Director Shaunak Sen was travelling through rural Bavaria; producer Siddharth Roy Kapur was at home, reading a script; and filmmaker Chaitanya Tamhane had just gotten home after an evening outdoors – that was when each of them learned they’d been invited by the Academy of Motion Pictures, Arts & Sciences (AMPAS) to become a member. The Academy, which is best known for organising the Oscars awards, extended this invitation to 398 new members this year, including 13 Indian artists. Apart from the above-mentioned, the list includes director Mani Ratnam, director/producer Karan Johar, VFX supervisors Haresh Hingorani and PC Sanath.
Even if RRR (2022) ended up with just one Oscar for the song ‘Naatu Naatu’, the film’s larger impact is evident from the fact that members of RRR’s cast and crew make up for nearly half of the inductees from India. Actors Ram Charan, NTR Rama Rao Jr, production designer Sabu Cyril, cinematographer KK Senthil Kumar, composer M.M Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose – behind Naatu Naatu, which won Best Song – were all invited. Curiously, director SS Rajamouli is not on the list.
Every year, the Academy invites film personnel from around the world to become members, which accords them a vote to decide the eventual winners for the Oscar ceremony. The likes of Shah Rukh Khan, A R Rahman, Guneet Monga, Zoya Akhtar, Naseeruddin Shah, Kajol, Suriya and Ali Fazal (among others) have previously been invited to become members of the Academy. The Academy’s members have reportedly exceeded over 10,000 at this point.
On the back of arguably India’s most successful year at the Oscars – with Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes (2022) and RRR painting a dynamic portrait of the range in Indian cinema – this might be a significant moment for all stakeholders to step back and reassess. With more Indian members in the Academy than ever before, one would be tempted to think how it might affect the selection of Indian films in the near future. “Having a vote [is important] and to have your voice heard to support films you’d like to see on that platform. As a representative of the South Asian filmmaking community, I’m excited to support the kind of films that I feel deserve more recognition,” said Tamhane, who directed the much-acclaimed Court (2014) and The Disciple (2020). Sen noted that being privy to the Academy’s ebbs and flows, and to be a part of their often “mercurial” decisions, felt significant to him.
Does it mean we should be optimistic about more Indian films making inroads into the Oscars? Sen doesn’t think so: “I don’t think it would be fair to intuit a one-to-one correlation to this, especially since Indians are still not a sizable group compared to other countries, in terms of Academy members.” Roy Kapur is confident that things will get better. “I definitely see it happening much more, not just because there are more Indians in the Academy, but because of the growing quality, diversity and relevance of our cinema to other cultures around the world,” said the producer.
According to Tamhane, it might be the other way round – more Indian films have managed to make a mark on the world stage, and that’s why so many Indians have been invited to become members. He may have a point: Non-fiction filmmakers like Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing with Fire (2021) preceded All That Breathes (2022) to become the first Indian documentary to score an Oscar nomination. Earlier, Payal Kapadia’s A Night of Knowing Nothing (2021) won the Camera d’Or at Cannes Film Festival, possibly paving the way for Sen’s film in the following year.
While there’s no doubting the earnestness of the Academy’s initiative to correct the narrative about itself, there are some concerns that the Academy’s inclusive policies may be more tokenistic than sincere. Should one be hopeful about the chances for Indian films in an institution where there’s little systemic change? “It would be a severe and harsh statement to say that there hasn’t been any systemic change within the Academy,” said Sen, going on to add, “The real question is whether the systemic change is happening at the pace that it should, and the jury is still out on that one.” Even the so-called disruptive choices that the Academy has made in recent years – like Bong Joon-Ho’s Parasite (2019) winning Best Picture or Alfonso Curaon’s Roma (2018) picking up Best Director – appear to have pleased the same power structures within the Academy. Tamhane, who assisted Cuaron on the sets of Roma, says he is no expert in knowing how the “machinery” works, but that films like Parasite and Roma definitely indicate a more open mindset from the Academy as a collective, which has traditionally been seen as more insular and American in its tastes. “These films are not from America, are subtitled, and come from an entirely different culture. It would be hard to imagine something like this happening a decade ago,” said Tamhane.
Roy Kapur said he’d rather be optimistic than cynical. “Whatever might have been the power structures and levers of influence in the past, it is incumbent upon us to take good intentions at face value and to work with those who want to craft a more diverse, inclusive and representative future for global cinema,” he said, adding, “I would be very happy to play a part in helping to make this happen.” Tamhane concurred with Roy Kapur, going on to reiterate the point that there’s an initiative at least. “The discourse is more open and sensitive than it’s ever been. Whether it’s successful or tokenistic remains to be seen,” he said.
Sen vouches for the Doc branch – the section that rounds up nominees for Best Documentary feature – saying it has consistently made “exciting” choices that have “a smack of integrity.” He gives the example of Simon Lereng Wilmont’s A House Made of Splinters (2022) – which was nominated alongside Sen’s film – despite not being backed by a “big player.” However, the inclusivity efforts are not simply about the social justice aspect of it for Sen. “It also means that a more heterogeneous mix of interesting aesthetic and cinematic choices will be up for consideration, and that’s what is most exciting,” he said.