Here's Why Indian Films Have Had Such A Terrible Run At The Oscars

The aspersions cast on Gully Boy, opened a discussion on something we hardly think about - the practical difficulties of the selecting an Oscar entry.

As soon as Zoya Akhtar’s Gully Boy was announced as India’s entry for the Oscars on Saturday evening, opinions started to pour in. Some expressed their disappointment with how mainstream Hindi films get a preference over regional films. There were others who felt otherwise.

The aspersions cast on Gully Boy, opened a discussion on something that we hardly think about- practical difficulties of the selection process. It’s not simply a process of choosing the best film, there are a variety of factors to be taken into consideration by the committee to arrive at the ‘best bet’.

Noted film critic Namrata Joshi tweeted the guidelines for directors/producers to submit their film to be considered by the FFI (Film Federation Of India). One of the points state that the producers have to pay a registration fee of Rs 70,000 (plus 18% GST). While a fee like this might seem like pennies for a production house like Excel Entertainment (producers of Gully Boy), it might prove as a steep price for most independent filmmakers. The film also needs to be submitted in a particular format, a UFO-compliant DCP (Digital Cinema Package) that reportedly costs Rs 1 lac, further deterring independent filmmakers.

Somen Mishra, head of Development at Dharma Productions, tweeted out saying that most winners in the Best Foreign Film category at the Oscars were usually winners in prestigious film festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice. His tweet pointed out that merely playing in a prestigious film festival doesn’t quite cut it for India’s regional/indie films.

There’s also the impediment of organising an Oscar campaign, something most Indian producers cannot afford. Aamir Khan managed to pull it off in the case of Lagaan, ensuring that the film made it to the Academy’s shortlist of Best Foreign Film. These campaigns involve multiple screenings for the members of the Academy (difficult to maneuver unless you have a big studio backing your film), many cocktail parties inviting the creme de la creme of the Academy members.

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Films like Village Rockstars, Newton or Liar’s Dice, while solid films in their own right, would never make it to the short-list unless the directors could raise a significant amount of money. And therefore one gets a sense that India lost out on Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox – which ticked most of the boxes. The film had the laurels from the festivals, glowing reviews, studios willing to back the film’s Oscar campaign. Instead the FFI chose a little-known Gujarati film called The Good Road, for which they were slammed.

There are also a variety of reasons why FFI might choose a particular film as an Oscar entry. Just look at the Indian films that made an impression at the Oscars (Salaam Bombay, Lagaan and Slumdog Millionaire), a portrait of India that is upheld by Gully Boy. The film also has the universal theme of an underdog punching above his weight. Also given Excel Entertainment’s considerable resources might give it an edge over a Super Deluxe or Kumbalangi Nights (neither of which were submitted for consideration).

It’s not a fair system, but in a year where Gully Boy is one of the two ‘good films’ to come out in 2019’s Hindi cinema, is there really any point about getting our hopes up? For India to have a shot at winning a Best Foreign Film, it requires our ‘best indie/regional film’ to compete with world cinema at marquee international film fests. Unless Indian films begin to do that, it’s futile to outrage over Gully Boy. Also maybe we should also stop giving  such importance to the Oscars, unless we talk about Palm d’Or or the Golden Lion with a similar enthusiasm.