The “Foreign Films” Oscar

In my previous article, I pointed out that Mother India  was the official Indian entry in 1957 for the Academy Awards “Best Foreign Film”. This was in fact only the second year that such an “Oscar” had ever been awarded. The Academy Award ceremonies (popularly known as the “Oscars”) are not film festivals, dedicated supposedly to viewing and awarding films from everywhere in the world.  They are essentially just an industry event, rather similar to the Indian Filmfare awards, an annual occasion for Hollywood to pat itself on the back and boost the promotion of its most successful films.

They would have no real interest for the rest of the world, were it not the dominant position of the US film industry and the great wealth and importance of the US market.  Consequently “international recognition” is nearly always a euphemism, meaning more or less “recognition (of a kind) in the US”. The Award for best foreign film was essentially a device to honour foreign films while keeping them firmly out of the US industry’s own mainstream awards where at this time they were increasingly threatening to encroach.

As early as 1929 (the very first time the Academy Awards were made), the US was already chary of foreign competition.  Conscious of the great strength of the German film industry at that time, it had lured several German directors to the US with lucrative contracts, including Ernst Lubitsch and Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau.  Murnau made a wonderful film in the US, Sunrise, in 1927 (still during the era of the silent film). In 1929 this film was awarded a special Oscar for “best artistic film” (the one and only time such an Oscar has very been presented).  It was a way of saluting the film, while at the same time sidelining it to a special category.  The “best film” award went to the all-American film Wings while several awards were heaped on the films of Frank Borzage (pronounced as a near rhyme with “Corsica”), a young American director whose work was influenced by Murnau but had a softer, more sentimental tone.

So the US, which had otherwise no real concept of the “art film” (a purely European notion in origin) developed instead its own concept of the “arthouse film” which was in practice virtually synonymous with “foreign film” and was a means of restricting the distribution of such films to a very limited circuit (the “arthouse” cinemas). During the fifties, the US industry was in distinct decline following the break-up in the forties (under anti-Trust laws) of the old “studio system” while the European and Japanese film industries, recovering from the war,  were both extremely strong.  This was the period of Kurosawa and Mizoguchi in Japan and of De Sica, Fellini, Bergman and the French and East European “new waves” in Europe. The institution of the “best foreign film” Oscar was therefore an exercise in damage-limitation.  Recognise the best foreign films, flatter the foreign directors with the notion that their work is artistic but keep them carefully away from the mainstream awards and the mainstream cinemas.

The example of Japan is interesting in showing how effective a ploy this was.  The Japanese, despite the language barrier, had made important inroads into the US market.  The American Academy had felt obliged to award three honorary Oscars to Japanese films in the period 1951-1955. Since 1957, Japan has continued to submit films and they have frequently been nominated but, in all the years since, only one has ever actually received an Oscar (2008). Some European film-makers disdained the whole idea of such awards; French “new wave” films, for instance, were never submitted.

1957 was the first year that India submitted a film and Mother India’s success in being one of the five films nominated, even if it did not eventually win the award, was considerable. Only two Indian films have been nominated since, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! in 1988 and Gowariker’s Lagaan in 2001. In 2007 two films in Hindi were among those submitted (R. O. Mehra’s Rang de Basanti by India and Deepa Mehta’s Water by Canada) but only Water was nominated. This was the first time it was possible for countries outside the India sub-Continent to submit films in an Indian language. India itself submitted a US/UK-produced film in Hindi in 1994, Ismail Merchant’s In Custody based on a novel by Anita Desai but a 2001 British film, The Warrior directed by Asif Kapadia and starring Irfan Khan had not been accepted as a submission on the grounds that Hindi was not a British language.  The film is sadly far less known as a result than it should be. The experience may also served to dampen the enthusiasm of British companies to make other films by British Indian directors and therefore discouraged the development of Britain as another centre for Indian-language films.

Nomination for this side-line Oscar certainly does play a role in bringing films to the attention of a wider public and earning them useful box-office receipts even if the process of nomination is somewhat manipulative and the films chosen seem rather too often to reflect political as much as artistic approval.  But to be submitted but NOT nominated is in practice an efficient means of damning a film “internationally”. As the Americans say with respect to runners-up, “close…but no cigar”. It is a bit like proclaiming oneself to be a B.A. (failed).

Visaraanai was the Indian submission in 2017 but not nominated. Many Tamil films have been submitted by India, especially in the years when producer/director Shankar and actor/director Kamala Hassan were at the height of their reputation, but none has ever been nominated.  A sprinkling of other language films (Bengali, Marathi, Malayalam and even Gujurati) have been submitted with equal lack of success. The previously reviewed Marathi film Court was another un-nominated Indian submission (2015)

This does not of course mean that there have not, over the years been some extremely good Indian films submitted that have not been nominated.  This was particularly true of the early days, when Indian films seemed to be completely ignored by the “international” panels. Bimal Roy’s Madhumati was the submission in 1958 and Satyajit Ray’s Apur Sansur was the submission in 1959. Guru Dutt’s superb Sahib Bibi aur Ghulam was the submission in 1962. Vijay Anand’s Guide was submitted in 1965, M. S. Sathyu’s Garam Hawa in 1974 and Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khilari in 1977. Deepa Mehta’s Earth (1999), Kamala Hassan’s Hey Ram (2000) and Mehra’s Rang de Basanti (2006) might also have hoped for a better reception.  One wonders particularly why Earth, submitted by India in 1999, when the competition from other countries was distinctly poor, should not have been nominated while the much inferior Water, submitted by Canada in 2007, in a year when there was a rather stronger field, was.

There have equally been some distinctly mediocre films submitted over the years with some vague notion, perhaps, that they were the right flavour of “politically correct”.  In short, just as with festival films, Oscar submissions tell us nothing about the quality of the film.  Nor for that matter does the question of nomination tell us a great deal.  It is simply a matter of marketing.  At which point I shall go on to consider, without prejudice either way, India’s most recent submission, Tamil director Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai.

To be reviewed: Visaaranai (2015 Tamil film, directed by Vetrimaaran) and Aadukalam (2011 Tamil film directed by Vetrimaaran.