India’s two big Oscar winners may have come from the South, but the list of yearly inductees into the Academy has been consistently devoid of personalities outside of Hindi cinema. On June 30 this year, The Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences announced a list of 819 (up from just 178 invitations in 2011) “artists and executives who have distinguished themselves by their contributions to theatrical motion pictures.” Of these new invitees, the Academy noted that 45% were women, 36% came from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities and 49% were international personalities hailing from 68 countries. With this mix, the Academy surpassed its goal of doubling the number of women and those from underrepresented ethnic/racial communities; a goal that was set after facing flak for its lack of inclusivity called out by the #OscarsSoWhite social justice campaign in 2016.
The announcement made big news in India, largely because of the Indians who had been invited. Headlines across the country highlighted the names of Alia Bhatt and Hrithik Roshan, just like last year’s had mentioned Anupam Kher, Zoya Akhtar and Anurag Kashyap. Among other names that made it to this year’s list were costume designer Neeta Lulla (Jodha Akbar, Devdas), casting director Nandini Shrikent (Gully Boy, Life Of Pi), visual effects supervisors Vishal Anand (War, Bharat) and Sandeep Kamal (Panipat, Jal), apart from documentary filmmakers Nishta Jain, Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya.
After seeing the list of invitees, which came at the peak of the nepotism debate that followed the death of actor Sushant Singh Rajput, director Hansal Mehta tweeted sarcastically, “Nepotistic Academy”. While he explained he used the word nepotism because the word “has been misused to settle personal scores and to discredit so many talents”, it is a fact that stars like Hrithik Roshan and Alia Bhatt got an easy entry, when an Academy invitation has evaded the stalwarts of non-Bollywood Indian cinema.
At a time when the Academy celebrates diversity and inclusivity, shouldn’t that reflect in its choice of Indian films and personalities as well? And given that our two most prominent Oscar winners (AR Rahman and Resul Pookutty) both hail from the South, shouldn’t the Academy acknowledge personalities working in regional Indian cinema too by giving them invitations?
Since the Academy decided to open up its memberships in 2016, the number of Indians getting invited went up to as many as 20 in 2018; it is under 10 this year. But these names have almost exclusively been limited to people working in the Hindi film industry. In fact, invitees from outside Bollywood are just a handful, with names like Srinivas Mohan (visual effects supervisor for Baahubali and 2.0), Bengali filmmakers Gautam Ghose, Mrinal Sen and Buddadeb Dasgupta, actors Madhabi Mukherjee, Soumitra Chatterjee and documentary filmmaker Anand Patwardhan making the cut, apart from this year’s entrant Senthil Kumar (as ‘member at large’).
Chennai resident V Senthil Kumar is the co-founder of digital services provider Qube Cinema Technologies, a company that revolutionised film exhibition with operations in 4,000 screens across India. Describing the invitation process, he says, “There are different branches in the Academy, like one for cinematographers, actors, producers, art directors, costume designers and also a branch called ‘members at large’. Members at large is that branch of members whose names do not get a credit on a film as they are not a part of the creative process of it. It is only on invitation and it’s not a role one can apply for.”
He adds that, “The process, which lasts about three months or more, begins once two Academy members nominate you. This is then sent to the nomination committee, before it finally becomes the decision of the Board of Directors. Usually, there is a stage where they contact the nominee to understand more about their work. In my case, that did not happen, so I had no idea that I was even nominated.”
Diversity Not Reflected
This lack of inclusivity has been pointed out even earlier. Back in 2018, when Resul Pookutty formed a part of the diversity committee, the Academy had invited 20 Indians, none of whom were working in the four Southern industries. In an interview with Scroll.in then, he assured that it was “only a matter of time before more diversity is reflected within the Indian list as well.” In the same interview, he said, “This year, I had submitted a few more names from the South like Mani [Ratnam] sir etc. It is a very, very long process, and it is eventually the decision of the board of governors as to who they should take. We have managed to increase the overall diversity at the Oscars from 2% to 48% in just the last two years, which I think is a huge achievement.”
But in the two years that followed, we’ve only seen the addition of one member each hailing from the South (Srinivasa Mohan and Senthil Kumar).
According to Oscars.org, the voters are chosen based on Academy bylaw Article III, Section 1, which states, “Membership shall be by invitation of the Board of Governors. Invitations to active membership shall be limited to those persons active in the motion picture arts and sciences, or credited with screen achievements, or who have otherwise achieved distinction in the motion picture arts and sciences and who, in the opinion of the Board, are qualified for membership.”
More Proximity To Hollywood, Better Chances?
But what really determines the decision of the board of directors? Does proximity to Hollywood productions make it easier to get invited given that Ali Fazal (seen in Furious 7 and Victoria and Abdul) becomes a member before a more senior Indian actor like Kamal Haasan, with his multiple Best Actor National Awards? Or does it become easier when one of their films get short-listed for the Best Foreign Film Category (now called Academy Award For Best International Feature Film)?
Gully Boy, which got shortlisted for the award last year (it did not make it to the final list), ensured that its director Zoya Akhtar and its lead Alia Bhatt got invited. But the same was not the case with earlier shortlisted entries. Seven films of Kamal Haasan’s have been submitted in this category (including a directorial credit) but that hasn’t led to an invite either. Cast and crew members of films like Good Road (Gujarati), Visaranai (Tamil), Adaminte Makan Abu (Malayalam), Court (Marathi) and Village Rockstars (Assamese) too have not gotten an invite, even though Hindi superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Aamir Khan (his film Lagaan was nominated for the award) and Salman Khan are now members.
Speaking about the representation, Senthil Kumar, adds: “The misconceptions about the Indian film industry, when you look at it from Hollywood’s point of view is that it’s only ONE movie industry called Bollywood. They don’t understand the variety of languages and cultures and how they are mixed in so many ways with people and talents switching between languages and industries. There is a lack of awareness also because our films don’t crossover much into other countries, apart from the Indian diaspora.”
While the inclusions might have been the result of the Academy’s own selection criteria, it’s the omissions that hold an uneven representation of Indian cinema to the world. Names such as Girish Kasarvalli, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal, Santosh Sivan, PC Sreeram, Ilaiyaraaja, Mani Ratnam and Vishal Bhardwaj have still not been invited, despite their achievements within the country and outside. It’s perhaps just a matter of time, as Pookutty says, for the Academy to pay more attention to diversity within India. At its present state and in the hurry to rid itself of its #OscarsSoWhite hangover, Academy members seem to restrict themselves to a very Western idea of Indian cinema. It’s perhaps time for #OscarsSoBollywood.
(With inputs from Meera Venugopal)