When I heard the news of India selecting ‘Visaranai’ as its official entry to the Oscars, I wasn’t shocked. I wasn’t even surprised. I just smiled. I smiled at the sheer ignorance that Indian Oscar Selection committee shows every year .. without fail. Now, before you react and start belittling me on my audacity to call Indian Oscar selection committee ignorant, I would want you to know that I have been predicting Oscars for the last five years and know enough about the Oscar selection process to know that ‘Visaranai’ will never make it to the final five. Yes, you read that right. It won’t even make it to the first shortlist of nine films.
“How do I know?”, you may ask.
Well, before I offer my explanation, I would also like you to know that I haven’t even seen ‘Visaranai’.
I very purposely made that revelation; because in it lies the reason why ‘Visaranai’ would never make the final nomination list. No, I’m not suggesting that the Academy members don’t watch the film before nominating; what I am suggesting is that the quality of the film ceases to matter after a point in the Oscar race. Believe me, every film that gets submitted in the Best Foreign Language category — last year the number was 88 — is reasonably good, if not great. (I am sure ‘Visaranai’ is also a good film). But when you have more than 80 good films competing for five spots, there are several other important factors that start coming into play. Out of those factors, two are the most important:
1. Does the film’s subject matter carry significant appeal to the western audiences?
2. Whether the film has an international (especially US) distributor?
‘Visaranai’ has niether.
A couple of years back, when ‘The Good Road’ got selected over ‘The Lunchbox’, I confess, I was seething with anger. Not because I had anything against ‘The Good Road’, but more so, due to my awareness of how close ‘The Lunchbox’ was of breaking into top five had it been sent for the Oscars. I had read few ignorants complaining in media and on web, that “How can one proclaim that ‘The Lunchbox’ could have been a better selection without even seeing The Good Road?”. My answer to all those who had this question was that anyone who has an understanding of how Oscars work would have never raised the question in the first place. ‘The Lunchbox’ with its globally identifiable theme of urban loneliness and marketing brain in the form of Sony Picture Classics (distributor with the most number of nominations in the Foreign Language category) was very well-placed to grab an Oscar nomination. But as always, the stupidity of Indian selection committee, which usually consists of a bunch of egotists and mostly semi-successful or failed members of film fraternity, ruled over common sense.
This year, India didn’t have a film like ‘The Lunchbox’. But still, India would have had a much better shot with a film like ‘Parched‘ that has been picked up by international distributors. Unless the committee members understand that selecting a film is a strategic (and NOT an emotional) decision, India would never be able send the right film to the Oscars. And that despite being the largest film producing country in the world. What a shame!
EDIT: Several readers have complained that how could I pass the judgement on a film’s Oscar chances without seeing it. Well, even though I have addressed this in my article (otherwise why would I even reveal that I haven’t seen the film), let me try to explain it again in simpler terms. Let’s assume the best case scenario: I watch ‘Visaranai’ and find it the greatest Indian film ever made. What does it change? Nothing. I would have still maintained that it won’t get nominated for the Oscars. If I wasn’t clear enough, let me state again: in Oscar race, it doesn’t matter how good a film is if it doesn’t have a marketing machine behind it. And that marketing machine is usually the US distributor of the film. The fact that ‘Visaranai’ doesn’t have a US distributor makes its nomination virtually impossible. And on top of that, the subject of the film — police brutality and torture — is so remote to western audiences that they might have a difficult time connecting with the film. Some readers have also pointed out that ‘Visaranai’ got selected for Venice Film Festival where it won Amnesty International Italia Award. True. But this hardly betters its Oscar chances. Winning Amnesty International Italia Award is not the same as winning Golden Lion. The truth is Amnesty International Italia Award is given by Amnesty International, an NGO focussed on human rights.
I would like to state again, I have nothing against ‘Visaranai’ or Tamil cinema. But we have to get out of this sense of jingoism that whatever India does is great. Unless we accept our mistakes, we would never be able to correct them. My hope with this article is to do just that: point out where we are going wrong. And trust me, I want India to win an Oscar as much as, if not more than, anybody else. And to those who say Oscars are not be all end all, I would like to say: in that case, why worry about sending a film to the Oscars? And if we are sending a film, shouldn’t we be gunning for the win?