India's 'comfort zone' is not the Oscars

Ang Lee receives his award with a namaste

As is the tradition, I did not sit through the Academy Awards or even catch glimpses of it.  Except for Life of Pi, I have not watched any of the other films, yet. I’d like to, though. This is not about disdain or being highbrow; I catch quite a few Indian soaps.

However, there is no escaping the event. The host Seth MacFarlane has come out with several new notorious feathers in his cap, and I say this because the Oscars may choose politically-correct films, but the show wallows in a sophomoric need for attention. It conforms to the pattern of being mainstream, and in Hollywood you are mainstream if you are a bit sexist, a bit racist, a bit of a victim-predator.

You’ve already read about the wardrobe malfunctions, the gowns, the jewels, the asinine.

It is the India factor that interests me.  As no Indian film or nominee got an award, we did what we do best. It was so very amusing that a little town in Chandigarh was celebrating, distributing sweets because of Zero Dark Thirty. It did not strike them as ironic that the place had recreated Abbottabad, a Pakistani bazaar to be precise, all to trace the end of an Arab who was the nemesis of the West. Osama bin Laden brought a good deal of business to this town in Chandigarh.

It is business.

The same goes for Puducherry (Pondicherry) where the initial portions of Life of Pi were shot. These were locales that Yann Martel had written about in the book on which the film was based. Indeed, the background sounds and a lullaby were Indian contributions, but was it an Indian film?

Director Shekhar Kapur declared in his usual pompous fashion: 

“An Indian film will win an Oscar when it is good enough. Danny Boyle and Ang Lee have opened the gates for Indian filmmakers. It’s up to the filmmakers now. Do they have the courage and the desire to conquer international markets or do they want to continue playing in their comfort zone?”

The Oscar is not the yardstick for good cinema, although it has sometimes recognised fine independent films by outsiders. What is Mr. Kapur’s yardstick for good? Surely, he has been exposed to Indian regional cinema, to quite a few offbeat Hindi films, as well as experimentation within the framework of Bollywood, of which he was a player.

How have Danny Boyle and Ang Lee opened the gates for Indian filmmakers? I think there should be a clear demarcation between the two. Ang Lee, while exploring spiritualism, did not overly emphasise on Indianness. The main characters happened to be Indian. But, it was an international film made with those sensibilities in mind. Fine, he accepted the award with the Indian greeting of 'namaste'.

Boyle was also catering to a foreign audience. As I wrote in an earlier post:

Danny bhai can rest happy that he did a nice helicopter version of struggle and hope. Next time he might like to hang on to one aspect and embellish it with some detailing. This is merely a filmic tourist brochure of the other side of India.

This obsession with international markets seems to demean indigenous work. Did the Africans start discussing about how ‘Our of Africa’ would make them big players? Did the Japanese consider themselves fortunate to have ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’ take their cinema overseas?

Satyajit Ray, Akira Kurosawa, Godard, Fellini, Costa Gavras have had more courage than a Shekhar Kapur and they did not seek out Hollywood acceptance, and the Oscars are just that. Everything else is a satellite.

As regards being happy in a comfort zone, it is rather superficial to ignore that most of the films that reached the Oscars were within their comfort zone. There happen to be differing levels of what varied cultures are comfortable with. The form of expression is bound to differ. We have films that deal with edgy subjects; some succeed, others don’t.  There is also some self-conscious attempt at ‘being different’ just for the heck of it, or to go to Cannes, which has sold out to Hollywood.

At least we do not choose White characters to portray Hispanic, Brown and even Black characters in our films.  

Bollywood is escapist. It has never claimed to be otherwise. And let us not look down on the audience or decide to improve their tastes. The same people who gave a thumbs-up to Dabangg were not as enthusiastic about the second one. Same actors, same gimmicks. They know what to like and what to reject. That is their comfort zone. 

(c) Farzana Versey


More at What about Slumdog Millionaire?  

and a light take at An hour at the Oscars

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