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June - July 2006


Do Hindi Films deserve an Oscar?

by Nikhil Gajendragadkar

First it was ‘Lagaan’ then last year it was ‘Paheli’. We were expecting an Oscar. But have we ever given thought to the Film Language of our films? Do we ponder over the contents and treatment to the theme? Our filmmakers even do not bother to take a look at the competition in the best foreign film category. Here is an attempt to find out why our films are left out of the race.

Now that ‘Oscars’ have been declared and given away, now that the dust around it (can we call it ‘starry dust’?) is settled, we can think why India does not figure in the coveted list. The connction, if any, of Indian films and ‘Oscars’ came into limelight only after ‘Lagaan’. Till then it was privilege of only few film critics and ‘serious’ readers of serious cinema to know which film which award, that too, an international award. General filmgoer of the country, blissfully unawareof these things, was enjoying films of his choice.

One thing we tend to forget is that, in the long history of Indian cinema, only two films have been really ‘Nominated’ for the ‘Oscar in ‘best foreign film category’ so far. One was Mehboob Khan’s ‘Mother India’ and another was ‘Lagaan’. All other films were mere ‘official entry’ by India for that particular category. The Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, the controlling body of ‘Oscars’, receives many such entries. Then academy members choose films for nominations and finally one gets the golden statuette.

When ‘Mother India’ was in the race, one critic described it as ‘an orgy of flood, mud and blood’.

Why the film, which we describe as great, should attract such criticism? One factor is its length. Though we are used to films running for two and half or three hours, westerners are not. Scenes we describe as ‘emotional’ are termed as ‘melodramatic’ by their standards. Here, we must admit that many scenes in Hindi films (including Mother India) are repetitive in nature. It gives a feeling that story is stagnated; not moving ahead, to viewers particularly to those for whom this kind of cinema is new. Five decades back, western critics were not at all familiar with the Indian cinema, so we cannot blame them. But, it must have got the approval of academy members as it depicts the struggle of a rural society against feudalism of a newly independent state. It tells something about the dreams of a country emerging out of shackles of colonial rule.

Story of ‘Lagaan’ is set in colonial rural India. It talks about the revolt of poor farmers against the British rule. Americans love such things. It is a ‘period drama’ an additional point to run for the award. It has undercurrents of class struggle, it comments on cast system, and finally an underdog emerges victorious. Enough material to earn a nomination.

Then why it failed to clinch the trophy? Length again may be a reason. Another point can be songs. Audience out side the subcontinent cannot understand our fixation with songs and dances. Looking at it from a distance we have to admit that it slows the pace, it decreases tension. Here aspect of film language comes in. ‘Mother India’ and ‘Lagaan’ have totally different styles of storytelling but their structure is essentially Indian. The way character is introduced and developed, building up of conflict and its resolution, inclusion of scenes in order to cater to various segments of All India audience are some aspects of this structure. This may appeal to our audience but not to foreign viewers (foreign in true sense not NRIs). The question, why this may pop up in their minds many a times while watching these films. Interestingly the same audience hails films made by Satyjit Ray or Mrinal Sen or Adoor Gopalkrishnan as ‘Classics’. Why? Because film language, technique used by them convey the film to the heart of any viewer outside India. They might be influenced by European or Hollywood styles of filmmaking, yet their stories are deep-rooted in Indian soil.

‘Don’t Tell’ (Italy) and ‘Sophie Scholl’ (Germany), two films nominated for the best film category, were shown at the International Film Festival of India 05. The former tells story of child abuse within the family, how it affects protagonists in their adult life, their struggle to come out of it and lead a normal life. Other film is about how young people dared to challenge Hitler’s rule and consequently sacrificed their lives. It is a true story. Both the films are taught, well written and intelligently directed. Inner struggle, clash of personality come forth forcefully. They were engrossing films.

What, on the other hand,’Paheli’ offers? It is a remake of a story named ‘Duvidha’ (In two minds). The film is neither about a woman’s suffering, nor about her suppressed feelings. What is the meaning of a ghost here? It doesn’t spell clearly. Subtlety is forsaken at the cost of star value. It turns out to be a routine love story, embedded in an overdose of songs and dance, enacted by famous stars who want to make money, pretending they are doing something different. Is there any message in it? Or any new cinematic experiment? Answers are in negative. Then why this film should be nominated for an award, which this year has celebrated out of the way films, even in mainstream cinema.

There is no dearth of good, quality films in India. They might be made in any language. People who select films for international awards need to wake up to new realities in the world of cinema. Only then we might stand a chance for a nomination.

Nikhil Gajendragadkar is a senior journalist in Maharashtra and also teaches Journalism & Communications at the University of Pune. He writes extensively on entertainment media and socio-political subjects for English periodicals and International magazines

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