Much like the other fields in India, cinema is plagued by prejudice.
Indian selectors have been unashamedly and unconcernedly picking the wrong film and sending it up to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for an Oscar nomination. Barring a few occasions, this has been happening for years.
This year, Anurag Basu’s Barfi is India’s choice to compete with some of the masterly works from around the world. Michael Haneke’s Amour and Christian Mungiu’s Beyond the Hills are just two in an otherwise impressive list.
The works of Indian directors like Girish Kasaravalli, Rituparno Ghosh, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Tigmanshu Dulia among others were just dumped into the din by the selectors.
With an attitude which smacks of arrogant parochialism and nepotism, it is not surprising that ever since 1957, when India began sending a movie, only three Indian works have made it to the Oscars shortlist of five in Best Foreign Language Picture category. The three films, all in Hindi – Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan – could not clinch the actual Oscar.
Till now, only eight Tamil, two Malayalam, two Bengali and two Marathi movies, and one in Telugu have been chosen as India’s official Oscars entry. The rest – 40 – have been in Hindi conveying the unhealthy obsession with Hindi and mainstream Bollywood.
Even helmers like Shyam Benegal and the late Guru Dutt who made Hindi cinema, though outside the confines of Big Bollywood, were never in the race for the Oscars. Their films were never considered.
What has been an even greater shame for India is that even globally acknowledged masters such as Satyajit Ray, Ritwick Ghatak, Mrinal Sen, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, John Abraham and Girish Kasaravalli were ignored.
Way back in 2008, I wrote: In the last decade, we have always had a Hindi film as India’s entry for the Oscars, except in 2004, when Sanjay Sawant’s Shwaas in Marathi was selected. This period saw some exceptionally creative efforts by Kasaravalli, Gopalakrishnan, Benegal, who made movies in their own languages and which told stories specific to Indian culture and customs, tradition and beliefs. Strangely, not one of their films has ever figured as India’s nominee!
I am sure if only such rich regional cinema had been sent more often, India could have won many Oscars. Ray and the others made movies that were essentially Indian in flavour, in spirit, in sentiment. Above all, they were original creations emerging from brilliant minds. These men are/were unusual thinkers whose works no Oscars’ committee could have easily ignored.
Nothing Indian about Barfi
But much like the other fields in India, cinema is plagued by prejudice. The result: we get no gold at the Olympics, we get no Oscar. And, we do not care. Do we? Otherwise, how does one explain a film like Anurag Basu’s Barfi being India’s official entry for the 2013 Oscars?
Barfi was chosen from 20 films that the Film Federation of India shortlisted. The final choice – Barfi – was made by an 11-member committee, headed by the Assamese director, Manju Bohra, whose credentials for a task like this are suspect. The panel chose to brush aside far better works, such as Paan Singh Tomar and Vazhakku Enn 18/9 and Akasathinte Niram. These were Indian in every sense, and Academy looks for original stuff that is neither plagiarised from nor inspired by other cultures. Or movies from other countries.
There is nothing novel about Barfi. As Basu himself conceded, it is “inspired” by Charlie Chaplin. More precisely, Barfi’s hero, Ranbir Kapoor, apes his grandfather, Raj Kapoor, who in turn copied Chaplin. Worse, many scenes are a blatant rip-off from Chaplin’s cinema.
The leading Indian daily, Hindustan Times, has listed ten scenes from Barfi that have been copied from other films, and these are not just Chaplin’s. Sequences from Jackie Chan’s Project A, Johnny Depp’s Benny and Joon, Singin in the Rain and The Notebook have been lifted. Pritam’s theme tune in Barfi sounds similar to what Yann Tiersen composed for the 2001 French comedy, Amélie!
Apart from this aping, there is nothing Indian about Barfi. The story of a deaf-mute boy and an autistic girl falling in love could have happened anywhere in the world.
Now, pray tell me, why would the Academy give an Oscar to Barfi, let alone shortlist it?
Gautaman Bhaskaran is a Chennai-India based author, columnist and film critic, and can be contacted at [email protected] He is an FMT columnist.