Amrita Prasad
Saturday, 23 February 2019

With the big awards night to kick off in a few hours from now, AMRITA PRASAD asks Indian film industry experts about who they think will take home the Oscars and who actually deserve to win

Veteran actor Naseeruddin Shah was once asked to give his views on Oscars, and the actor blatantly said, “Is Oscar any less bogus than a pan masala award? It is equally fake — it is rigged from the word go. People start manipulating things year before their movie is made… the machinery gets into action for the Oscar. Why are we bothered about this? Who are those guys to decide the best films of the year? I hate these things.” 

Whether you agree or not, there are a few aspects of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, especially the body that governs Oscars, which aren’t too pleasant to know of. From being called out elitist, narcissistic, and racist too, the Academy was condemned when it announced that it was going to introduce a new ‘Popular Film’ category. However, after receiving a lot of backlash, the Academy in September 2018 announced that it will postpone the introduction of the ‘Popular Film’ category and the new award would not be presented at Oscars 2019 as originally intended. 

Although the category may have been put on hold for a while now, the nominations for the 91st Academy Awards  ceremony — which is scheduled to take place on February 24 at Dolby Theatre, Los Angeles, California, United States, (Monday, February 25, 6.30 am IST) — include a list of popular films which have been box-office success. In fact, the Best Picture race is dominated by superhits like Black Panther, Bohemian Rhapsody and A Star is Born. 

Bohemian Rhapsody and Green Book, which  were previously honoured with Best Picture trophies at the Golden Globes, are both nominees for Best Picture for Oscars 2019, as is Black Panther. Black Panther is now the first superhero movie in history to be nominated for Best Picture, a recognition that caps the film’s $1.3 billion worldwide box-office haul. 

The rest of Best Picture nominees include Spike Lee’s BlacKkKlansman; Adam McKay’s Vice; Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma; and Yorgos Lanthimos’ The Favourite. The last two films have 10 nominations each, including the Best Picture, Best Director and Best Screenplay categories. 

As film lovers, critics and filmmakers across the globe wait for the announcement of the winners of the 91st Academy Awards with bated breath, they have raised an important question: Whether popular films like A Star is Born and Black Panther are as deserving of Oscars as a film like Roma?  

Rahul Krishnan Ahuja, founder and editor, Pandolin, and film critic, says that this year the Academy is playing extremely safe which is reflected in their nominations. “Black Panther is the first superhero film to get seven nominations including Best Original Score and Best Picture and is at the top deck with Roma. However, the sudden change in heart has come after the long standing objections against the Academy for being racist in its awards and nominations which makes you wonder whether a particular film has been nominated because it is truly deserving or because Oscars was fed up of being called ‘white’ since they have both BlacKkKlansman and Black Panther at the top. However, Bohemian Rhapsody, A Star is Born, Vice are all amazing!” says Ahuja who insists that we need to take into consideration that we are living in a Netflix era. “Films have changed, the audience has changed with the changed film viewing experience, so the nominations and awards will change too. There are so many good films that it gets difficult to get them all nominated,” adds Ahuja. 

Ashvin Kumar, who has twice won the National Award and has written, directed and produced a wide range of films, including India’s first Oscar nominated short film Little Terrorist, is quite disappointed at the Best Picture nominations this year. However, he feels that both the actors and technical awards’ categories are universally good every year. “I’ve never figured out how people judge Best Screenplay and Best Editor because both these are impossible to distinguish from Best Director,” Kumar points out.   

The Spanish-language Netflix movie Roma is an elegiac story about a domestic worker, Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), in an upper-middle-class Mexico City home, ripped from director Alfonso Cuarón’s own memories, and set against the backdrop of unrest in 1971. Keeping in mind that a film like Roma, which is a Netflix film, has been nominated for Best Picture, Ahuja says that along with movie-viewing experience, critics’ pick has been changing too! 

“People talk about box-office numbers with every film. It has become a trend to use numbers vs stars and reviews, and vice versa depending on what works for movie marketing which influences everyone. And, whosoever — critics or the audience —  says it doesn’t, is either fooling themselves or others. If you see the big numbers (box office) from Hollywood’s perspective, they have included both popular films with good stories and critically-approved indies at Oscars. Netflix views / box-office numbers/ critics’ ratings — they all work for the films since it is about lobbying and reaching out in some way. The films that make the cut are generally deserving, but it does not mean that the ones which do not make the cut are not. It’s just about who gets past in the final nominations. How and why doesn’t matter at that point for anyone, except in debates and conversations!” Ahuja says.   

