Why do Malayalam movies lose out to Bollywood in the Oscar entry race?

Rahul Gandhi. (File Photo: IANS)
Poster of Oscar nominated movie Gully Boy.

Hopes of a Malayalam movie making the Oscars entry went up in smoke last week when the Film Federation of India (FFI) picked Zoya Akhtar's box-office hit Gully Boy as India's official entry for 2020.

Malayalam stood a chance to win the entry, especially in the backdrop of many movies making huge impressions at various international film festivals this year.

This year's snub was not new to Malayalam. Of the 54 movies selected by the FFI between 1957 and 2019, only two - Guru in 1997 and Adaminte Makan Abu in 2011 - were from Malayalam. Hindi films topped the list with 33 entries, raising serious doubts about the selection process.

“Are quality films not being produced In India? Or are we picking and sending wrong films to the Oscars?” asked Dr Biju, a regular award winner at international film festivals.

Biju said FFI is a non-governmental body, which constitutes a 16-member jury to select India's entry. He said only moneybags can enter the selection process. “One has to shell out Rs 82,600 just to submit the entry. They accept films made in UFO Digital Cinema Package. You have to spend another Rs 40,000 for it. So most of the independent films from regional languages, produced on shoe-string budgets, choose to stay away. Hence cash-rich Bollywood movies get the entries,” he said.

Fate of Indian entries

And the Oscar entry goes to... Bollywood (once again), ignoring Malayalam movies
Of the 54 movies selected by the FFI between 1957 and 2019, only two - Guru in 1997 and Adaminte Makan Abu in 2011 - were from Malayalam.

Of the 90 films to enter the Best Foreign Language Film (now renamed Best International Film) category every year from different countries, nine will make to the short listed and five will enter the final list.

The last unforgettable Indian representation at Oscars was the English movie, Slumdog Millionaire, which went on to win eight awards, including the top prize for best motion picture in 2009.

India's first entry - Mehboob Khan's Mother India – had entered the final list in 1958. It lost out to Federico Fellini's Nights of Cabiria by just one vote.

Later, Mira Nair's Salaam Bombay! made it to the final list in 1988 while Ashutosh Gowariker's Lagaan made it in 2001.

The same selection panel had sprung surprises too by selecting out-and-out entertainers, such as Jeans (Tamill) and Rang De Basanti, as India's official entries.

'Oscars not the ultimate stage'

And the Oscar entry goes to... Bollywood (once again), ignoring Malayalam movies
Mother India, Salaam Bombay and Lagaan were Oscar nominated in 1958, 1988 and 2001 respectively.

Film critic and writer CS Venkiteswaran said Oscar is the celebration of Hollywood productions and the Best Foreign Film category is just a small bit of an extravaganza. “Don't think that Oscars is the ultimate stage that decides the best cinema of the world. It never preferred the art of film-making,” he said.

Critic and writer NP Sajeesh considers two major factors for Oscar preferences. “One is the aesthetics and the other is the market. South movies have localised themes but when it comes to Oscars, the content that appeals to a global market gains preference. For instance, Iranian film The Salesman by Asghar Farhadi won the Oscar last year because it had a European treatment and influence.”

“There are many good movies around the world but not necessarily the best goes to the Oscar,” he said.

Venkiteswaran said Malayalam film-makers should look up to international platforms, such as the Toronto Film Festival and Venice Film Festival. “These renowned festivals bring forth the aesthetics of cinema,” he said.

Recently, Lijo Jose Pellissery's 'Jallikattu', Geetu Mohandas' 'Moothon' and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan's 'Chola' were screened at Toronto and Venice film festivals.

Salim Ahamed, director of Adaminte Makan Abu and the recent flick And the Oskar Goes To..., said money matters the most if one has to win the coveted award. “The Academy has its focus on a different culture with technical perfection. It is hard to create an impression among the Academy members whose votes decide the winners.”

He said film-makers, such as Geethu Mohandas, had raised concerns about marketing films at the Oscars. “In fact, And the Oskar Goes To... narrates my personal experiences," he said.

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