Planet Bollywood
"Rang De Basanti" and India's Oscar Race
- Vijay Venkataramanan           Let us know what you think about this article

Despite housing the world's largest film industry (solely in annual output of theatrical releases), India is yet to win an Academy Award in Hollywood, the global mecca of entertainment. Most filmmakers worldwide harbor the dream of holding the golden statuette in front of the Kodak theater's 3,400 strong crowd of Hollywood's leading industry professionals. While for many, an Oscar symbolizes the ultimate level of achievement in their field, for international film industries, it is an opportunity to put their talent atop the most widely accessible global stage. The Indian film industry's success rate at garnering a "Best Foreign Language Film" nomination is almost invisible when compared to their European, Japanese, and Chinese counterparts. Only three films ("Mother India", "Salaam Bombay", "Lagaan") in the last fifty years have had the opportunity to compete for the award. Although strong contenders have often been ignored and ridiculous selections submitted by the Film Federation of India ( i.e. "Jeans"), much of the problem also lies in lack of knowledge about the Academy's selection procedure and marketing demands of Los Angeles. This year however, the FFI, though armed with few choices, must be lauded for making a smart selection. "Rang De Basanti" offers the Indian film industry its strongest chance in decades in securing a berth amongst the top five, more so because of the entities involved with its production rather than the strength of the film alone.

A far cry from earlier decades, the Academy Awards nowadays serve foremost as a platform for American studios to market their films beyond conventional methods. It is a commonly known fact that following the Academy's stamp of "Best Picture" or "Best Director", films' box-office and DVD sales sky-rocket. Potential economic opportunities have made way for furious lobbying, a process which on its own stands as an effective marketing tool often referred to as the "Oscar buzz". On the flip side, the awards have attracted furious criticism for bias and overlooking quality to accomodate political correctness and diversity.

According to PriceWaterhouseCoopers, the agency that has tallied Oscar votes for the last 72 years, the Academy of Motions Pictures Arts and Sciences has 6,000 voting members. Unless the voting members have seen a particular film, they cannot vote on it intelligibly, and the Academy does not require members to watch all submissions. For local American films, this is usually not an issue as most members have viewed the films either through Academy screenings, screener DVDs, or at their own will. For foreign-language filmmakers, the trick lies in attracting members to view the submissions, a task made easier if the film has already secured a noticeable, local theatrical release. For others, like most Indian films, the task is herculean, demanding significant time and money to be spent on awareness.

Regardless of the flattering overseas box-office figures trade analysts may throw, Indian films in the United States are watched mostly by the sizeable Indian diaspora. The Los Angeles territory in particular houses only two multiplexes that screen Indian films, both geographically distant from the mainstream Hollywood community. Distribution in mainstream theaters for quality Indian-themed films is rare, with "Monsoon Wedding" and "Water" being exceptions due to their stylistic compatibility with American viewers. Given the tough environment, it becomes all the more important for Indian filmmakers to chart out a clear strategy for their campaign.

In 2002, Aamir Khan studied the process well, hired a publicist, put all his efforts and funds into ensuring that Academy members watched his film, and silenced his critics (Shekhar Kapur being one of them), adorning "Lagaan", a mainstream song-and-dance film, with a nomination. Not to be forgotten, his pre-existing alliance with Sony only made his case stronger. Critics of the FFI's decision to submit "Lagaan" ahead of "Monsoon Wedding" too had a strong argument, given that the latter had already earned over $14 million in the US along with a plethora of awards from prestigious film festivals. Yet, it remains a mystery why the makers of "Monsoon Wedding" with its director Mira Nair, who helmed India's previous nomination, did not submit their film independently. The following year, the FFI submitted the Marathi film "Shwaas", a decent effort, but not nearly as strong in craft or material as "Lagaan". The filmmakers held rallys in Maharashtra with celebrities donating money for their Oscar campaign, only to shamefully waste it all in Los Angeles by holding several screenings for the Indian community and students. The fund drives in India would have been well worth their effort had they intelligently pumped all that money into one high-profile screening in Hollywood, inviting only Academy members and press. Marketing at local film events like the American Film Market and festivals like the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles in the heart of Hollywood are strong avenues for Indian filmmakers to get their films recognized by the highly influential entertainment press. Sadly there seems to be a lack of willingness to ask questions and learn about the complex system on the part of the filmmakers. Unless the makers themselves show more enthusiasm, it is high unlikely that local audiences and distributors will respond.

