Now that Bong Joon-ho’s Parasite has picked up ‘Best Picture’ on the same night it also won ‘Best International Feature’, it’s surely a moment of reckoning. But to say that the Oscars have ‘evolved’, is a bit too premature. Remember when all of India couldn’t contain its excitement around Slumdog Millionaire‘s eight Oscars in 2009? Many concluded that Hollywood’s most prestigious awards show had left behind its myopic view of cinematic excellence, by embracing a story set in Dharavi. Cut to 2016, when ALL the nominees were white, and not a single person of colour was considered worthy of a nomination. And this happened in spite of host, Chris Rock, being African-American. Riffing on #OscarsSoWhite, and how he was asked to not take up the hosting gig, Rock went on to do an unsparing monologue.
Taking the stage with Steve Martin at the 2020 Oscars, Rock once again couldn’t help but deliver a stinging statement about Cynthia Ervio’s Best Actress nomination. “Cynthia did such a great job in Harriet hiding black people, that the Academy got her to hide all the black nominees,” Rock joked. Steve Martin responded with another zinger, “well, you know, Chris, back in 1929, there were no black acting nominees. Now, there is one”.
The point being, Bong Joon-ho’s four Oscars for Parasite might inspire some optimistic speculation, but has the Academy truly opened its arms to world cinema? If yes, then do Indian films really stand a chance now? The answer is a resounding NO. And it’s not purely because of merit. There’s a whole lot of backroom machination that takes place for a film to win an Oscar. It doesn’t matter if you’ve made one of the best films of the year, it needs to undergo an ‘Oscar campaign’. A campaign that requires a never-ending stream of currency, and a whole lot of lobbying.
There’s good reason why most Oscar predictions come out with “should win/will win” columns. That’s because if you’ve been watching the Oscars long enough (say 18 years, since Lagaan got nominated), it’s easy to predict what the members will vote for. Biopics, period films, Holocaust films are largely considered favourites for Best Picture and Best Actor/Actress. It’s something Ricky Gervais jokingly suggested to Kate Winslet, when she lost five Oscar nominations between 1996 and 2007. “I told you to do a Holocaust movie!” Gervais remarked at the 2009 Golden Globes, after Winslet swept all categories for her role in The Reader, where she played an SS guard undergoing trial. She also went on to win the Oscar that year.
According to a 2012 study conducted by the LA Times, 77% of the members were male, white, with the median age being 62. Things could have improved in the last eight years, but even then the Academy remains predominantly a white man’s club. It’s why Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is followed by Peter Farrelly’s Green Book as the winner of Best Film. Instances like Moonlight and Spotlight are the exception. Winners like Green Book, Argo and The King’s Speech… are the norm. It’s understandable why a lot of people in India are excited by Parasite‘s win. It will open new doors for Indian films for a sincere examination alongside the world’s best. But there’s a larger systemic problem here.
It needs to be noted that Parasite didn’t just emerge out of the blue. It won the Palm d’Or at the 2019 Cannes Film festival, and has been getting a rousing response around the festival circuit. Bong Joon-ho has a significant standing in world cinema, with films like Memories of Murder and Snowpiercer being well-regarded for their genre elements and social subtext. After his win at the Cannes, director Bong’s film became the highest-grossing South Korean film of all time, leading to the film being picked up by distributors in America too. It quickly became the highest-grossing foreign film on American soil, only furthering its legend ahead of the Oscars.
Remember how conversation around Leonardo DiCaprio’s dedication for The Revenant became overwhelming? That he ate raw bison liver for his role? You’re listening to a film’s marketing. More recently, did you hear about how Sam Mendes’s 1917 was innovative for looking like one long, fluid take? It’s all a part of the campaign. The fact that Parasite won, can be definitely attributed to the Academy’s baby steps forward. But it would also be naive to assume that there was no campaigning involved. It includes sending goodies along with a film’s screener to Academy members, along with hosting gatherings to lobby support. It’s about building a narrative for your film, and hoping that it resonates with the 6000-odd Academy members. Oscar campaigns are often been described as ‘telling a tale about telling tales’.
Most of India’s independent cinema rarely even wish to register to become India’s official entry to the Oscars, because it entails a registration fee of Rs 70,000 along with submitting a UFO-compliant DCP (Digital Cinema Package) of the film, that reportedly cost about a lakh, which only further deters them.
It’s why films like Eklavya, Barfi and Gully Boy get picked, having the backing of mainstream producers that not only can afford the registration process, but also a ludicrously expensive Oscar campaign. Given Parasite’s universal themes, converting into a worldwide box office, is why the film got picked up for Oscar campaigning. How many independent Indian films have the kind of appeal that not only converts into numbers at the box office, but also finds a deep-pocketed backer?
How often do stars align like this for a film? Rarely. Can it be expected to happen for an Indian film, which impresses the who’s who of Hollywood? Very unlikely. Does Oscar validation really matter in the bigger scheme of things? Not as much as say a Palm D’Or at Cannes, or a Golden Lion at Venice. For now, let’s applaud Oscar’s initiative towards their own brand of ‘wokeness’ for awarding a South Korean film. It’s a start… at the very least.