Oscars 2023: Dear India, the Academy is not a human rights organisation

Instead of nitpicking, let’s worry about power inequalities.

WrittenBy:Rajesh Rajamani
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For a long time, Kamal Haasan’s fans lovingly called him Oscar Nayagan, the Oscar hero, because even though he’d never won an Oscar, he was considered the most deserving actor to potentially receive such a prestigious and popular award. But all this changed after AR Rahman’s double Oscar win for Slumdog Millionaire (2008). Even the most diehard Kamal fan found it awkward to call him by a title now claimed by a fellow Tamil from the same industry.

But this hasn’t stopped the Indian public from evoking the Oscar tag for the slightest of reasons. When Rajinikanth’s Darbar (2020) released, some of his fans streamed out of cinema halls and bewilderingly shouted, “Oscar kudra Trump-ey!” Yo Trump, give that Oscar to our superstar! 

That Darbar was panned by critics and audiences is another matter. But it’s amusing that his fans felt the then US president would arrange an Oscar for their favourite star. The ridiculous demand went on to become an iconic meme in Tamil pop culture.

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However, this phenomenon isn’t restricted to superstars or their films. In popular culture, anyone trying to be too dramatic is accused of enacting an “Oscar-worthy performance”. On the flip side, when someone from India actually wins an Oscar, we wonder whether they deserved it or not.

Which is why India’s two Oscar wins this year – composer MM Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose winning best original song for Naatu Naatu from RRR (2022), and Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga best documentary short for The Elephant Whisperers (2022) – has been met with mixed public opinion.

Confusing the Academy for a human rights organisation

On the one hand, several sections of the Indian public are happy an Indian song won an Oscar. But critics are varied and have multiple reasons to argue why they aren’t impressed. From claiming the song isn’t that great to creating Spotify lists of Keeravani’s “better” work to flagging the right-wing politics of RRR and its appropriation of Adivasi culture and history, they’ve clearly registered their displeasure.

While all these arguments may be valid, it’s important to understand that they are of no concern to the Academy or its members. RRR essentially represents the peak form of Telugu masala movies, combining grandiosity and sophistication. The film is made up of one spectacle after another, including Naatu Naatu and its choreography. It is precisely this that captured the attention of the Academy and western audiences.

The Academy has no reason to care whether or not the film misinterprets India’s political history, or worry about its right-wing politics. The Academy shouldn't be misunderstood for a human rights organisation. It’s essentially a Hollywood white-people award show that’s trying hard to stay relevant by aggressively being diverse and inclusive. Their inclusion of Black winners has been abysmally low and severely critiqued. 

So, for the Academy, RRR is nothing more than a Telugu masala film that ticks certain boxes. And if it’s captured their imagination, then so be it.

RRR chose to remain quintessentially Telugu in almost all its aspects: casting, crew and content. It retained its regional cinema flavour without Bollywoodising itself. The Oscar was anyway for the song and not the film – and it’s a spectacularly composed and choreographed song. If anything, its Oscar win proves the potency of regional cinema in the international market, particularly at a time when Bollywood has been dealing with an existential crisis.

The Indian obsession with shuddh merit

It’s about time we Indians come to terms with the fact that awards, Oscars or otherwise, aren’t given to the best song, film or actor to have ever existed since the beginning of human civilisation. Awards are given only to one of several competing films or songs or actors in a category. And even if all the nominated films are dull or boring, one of them will still win.

It might be true that Naatu Naatu is not MM Keeravani’s best song. But please understand, it’s not technically possible for the Academy to pull out one of his better songs, in either Telugu or Tamil, from the 1990s. It only has the power to either award Naatu Naatu or not. That’s how awards work, whether you like it or not.

Also, after the peak pandemic years, there has been a general drop in the quality of films across borders. Just about a decade ago in 2014, films like Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance), Boyhood, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Whiplash all competed in the best picture category. They were all equally brilliant but only one could take the Oscar home – and Birdman did. 

But such stiff competition doesn’t exist post 2019. Factors like the rise of OTT platforms, their standardisation of content, reduced footfall in theatres, closing of movie halls, and disappearing small- and medium-budget films have all played a role in this change. So, irrespective of your personal obsession with shudhh merit, try to make peace with the fact that the winner in any category may not necessarily be your personal favourite.

Plus, why is it that we never obsess as much about our own awards here, whether it’s the National Awards given by the central government or private ones like the Filmfare Awards? It’s almost as if the Indian public has given up on the credibility of local awards that they now pour all their energy into scrutinising the Oscars and holding it to sky-high standards.

The story of documentaries

The same applies to the Indian entries in the documentary sections too. 

Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes is an absolutely gorgeous and important film. While it’s disappointing that it didn’t win, it seems exaggerated to argue that the right-wing RRR won when a documentary about two Muslim brothers didn’t. Instead, the Oscar for best documentary went to Navalny (2022) that revolves around Russian former opposition leader Alexei Navalny and events related to his assassination attempt.

Indian liberals should try and have some mercy for the Academy. Because, tell me this, should the Academy worry about Indian secular-ness while handing out awards or should it stick to being the American institution it is and make a statement about the politics of Russia? The latter, of course. You’d disagree only if you’re a merciless liberal – so let’s agree to disagree.

Director Kartiki Gonsalves and producer Guneet Monga’s Netflix documentary The Elephant Whisperers brought home the Oscar for best documentary short. The film documents the story of a couple, Bomman and Bellie, from an indigenous community. They’re entrusted with an orphaned baby elephant named Raghu.

It’s a beautifully shot film but even so, critics chose to nitpick its win. While some claimed the documentary is nothing more than a sugary sweet video, others raised concerns over the sidelining of the documentary’s central characters, Bomman and Bellie, during the film’s win. Some reports even claimed the couple hadn’t watched the documentary yet, and Gonsalves later clarified that she’d arranged a special screening for them.

There were other reports on how the couple did not receive monetary or other compensation. But irrespective of all this, it’s true that the Oscar win centred the women power of Gonsalves and Monga, pushing the real story of the indigenous couple to the background. It was only Tamil Nadu chief minister MK Stalin who arranged for their felicitation and threw the focus back to them.

This brings us back to the very nature of Indian documentaries whose narratives are often built on power inequality. They suffer from gaping power differences between the documentary’s Bahujan subjects and the privileged and elite (often Savarna) storytellers.

Last year, Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas’s Writing with Fire was nominated for an Academy Award for best documentary feature. The film was about the journalists running the Dalit women-led newspaper Khabar Lahariya. However, Khabar Lahariya later claimed the documentary misrepresents its journalistic work. This inherent power difference in Indian documentaries might continue as long as its subjects remain Bahujans but the storytellers Savarnas.

But wait. Before we nitpick further, let’s remember where we began. “Oscar kudra, Trump-ey!” we shouted. Trump isn’t in power now but India got its two Oscars this year. So even if it’s not perfect by our personal standards, can’t we just relax and rejoice at this moment?

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