The year is 1957 and Mehboob Khan’s Mother India scurries past many others to be in the top five nominees in the running for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) awards, popularly known as the Oscars. It is the country’s first submission since the Academy incorporated a separate category to honour foreign films. In the end, the film loses out to Italy’s fabled auteur Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria. Still, there is a kind of glory in being defeated by none other than Fellini.
Perhaps Mehboob Khan had beginner’s luck. Over half a century has passed since then, but Indians have limited anecdotes to go back to when it comes to nominations at the Oscars. Nor is much known about the workings of the Film Federation of India (FFI). Amol Palekar, whose Paheli was once in the race to the Oscars, headed the 16-member jury this year. Details about how a film is chosen from the massive and diverse output of Indian films are vague.
The other two occasions an Indian film was nominated by the Academy was in 1988, when Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! was picked and last in 2001, when Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan was tom-tommed for making it to the top five. Then, there were years when no entries were sent. The selection of Chaitanya Tamhane’s Marathi film Court for the 2016 Academy Awards makes it the country’s 49th submission. Put in perspective, out of 48 films, only three have made it to the top five nominees with no wins to show.
Shyam Benegal, the filmmaker whose Manthan defeated his other film Bhumika to make it as India’s entry to the 50th Academy Awards, is of the view that regional voices in Indian cinema get duly represented — as is clear with Court making it past more mainstream choices this year. Moinak Biswas, professor of Film Studies at Kolkata’s Jadavpur University, has a different perspective. He believes that no such committee can adequately represent the diversity of Indian films. He further remarks, “But the question we should be asking is who selects these people to be part of the jury. As far as I know, two people from Bengal — a star, and a small-time producer — were part of the selection committee. Now they may be good at what they do but they cannot possibly be in a position to really judge the aesthetic merit of a film.”
This is not the first time that the opaque workings of the FFI have been in the spotlight. Several people have censured the body for allowing individual interests of members to cloud their judgements while selecting a film. Differences of opinion are not new. Mrinal Sen’s Bhuvan Shome was taken to be better than the Tamil Deiva Magan in 1970, Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s Elippathayam was ignored in 1982 by the FFI. In 2013, there arose a heated debate over whether Ritesh Batra’s The Lunchbox could have been a better candidate than Gyan Correa’s The Good Road. An Indian idiom was found in Batra’s film that was supposedly missing in Correa’s work. On being asked to define this certain ‘idiom’, Biswas retorts, “There is no clear way to explain it. The idea of an ‘Indianness’ associated with Indian films has to be largely a foreign marketing strategy.”