The FFI too needs to acknowledge its responsibility to make thoughtful decisions before submitting a film. If they are unable to find a film that meets both the qualitative and influential demands of an Oscar campaign at the same time, it is important that they consistently side with a film's qualitative characteristic. Weak prior submissions like "Kuruthipunal", "Indian", "Jeans", and "Paheli" have perhaps created a bad reputation in the Academy because of which subsequent entries have found little interest among members, even for a DVD viewing. In comparison to earlier submissions, it seems a pity that we were unable to showcase strong works like "Kannathil Muthamittal", "Hazaaron Khwahishein Aisi", "Matrubhoomi", "Maqbool" and "Black Friday" to voting members. All the aforementioned films have won awards and rave reviews at numerous international film festivals, but have suprisingly been ignored by the FFI.

That in turn questions the qualification of the FFI jury. With strange choices like N. Chandra, Aadesh Shrivasatava, and Kalpana Lajmi on the panel, one wonders why successful, experienced industry leaders like Yash Chopra, Mani Ratnam, Shekhar Kapur, and Amitabh Bachchan are missing. If the reasoning behind the lack of these leaders on the panel is fear of them pushing their own films ahead in the race, then recruiting filmmakers with a track record of flops is certainly no feasible solution. Perhaps the FFI needs to look into recruiting a mixture of the best of India's innumerable film scholars, film historians, literary experts, and marketing gurus.

That said, the past year has produced only two films with even a remote chance of international accessibility, "Omkara" and "Rang De Basanti". Though marginally a superior film with its identifiable Shakesperean base and stupendous aesthetic qualities, "Omkara" would have found Los Angeles a tough sell. Its independent backing would have required it to forge local alliances from the ground up. Comparitively, "Rang De Basanti" will arrive on a much stronger platform: To begin with, it boasts of strong, original content. Equally important is the fact it has the influential and financial backing of India's corporate, entertainment giant UTV, a company that has already formed a significant alliance with Hollywood's Fox Searchlight Pictures through "The Namesake" and other upcoming productions which it intends to co-finance. Given this relationship, Aamir Khan's experience at the Oscars, and Ronnie Screwvala's willingness to spend money on marketing, securing a limited, mainstream theatrical release for "Rang De Basanti" should be a strong possibility. Director Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra and his wife and editor, P.S. Bharthi have already kick-started preparations by re-editing the film to a shorter running time, snipping out jokes, allusions, and references that would be alien to American viewers. Mehra's film however, ironically faces tough competition from Fox Searchlight's successful Hindi-language release "Water", Canada's submission for the coveted spot. After premiering at the Indian Film Festival of Los Angeles, Deepa Mehta's film, having enjoyed a lucrative run at the US box-office, not to mention immense critical acclaim, may prove to be a better bet for Fox Searchlight to invest their resources in. While the thought of two Hindi-language films being nominated for an Oscar in the same year is exciting, the scenario is highly improbable, with "Water" most certainly having the edge over its Indian counterpart.

For now, Aamir Khan, Rakeysh Mehra, and Ronnie Screwvala have their work cut out for them till the evening of Saturday, January 13, 2007 when the nomination polls officially close. They will have to pull out all stops to create a buzz about "Rang De Basanti" and subsequently ensure that the voting members have an opportunity to watch the film, be it theatrically or through DVD screeners. They will have to build immensely on the vigorous, innovative marketing strategies they had employed prior to the film's Indian release. Lobbying will prove tough and expensive, especially given the fact that they may be going up against their ally Fox Searchlight and "Water". The competition from other countries this year will also be fiercer than ever, with South Korea's box-office smash hit "The King and the Clown", Germany's "The Lives of Others", and Finland's "Lights In the Dusk" already being touted as favorites. "Rang De Basanti" will find the battle very tough, but the film's original content and style, coupled with the enthusiasm of its makers give it a solid chance of matching "Lagaan's" feat.

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