Believe it or not, the world’s largest movie-making nation has not been able to win a single Oscar in 60 years. This time, Chaitanya Tamhane’s Court in Marathi (a language spoken in the western Indian state of Maharashtra) has not been able to make it even to the shortlist of nine that will be whittled down to five. And out of this, the winner will be picked.

India's nomination for Oscar Court is a listless courtroom drama
Marathi film ‘Court’,  India’s Oscar nomination for this year, is a listless courtroom drama

India produces about 1,300 films every year — a figure that is almost double that of America’s. Yet, India has since 1956 — when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences instituted an award  for foreign language pictures —  never been able to clinch the coveted trophy.

In all these decades, Indian movies have been nominated  to the list of five only thrice.

In 1957, India’s Mother India — a tale of an impoverished village woman fighting an evil money-lender — lost the Oscar for the Best Foreign Language Picture by just a single vote. Federico Fellini’s Italian masterpiece, Nights of Cabiria (about a prostitute’s vain search for true love in Rome), walked away with the statuette on the big night at Los Angeles.

It took another 30 years for India to get its second nod from the Academy. In 1988, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay, tracing the lives of the city’s street children, was nominated. But it could not win.

Ashutosh Gowariker’s Aamir Khan-starrer, 2001 Lagaan, also found itself in the shortlist of five. A nice feature about a small village in India being oppressed by the British colonial masters and how the villagers defeat the English at their own game of cricket, Lagaan had excellent chances at LA. But still,  it could not get hold of the Oscar.

All these these three films were in Hindi, one of the many languages in which movies are made in India.

In fact, of the 40-odd submissions by India in all these decades, most were Hindi entries.  There were eight occasions when Tamil (language in state of Tamil Nadu) works were sent up for a possible nomination. A couple of Bengali (language of the state of West Bengal) movies and a couple of Malayalam ( spoken in Kerala) ones too went.

While Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansar (The World of Apu) and Mahanagar (Big City) — both in Bengali – and his Shatranj Ke Khilari (The Chess Players)  in Hindi  were India’s offerings to the Oscars, Malayalam masters like Aravindan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan were ignored — despite their fascinating creativity.

Admittedly, India did send some great films  — like Shyam Benegal’s Manthan (The Churning) in Hindi, Deepa Mehta’s Earth in Hindi, M.S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa (Hot Winds) in Hindi, Vijay Anand’s Guide in Hindi and Mani Ratnam’s Nayagan (The Hero) in Tamil. But none could  garner an Oscar nod, let alone a win.

While nobody can deny that a movie must have a strong story and impressive production values to be able to qualify for the first round, it is also true that a  concerted publicity campaign must be mounted to get  Academy voters to watch the films.

“You need to create awareness, and so a campaign has to be built around the movie” a producer whose film was recently India’s Oscar entry told Quartz India. “How do you get more and more bums on the seat? And that’s where an integrated, 360-degree marketing blitzkrieg needs to happen.”

And for this, you need pots of money. Geetu Mohandas, who helmed Liar’s Dice — which was India’s 2015 Oscar entry — rued that big bucks for an art house work were impossible to find.  It was hard enough to secure funding for Liar’s Dice. It took her seven years. There was no way one could find dollars to promote the movie in the US, Mohandas quipped.

Lagaan was the only one among Indian submissions that had the money to spend on a hard PR push. The movie’s publicity got a tremendous boost after actor Khan  (who plays the hero) gave several interviews in the American media and full-page advertisements in leading US publications .

The estimated cost  for Lagaan’s Oscar publicity was $2 million, and this was over a decade ago.

In comparison, Court was made on a shoestring budget, and obviously there was no money for an American promotion.

So, however brilliant a film may be, it still needs to push and prod Academy voters, and this can be achieved only through sustained campaigning. Which of course means a lot of money.

Yes, there is always this question of quality. However hard you may try, you cannot sell your product unless it is good. In all these 60 years, India has sent many movies that were rank bad. Jeans, Rudali and Henna are just three examples out of a host of them.

Even this year’s Court — which is a rather listless courtroom drama —  pales in significance when one sees the others waiting to enter  the final list of five. The French work, Mustang, for instance is a great film about seeping conservatism in an hitherto secular Turkey narrated through the lives of five vivacious sisters — whose zest for life is virtually strangled. Again, Son of  Saul is an arresting Hungarian holocaust movie about a  man in charge of leading Jews to the gas chambers.

The reason for some of India’s bad choices is apparent. The Film Federation of India chooses a small panel to pick that one movie which will be sent to the Oscars, and often this body is reportedly not above board. There have been complaints about the panel.

This year, Marathi actor-director Amol Palekar headed the panel, and  zeroed in on Court, which is in Marathi.

In 2007, Eklavya, The Royal Guard was India’s pick — it was arguably a disappointing feature and the decision led to much criticism. Other directors, whose films were in the running that year, even went to the extent of saying that corruption and nepotism had won — leaving talent and merit shattered and disillusioned.

Certainly, Eklavya was no Oscar material, and there were far better titles that year — like there had been in the past, movies that never made it. Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam (The Rat-Trap), Shyam Benegal’s Bhumika (The Role), Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome (Mr Bhuvan Shome) and Ritwick Ghatak’s Meghe Dhaka Tara (The Cloud-Capped Star) were a few that might have just about fetched an Oscar for India.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is an author, commentator and movie critic, who has worked with The Statesman in Kolkata and The Hindu in Chennai for 35 years. He now writes for the Hindustan Times, the Gulf Times and The Seoul Times.

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