The Oscar's political script
Often, Oscar nominees and winners are selected on the basis of considerations other than strictly artistic merit. This means, good cinema suffers, writes GAUTAMAN BHASKARAN.
Actress Renee Zellweger ... is "Chicago" old-time harmless Hollywood?
DEVDAS cannot weep any more. He has done enough of that in the Sanjay Leela Bhansali's celluloid version of a Bengali novel by Sarat Chandra Chattopadhyay. Despite its opulent sets, beautiful people and a desperate attempt to create a fantasy that Bhansali might have hoped would sweep selectors off their feet, "Devdas" failed to be nominated in the foreign film category for the 2003 Oscar awards (to be announced on March 23).
Not surprising at all. Unlike Ashutosh Gowariker's "Lagaan", which got a nod last year, but failed to win a statuette, "Devdas" is just pomp and show. It clearly lacks the punch and excitement of "Lagaan".
However, even these are not enough to win an Oscar, as we saw last year, when Bosnia's "No Man's Land" by Danis Tanovic triumphed in the end.
The Film Federation of India, which chooses the movie for possible nomination, is perhaps the least equipped for the job: it certainly lacks imagination and knowledge. It has little idea of how the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences works, and what its priorities are.
What is more, the federation seldom sends up the best movie. Look at our record: only three nods in the Academy's 75-year history Mehboob Khan's "Mother India" in 1957, Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay" in 1988 and "Lagaan" in 2002. No wins. What a shameful record for a country that boasts of 800 pictures a year, twice as many as Hollywood produces.
This year, there were any number of films far better than "Devdas" that could have been selected. But the federation's shortsighted, almost mulish, policy of zeroing in on rank commercial stuff, with not even a trace of art or any other form of appeal, has been extremely detrimental for Indian cinema.
And, take a look at what has made it to the nomination list in the foreign section this time. Then, contrast it with "Devdas".
Finnish director Aki Kaurismaki's "The Man Without A Past" is a wonderfully positive work about a guy who loses his memory after being mugged. His existence on the fringes of society makes a gripping study of emotions.
"The Crime Of Father Amaro" by Carlos Carrera traces the struggle of a young Mexican priest against worldly temptation. China's renowned auteur, Zhang Yimou, sets his piece in ancient times, and captures a plot by warring factions to murder the most powerful ruler, Qin. Holland's "Zus & Zo" comes down to the more intimate level of family: three sisters stop their brother from getting married, because if he does, the ancestral property will go to him. "Nowhere in Africa" from Germany is also about a family, but its problems are different from those of the Dutch one. Here, the movie portrays its tribulations as it is forced to migrate to Kenya at the start of World War II.
Well, compare these stories with that of "Devdas", time worn and cliched as it is. And as someone remarked once, "`Devdas' is a negative idea of a man who willingly lets his sweetheart go or maybe does not have the guts to hold her back and then drowns himself in drink and sorrow".
Surely, the Academy could not have been amused by this silly romp through a haveli, where magnificent chandeliers overlook gorgeous women chewing paan or tucking in sandesh, a Bengali delicacy.
Elsewhere in its choice, the Academy could have been swayed by Washington's war cry. For example, "The Quiet American", won just a single nod for its lead actor, Michael Caine. His performance has been acclaimed by many critics as his finest.
But he could have missed the bus. The movie, directed by Phillip Noyce and adapted from a Graham Greene novel, presents a critical view of the U.S.'s Vietnam policy. This could have alienated Academy voters.
"The picture has a problem given the current times, especially because it is about the granddaddy of American adventurism in the modern era, and here is someone who blew the whistle on it," said Peter Rainer, chairman of the National Society of Film Critics, before the nominations came on February 11. "The way that `Chicago', a musical set during the prohibition, is being tipped as a possible winner (it garnered 13 nominations) could be a result of a desire for a non-controversial choice. It is pure speculation, but I feel this may have something to do with people wanting something that smacks of the old-time harmless Hollywood."
However, Susan Sarandon, who has been opposing George Bush's move to remove Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, was ignored by the Academy for her role in "The Banger Sisters".
In the past, stars with strong political convictions have suffered. Jane Fonda was involved in the anti-Vietnam and Black Panther movements, and although she was a favourite for her part in the 1969 "They Shoot Horses", she lost to Maggie Smith in "The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie".
Charlie Chaplin was also victimised for his political beliefs. He was not honoured for one of cinema's all-time classics, "The Great Dictator" (1940), because many thought that he was a Leftist. Why? He had urged Americans to support the Soviet Union before they entered World War II. Chaplin was given an honorary Oscar in 1972. What a poor consolation for a master.
Sadly, the Academy, as is the Film Federation of India, appears to be driven by considerations other than artistic merit. But, while the Academy tries to rise above such factors (Caine's inclusion in the short list this season is a case in point), the Federation remains deeply embedded in the most murky of waters. And, sensible, sensitive Indian movies suffer, greatly.
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