The recent move by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences to invite 683 men and women to be part of its 7,000-plus strong membership seems to be a desperate attempt to pacify critics.
They have been charging the Academy — which awards the Oscars every year — with lack of diversity, even racism. And, pushed to the wall, the Academy’s choice of the new invitees looks bizarre, certainly its pick of two Indians, actresses Sharmila Tagore and Frieda Pinto.
Tagore and Pinto will be part of the 46% women invitees this year, the figure of 683 more than double that of last year’s 322. Assuming that all the 683 people accept the invitation, the Academy’s strength will touch 7,789 — and will see a rise of 2% in female membership and 3% in the non-white category. Even with this, women will constitute a mere 27% of the total membership, and colored people a paltry 11%.
The Academy president, Cheryl Boone Isaacs, said “this new class of members is part of our commitment to welcoming extraordinary talent reflective of those working in film today.”
So, are Tagore and Pinto extraordinarily gifted? Surely not. I feel that in the Academy’s haste to redress one problem, it has walked into another. It has opened up the prestigious institution to members who are untested and unqualified.
As one writer quipped, “Dakota Johnson (an invitee) is a promising actress, but is Fifty Shades of Grey really evidence of the kind of excellence Academy membership is meant to reward?”
Tagore and Pinto fall in the same category.
(Apart from Tagore and Pinto, some people of Indian origin like Toronto-based Deepa Mehta (Fire, Earth, Water) and Asif Kapadia (whose documentary on jazz singer Amy Winehouse won an Oscar this year) have been invited. So too Indian animators Sanjay Bakshi (The Good Dinosaur) and Sanjay Patel, as well as Indian producer Anish Savjani.
Tagore belongs to the pages of Indian cinema history. Admittedly, she was once on the Cannes Film Festival jury, and yes, I have seen some magnificent performances from her in several of Satyajit Ray’s movies (Apur Sansar, Devi, Seemabaddha) and in other directors’ creations (Anupama, Safar, Aradhana, Satyakam, Mausam, Amanaush), but these works were made ages ago. Today, she has virtually nothing to show.
Similarly, Pinto entered the movie world with a bang in Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire. She was marvellous in Miral as a Palestinian girl. She was okay in Michael Winterbottom’s Trishna, and unimpressive in Woody Allen’s You Will Meet A Tall Dark Stranger. After these — with Trishna happening in 2011 — Pinto has more or less remained in the shadows.
One is completely flummoxed by these two Indian choices — when the country’s cinema (with an unbelievable annual production of 1300-odd films) has on offer a whole lot of others with far, far more distinguished records.
What about a marvellous actor like Mohanlal who has been virtually storming Malayalam (Kerala) cinema with his ability to disappear into such an amazing variety of characters that it is difficult to even keep track of them. One of the movies, Drishyam, saw him in the riveting role of an unlettered cable-television operator, who foxes and fools the police with ingenious methods he picks up from the endless number of films he watches night after night.
What about the legendary auteur, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, who has just completed his latest movie, Pinneyum, and whose body of work has been celebrated the world over in international film festivals, in museums, through retrospectives and so on?
Adoor is one of the earliest propagators of the New Indian Cinema, which first appeared in 1969. Adoor’s debut feature, Swayamvaram, opened in 1972, and was seen as a revolutionary piece of work, much ahead of its time. Here a man and a woman decide to live together without going through the ritual of marriage — an arrangement that was considered scandalous, even sinful, in the 1970s India.
What about Girish Kasaravalli, that extraordinary director from Karnataka, whose masterpieces like Ghatashraddha, Tabarana Kathe, Thaayi Saheba and Gulabi Talkies, moved beyond the art house circuit into the popular realm of audience appreciation? Celebrated the world over, Kasaravalli’s latest documentary on Gopalakrishnan is a fine piece of work.
One can name many other Indians who could have made a worthier invitee than Tagore and Pinto.
There is director Buddhadeb Dasgupta from Bengal with a bunch of engrossing movies. There is Shyam Benegal from Bollywood — though not quite active now, but whose basket has gems like Ankur, Nishant, Bhumika, Welcome to Sajjanpur and Well Done Abba.
And there is Irrfan Khan whose contribution to Indian and international cinema has been striking with titles like Life of Pi, Jurassic World, The Lunchbox and Paan Singh Tomar. His upcoming Song of Scorpions with the amazing Iranian actress, Golshifteh Farahani, helmed by Anup Singh may be yet another feather in Khan’s cap.
The Academy appears to have overlooked all these people to zero in on Tagore and Pinto. Not surprising though, given its tendency to goof up. It woke up to the brilliance of Ray only when he lay on his death bed in 1992. Officials of the Academy flew down to Kolkata (Calcutta) to honor him with a lifetime achievement Oscar, missing his death — on April 23 — by a few weeks.
Well, the ways of the Academy can be perplexing.
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 Seoul Times.
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