju Borah, Assamese filmmaker who headed the selection committee last year, had justified the selection saying that Kashyap’s two part drama series was too “crude” and the only thing she took home from the film was an updated vocabulary of cuss words. FFI’s earlier choices like Henna (1991), Indian (1996) and Jeans (1998) have also met with ruthless criticism. In September 2007, a writ petition was filed by filmmakers Sheetal and Bhavana Talwar at the Bombay High Court against the FFI blaming them for appointing biased jury members who chose Vidhu Vinod Chopra’s Eklavya over their film Dharm.
“After this case we were issued a set of guidelines by the Bombay High Court which prohibits us from publicising the names of the jury members,” says Khemka, on why India is secretive about the selection process unlike other countries like France, Italy and Germany who issue press releases at every stage of it. Although Khemka rubbishes the opinion that the selection process is not transparent enough, he refuses to divulge the names of the jury members or the actual process that takes place. He chooses to be vague by saying that it is a “process of much delibreations and discussions”. “I do not see the point of these queries because we have already said that the decision to choose TGR was unanimous,” he says. This, despite the fact that Ghose had, in a recent interview to a city tabloid, said that The Lunchbox was his personal favourite.
After the formal announcement, Ghose had said to the media that TGR was selected “as it shows the unknown India”. But a social media storm stirred following the announcement, with co-producers of The Lunchbox Anurag Kashyap and Karan Johar tweeting about their disappointment about the selection. This was followed up by a lot of ‘tweets, retweets and shares’ that echoed their sentiment and in no time it turned into a hate campaign against Correa’s film. “What makes these controversies baseless is the fact that both these films are produced by the same organisation, the NFDC,” says Khemka.
It is interesting to note that despite the controversies that crop up every year, a revamp in its selection process in nowhere in the agenda of the FFI. Even the Academy itself has, in 2008, made changes in its selection process after facing flak for not including acclaimed films like 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days and Persepolis in the Best Foreign Language Film shortlist. Then the two-stage process was turned into a three-stage voting process. “We feel there is no problem with our process as of now,” says Anindya Dasgupta, deputy secretary, FFI. “We will go in for a revamp as and when we feel a need for it.”
Guneet Monga, of Sikhya Productions which has co-produced The Lunchbox, however, feels that Indians do not understand what the Academy looks for in a foreign launguage nominee. “A large scale marketing and publicity process happens at the Academy Awards,” she says. “And, it is nearly impossible to get noticed there without the backing of a mainstream US distributer like Fox, Paramount or Sony.” This is also another reason why supporters of The Lunchbox feel it had a better chance at the Oscars as it was backed by four international production houses including Sony Pictures Classics, which had picked up last year’s Oscar winner Amour.
New York-based film critic Aseem Chhabra can’t seem to agree more. In his article on why he feels India busted its closest chance to winning the Oscars this year, he writes, “I have interviewed members of the Oscar foreign language committee and learned how rarely Indian films work with them. A majority of them walked out of the Academy screening of Devdas since they found the film loud.”
Chhabra says that this year, his 20th at the Telluride festival, he was surprised at the response The Lunchbox received. “There were seven screenings, including a sold-out one at the 650-seats Werner Herzog theatre,” he says. Creating a strong buzz is important, he writes. “And The Lunchbox had it.”
By now it is well-known that the Oscars, at the end of the day, is largely a money-driven affair. In 2001, there were many news reports of how Aamir Khan spent over six months in the US to lobby for his film Lagaan and make sure that it gets noticed.
We need to zero in what our priorities are when we select films to be sent for the Oscars, says Monga. “If it is just to showcase our love for the films we make and not to win, then it is fine to send any film,” she says. “But if winning is on your list, then it is important to understand how things work there. The Oscars is biggest awards function and it is not easy to make your film visible among 71 other films and make the maximum number of Academy voters vote for your film.”
And as for TGR, we have to wait and watch if it will get nominated as one of the top five. Among other films that are keenly watched out for in this category are Gilles Bourdos’ Renoir, Felix van Groeningen’s The Broken Circle Breakdown, Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster and Saudi Arabia’s first woman director Haifaa al-Mansour’s Wadjda.
The selection process
–The FFI first assembles a committee comprising 12 members and two or three special invitees, who are members of a film worker’s association other than the FFI like the writer’s federation, the director’s federation or any other body.
–This committee then selects a jury of 11 to 17 members. This jury, according to the Academy’s rules, must be representative of every region of the country and must include one person from every field of motion picture production.
–FFI’s Executive Committee, which contains 80 members who represent the 44 associations affiliated to the FFI, confirms this jury list.
–The jury elects from among them one of its members as the chairperson as soon as it is created and signs a declaration of confidentiality.
–The FFI has to send its jurors list to the Academy two months before the deadline for the Oscar entry.
–FFI issues public notices inviting entries for selection. To be eligible for selection a film has to be above 40 minutes in length, has to be predominantly in a language other than English, has to have released in the country submitting it between a specified period (for this year it should have released between October 1, 2011 and September 30, 2013), has to have run for atleast seven consecutive days in a commercial movie theatre, it should have English subtitiles and the FFI must certify that the creative control of the film lies with India’s own citizens.
–The submitted entries are watched by the jury together. Selection takes place in two or three stages in the absence of an unanimous choice, and/or by a formal vote.
–The jury is dismantled as soon as India’s entry for the Oscars is declared in a press meet.
Sources: http://www.oscar.org, http://www.thebigindianpicture.com, http://www.filmfed.org and inputs from Bijay Khemka, FFI chairman and Anindya Dasgupta, deputy secretary, FFI