Dress Circle | Oscars is a non-event for Indian films; festivals are key for international success

Posters of Mother India and Gully Boy

The selection of Gully Boy as India’s official entry to the Oscars triggered some heated discussions over the past week about whether it is indeed the right film to represent the country on the world stage. The jury is out on whether it is India’s best foot forward this year, but there are some fundamental problems to correct to make Indian films succeed on the world stage.

India on world stage

In 1988-89, cinematographer Shaji N Karun brought enviable laurels to Indian cinema with his debut feature film as director, Piravi. The film was selected in over 70 international and national film festivals and received 31 awards, including the prestigious Silver Leopard at Locarno, the Special Mention of Camera d'Or at Cannes, the Silver Hugo at Chicago and the national award for the best Indian film. Piravi’s film print is believed to be preserved in the archives of over 40 countries where it is continued to be screened in film festivals.

In 2017, the blockbuster Bahubali-2, dubbed in Chinese, Russian and Japanese, apart from multiple Indian languages, grossed over Rs 565 crores in just five days from 9,000 theatres worldwide, including a whopping 1,100 screens in the United States alone.

A still from Shaji N Karun’s film Piravi

The films represent the two distinct faces of Indian cinema but for a good number of overseas audiences, Indian cinema is still synonymous with Bollywood. Indian film industry with over 2,000 film releases a year, leads the world in terms of the number of films produced in a year and its size of the audience across several languages ranging from Hindi to Tulu.

India’s abysmal Oscars record

Though the Film Federation of India regularly sends the country’s submissions to Oscars, only three films were nominated since 1956, the year in which a separate category called Best Foreign Language Film Award was instituted. Mehboob Khan’s nationalist musical melodrama Mother India (1957) lost to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, the Italian tragic drama about a prostitute searching for true love. Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay (1988), a film about the street children of Bombay, lost to Billie August’s Danish drama about Swedish immigrants to Denmark, Pelle the Conquerer, Once again in 2001, Ashutosh Gowarikar’s cricket-weds-nationalism epic Lagaan lost to Danish Tanovic’s Bosnian war film No Man’s Land.

Italy tops the list with 28 nominations and 18 awards so far in the category, which includes the legends Federico Fellini and Vittorio De Sica winning four Oscars each for their country. This year, India’s official submission Gully Boy will be competing with legendary Spanish filmmaker Pedro Almodóvar’s Pain and Glory among others, if it manages to bag the fourth nomination in history for the country. Almodovar, to his credit, had won the Oscar once in the past for his film All About my Mother in 1999 after being nominated for Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown in 1988.

Making a splash at film festivals is key

There are thousands of film festivals across the world. An industry standard for success for Indie films is selection to one of the 15 International Federation of Film Producers Associations (FIAPF) accredited film festivals spread across the world. They are Berlin, Moscow, Cannes, Shanghai, Karlovy Vary, Locarno, Montreal, Venice, San Sebastian, Warsaw, Tokyo, Mar Del Plata, Tallinn, Cairo, and India (IFFI). An award in these festivals is certainly a sure shot way to fame and money but a selection to these festivals opens up the worldwide market for a film as scores of international distributors will be present there to pick up the best films.

Film festivals showcase the best films from all over the world and bring the filmmakers and sales companies together on the same platform. For example, the prestigious Berlin Film Festival screens around 400 films for over 1700 sales companies and buyers and a total of nearly 10,000 people, which includes 3700 media correspondents and critics from across the world. The kind of exposure that such a festival offers to a film is huge. Sadly, India is yet to recognise the importance of packaging and sending our films to the best festivals of the world.

Why Indian films don’t make it

A view of the Berlin Film Festival red carpet

The very fact that only three Indian films had got Oscar nominations so far demands a revamp of the selection process that is followed in the country. Concerns have been raised about the quality of the jury because barring the FFI chairman and a couple of members, others in the 16-member jury are not selected through a transparent process considering their track record and credibility. Zero-budget films usually do not have the required publicity and advertising budget for a theatrical window or for international promotions. Even if such films are selected for Oscars, the lack of financial muscle or any support from the government will make the selection ineffective.

It’s not enough if you just have an outstanding film. Selling it overseas and gaining world recognition is a different game altogether. Insiders say that a film producer who aspires to go to the Oscars or to market a film on other international platforms should have deep pockets, the right connections and a lot of perseverance to do intense lobbying. The other factor that plays a key role is the director’s reputation that is carefully built and nurtured through networking, by getting featured in top film festivals and by reviews in international media, such as The Guardian, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter. The only new-age director from the country who has done all these and more seems to be Anurag Kashyap. He has become India’s face in key festivals after his films were featured regularly in top film festivals including Cannes, won accolades and got positive reviews in the international media.

What is the way forward?

Barring a few occasional outings, the overall picture is dismal when you look at the quality and the appeal that our films have in the global market. It is time to move on from traditional all-over-the-place marketing of films to targeted marketing, considering the film’s content and its suitability to a particular market and audience. It is important to remember that Oscars is not the last word when it comes to global recognition of films.

Unlike Europe and Latin America, there is no state funding for independent projects in India. However, there are international bodies such as The Sundance Institute that have been supporting Indie films in several countries including India since last few years, right from the screenwriting stage to post-production. The Institute that had supported the early feature films of international filmmakers such as Alfonso Cuaron (Love in the Time of Hysteria), Guillermo Del Toro (The Devil’s Backbone) and Braulio Mantovani (City Of God) is the force behind Geetu Mohandas’s Malayalam film Moothon, which was recently premiered in the Toronto International Film Festival. Incidentally, you can see an Anurag Kashyap imprint on Moothon too. Apart from being a co-producer, he has written the Hindi dialogues for the film.

The moot point is whether we have enough opportunities and support systems for Indie filmmakers to produce quality films and enable them to compete in the best film festivals. As a first step, efforts should be put in to select juries of international calibre for deciding the awards at the state and national levels and in film festivals such as IFFI. The fact that the credibility of the juries in these festivals is being questioned in recent years due to the alleged political appointments and omission of certain films that are unpalatable to those in power, does not bode well for the reputation of the country.

Anurag Kashyap and actor Nawazuddin Siddiqui at Cannes film festival.

Unlike in the past, film festivals in any corner of the world have become accessible to anyone with access to internet and social media. We have moved on from the time when filmmakers like Shaji used to carry the film rolls to festivals or despatch them spending huge money. It is high time the government provided financial and technical support to budding filmmakers right from pre-production to release to promotion by reviewing their content as per international standards. Some of the best independent films in many Indian languages were funded by the state-owned National Film Development Corporation (NFDC). It should be noted that NFDC still conducts a film bazaar as part of IFFI in Goa ever year, which includes a co-production market, work-in-progress lab and viewing room for filmmakers to seek production funding, support and sales. Apart from production support, we should establish platforms through which filmmakers can reach out to critics and influential curators of world cinema who select films for prestigious festivals around the world. Putting your best foot forward with all the resources you can muster and creating a buzz in the international arena is the key to a film’s success. Remember, even the powers that be at the Oscars go by the buzz in international festivals.

(The author is a communication professional and a film enthusiast. Views expressed are personal)

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