While the debate continues, a few filmmakers are actually happy about the nominations, whether the films win or not. Rakhee Sandilya, who directed Ribbon featuring Kalki Koechlin and Sumeet Vyas, feels that the nominations this year are interesting and a good mix of popular and critically-acclaimed films. “There are a few films in the nominations that I never imagined would make it to the list and I am happy about it. A Star is Born is a commercial film and has popular stars. Although it is good, it is far from being an outstanding film. I mean, you have seen films made on the life of a singer before.  That said, I think Roma being nominated for Best Picture and not in the Foreign Film category is a big deal and it is a positive sign that the Academy is willing to provide a platform to films that aren’t necessary successful at the box office or feature massive stars,’’ adds the writer and documentary filmmaker. 

But in the past too, popular films have bagged the trophy. “Slumdog Millionaire won 8 out of 10 Academy Awards, but I don’t think it was such a brilliant film! There were other better films nominated that year, but that’s the way Oscars function. It goes for films that make massive money and we shouldn’t compare or think of Oscars as Venice Film Festival, Cannes Film Festival, or Berlin International Film Festival because these celebrate real art and non-mainstream films. However, the reason why there is so much buzz  about Oscars is because of the way they project popular films and unless these films reach the people, how would one know if they are good or bad?” she adds.   
Nikhil Bhat, director of Netflix’s dark comedy Brij Mohan Amar Rahe, feels that it is an interesting time for filmmakers across the globe because people are becoming receptive of different kinds of cinema. “While Black Panther is a popular science-fiction cinema, Roma is a realistic and a very different kind of film, and A Star is Born, which has a fabulous cast and is an incredible film because of the way it has been made, is a mix of both. If I have to give it an Indian connection, I would like to give the example of Gully Boy which is a juxtaposition of art house and commercial cinema. Before we look at the question whether a popular film is as deserving as an art film, we must understand that what’s popular or entertaining is very subjective. What may come across as popular, may not seem as a mainstream film to others,” says Bhat.

He feels that it is a delight to see Roma competing in the Best Picture category. “It is such a welcome change and it gives a platform to indie films which will encourage filmmakers. Last year, the Academy also appreciated a film like Newton. Although it is difficult to pick which is the Best Film or who should win the Best Actor/ Actress award, I think Bradley Cooper was amazing in A Star is Born and films like Black Panther and BlacKkKlansman were brilliant,” he adds. 

Kumar, who feels that while getting a nomination is good enough, winning is a matter of chance. “You have five outstanding performances each deserving of Oscars so who gets the statue is not relevant. It is a celebration of creativity and excellence,” he says. 

Ask Kumar whether he agrees that popular films should bag awards and he says, “This year, the Academy seems to have voted in favour of large crowd pleasers which already have had a strong run at the box office. It’s the smaller films that need the push at such ceremonies. So, I feel popular films don’t need awards. Having said that critics also seem to be gravitating towards highest-grossing films — over the past decade I’ve noted how critics have become more mainstream and not stood their ground for independent works of art that may not find a popular slot. The market has influenced their writing which is not  good for cinema. It’s not good for innovation either. I find the Academy awards are losing their sheen overall and by deciding to put cinematography, editing and the live action short film (in which I was nominated ) under a commercial break is insulting — it is succumbing to market forces, which thankfully they have now reversed. But these actions mean that Oscars are simply not as important as they used to be because people can see through the marketing machine.” When poor films start picking up multiple nominations, people lose interest.

 “Also, Oscars need to become a global award. India has the world’s largest youth population and for international cinema to connect to Indian audiences, Oscars need to rethink their America-centric focus if they are to plan for the next few decades. It’s not going to be USA centric for too long. The dominance of Hollywood as the world’s culture factory will wane. Did I mention China?” says Kumar.  

“Ok. So I love Roma. But more than the film I like Alfonso, the director, for the various hues and storytelling. He is fearless. When he had made the biggest films he did not bother about societal pressure and went and made Roma, which talks about black and white moods and a section of society that we are not used to watching. I love A Star is Born for showing a singer’s story in true style — an actor, who is a director, and a singer who is an actor. A lethal combination weaved into fantastic storytelling.”
— Ashwiny Iyer Tiwari, director of Bareilly ki Barfi

“Of the films I have seen, A Star is Born, for me, should be right up there for the marquee awards. And I hope Black Panther is able to break the superhero film curse to win beyond the tech awards.”
— Anand Tiwari, director of Love Per Square Foot and actor in Udaan, Go Goa Gone, Aisha

“To choose and pick out one best actor is tough, but I think Yalitza Aparicio has a great chance to win as her performance in Roma is very powerful. Pointing out the Best Picture is equally tough. That said,  either Roma or The Favourite should win, however, I feel Bohemian Rhapsody also has a good chance. But if Black Panther, the highest box-office collector, wins, it will create history because it’s led by the black community.”
—Shweta Parande, film journalist and critic for various publications

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