A scene from Jallikattu
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As always, there was this dim hope that we’d make it to the shortlist, at least. After all, we’d picked a really deserving film, one that – narratively speaking – leapt out of the box like a rampaging bull. Plus, the Oscar voting committee has become far more ethnically diverse. But I think we all knew, in our hearts, that this was all it would be: a dim hope. If Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu had indeed ended up in that list, it would have been more of a fluke. This has nothing to do with the merits of this marvellously directed movie. It also has little to do with the admittedly important fact that – after a film is submitted for the Best International Film Oscar – we do not (or perhaps cannot, financially speaking) campaign hard enough. It has, I think, more to do with the perception of India as a “country that makes good movies”.

All ‘good filmmakers’ are not equal

Everyone knows that – like in every awards set-up – it is just not possible to read every book submitted (in the case of, say, the Man Booker) or listen to every album put out (the Grammys). Most voters, therefore, are likely to go for “names”. There was a period in the 1990s and 2000s when almost every year a Pedro Almodóvar film would be tipped to make it to the shortlist. Of course, this has a little to do with the merits of this marvellous director (and god knows I worship his work). But it’s also that he had been canonised by the time: by festivals, by international critics, and most importantly, the American paying public who routinely made Almodóvar films among the highest-grossing at the box office. So, as an Oscar voter, when you have a hundred films you need to watch and don’t have two hundred hours, an Almodóvar becomes a safe bet. “I haven’t yet watched it, but it’s an Almodóvar. It has to be good, right?”

All auteurs are not equal

But even if you take filmmakers from Spain, not everyone is an Almodóvar or a Luis Buñuel. Some will argue that the more political Carlos Saura is the more vital filmmaker, but despite three nominations (for Mamá Cumple 100 Años, Carmen and Tango), he never won an Oscar. The first time, his auteur-competitors were Volker Schlöndorff and Andrzej Wajda. The second time, it was the sainted Ingmar Bergman – and  no one, I mean no one, was going to vote for Carmen over Fanny and Alexander. The third time, in 1999, one of the auteur-competitors was the more “happening” Majid Majidi. Yes, it was the first time an Iranian film had been nominated. But Abbas Kiarostami‘s Taste of Cherry had won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival a few years earlier, and Iran had finally broken through as a “country that makes good movies”.

All awards are not equal

Of course, the festival circuit alone cannot help. It helped that Miramax had slowly begun to release Kiarostami’s films in American art houses, so the buzz began to build. But more importantly, as Parasite showed us last year, the size of the festival matters. Cannes matters. Berlin matters. Venice matters. The other festivals are still not yet there in terms of perception-building.

Again, I am not saying the Oscar voters are a dumb lot who simply pick the best-known or best-buzzed-about films. But being “known”, being “buzzed about” plays a huge role in the Best Foreign Film (now Best International Feature) category. And a Pebbles winning the prestigious Tiger award at the Rotterdam film festival – though important for us – is but a pebble in a pond. For one, the festival is too “indie”. (And that’s, of course, its USP.) And two, not enough has been written about the film. Yet. As for Jallikattu, it didn’t even play at many major festivals. The only recognitions listed in Wiki are from the Kerala State Awards and the International Film Festival of India.

All press is not equal

The Indian press may rave and rave about Pebbles, but unless the all-important international press begins to rave and rave about the film, it will find the going difficult. PS Vinothraj has made a superb movie. But now, the real challenge begins, if he wants more in terms of recognition. He has to work the circuits, target bigger festivals (where you are likely to find the more prestigious international press), or perhaps even find international mentors like Chaitanya Tamhane did for The Disciple, which was in the main Competition section at Venice. Post-script: Given Alfonso Cuarón’s attachment, might that have been the better movie to nominate for this year’s Oscars?

But then, Vetri Maaran’s Visaranai was at Venice, too. After giving his film a solid campaign push in the US, the director recently told Film Bazaar: “Indian films are not relevant to them… I’ll be happy when I see an Indian film in the top 5 shortlist… At the same time, if one of my films is sent again I wouldn’t be spending the same amount of time in Hollywood like I did for Visaranai. I’ve realised making inroads there is not easy.” It’s naive to believe that making a “good movie” is enough. Connections matter. Media coverage (that results in the “good movie” breaking out beyond the festival clutter) matters.

All countries are not equal

And finally, the country matters. Despite art-house darlings like Satyajit Ray and Mrinal Sen being feted at international film festivals, can you believe that two of the three Indian films (Mother India, Lagaan) that made it to the Oscar shortlist are unapologetically mainstream ventures? But no, I am not suggesting that nominating “the Indian mainstream” is the way to go. Both those films (and again, this is not about their quality) were having a moment. They were exotica. They were flukes. The only way to seriously hope for a shot at the Oscars (and I think the Oscars matter, because of the prestige and perception factor they endow on a movie) is to make our country matter in the eyes of Uncle Oscar as a “country that (consistently) makes good movies”.

This is not just about making that one movie that might win, fluke or otherwise. It is about a movement to make Indian cinema matter in their eyes. It is about creating a roster of Indian filmmakers who will be instantly considered “auteurs” by the international community. It’s a formidable challenge, and it’s one that Latin America faced as well until the Big Three of Guillermo del Toro, Alfonso Cuarón and Alejandro González Iñárritu conquered the other America. (And even they did so after their Hollywood projects.) Iran is another example. The point, in other words, is to build an auteur library that cannot be ignored. The point is to be able to definitively answer the question: Who is the Indian Almodóvar? The other way out is to keep doing what we do and say we don’t really care about the Oscars, but then, we wouldn’t have this annual ritual of hand-wringing, would we?

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