Not Quite the Sweet Choice

That Indian cinema is largely built on a platform for primarily giving its stressed janta entertainment release of tension is well-known. “Leave your brains behind and watch the film” is something we hear often. Logic, depth, research, understanding pros and cons of issues discussed, putting them in proper context, writing sensible yet entertaining scripts, creating well-fleshed out believable characters, making the film with a certain understanding of cinematic craft and above all having a sense of originality (and creativity) – none of  these criteria frankly matter. For, if these were the basis of film watching in India and particularly Bollywood – the Bodyguards, Agneepaths, Singhams, Golmaals, Rowdy Rathores and Housefulls would never be the blockbusters they were.

Leave alone the common man, even the educated, so-called sensible Indian film viewer ultimately watches a Hindi film to chill and little else. When a friend of mine, a respected professional now in the USA, raved about Don 2 and how much she liked every aspect of it, I told her there were some bits of the film I didn’t get. She first looked at me not quite believing me – what was there not to understand. So I asked her, they keep harping about the fact that Don has to go into the vault in the basement but when he gets into the elevator what does he do – go to the 6th floor! Why? Suddenly she was foxed, initially struggled for words, then hemmed and hawed, before finally squirming her way out by saying that in a Hindi film we’re not supposed to think of these things!

A film like Barfi! today is being raved about. And sure enough, it’s not important to Indian audiences that several scenes in the film have been shamelessly flicked from The Notebook, The Adventurer, and even iconic films like City Lights, Singin’ In The Rain and many, many more. Big deal, they say. The film works for them and sure enough, the film is going super strong at the box-office. And beyond a point, nobody questions the success of the film. It has entertained and given the viewer a ‘paisa vasool’ experience. Isn’t that enough?

Barfi!’s success is fine for the domestic and even diaspora box-office where the film has fetched sweet returns. Good or original cinema has never been the criteria here. However, selecting it to represent India at the Oscars is a tad shocking and even shameful. We have to remember that the film will be watched by Academy members for the very cinematic qualities that Indian audiences don’t care about, especially in big-budget star films. And let’s be honest – on this front it’s almost certain to come up short and not make the final nominations and maybe be even be ridiculed and laughed at for all its blatant copying. After all, City Lights and Singin’ In the Rain are classic, immortal films and the way the scenes have been used in the film are not even giving a nod to their greatness but inserted by simply copying and pasting. And if the filmmakers were to try and remove all the copied scenes before sending it to the Oscars, it’s very likely there wouldn’t be a film left to send.

The selection of the film to represent India at the Oscars becomes a joke practically every year. In the past, we’ve sent films like Saagar and Jeans as our best bets. And then we mourn that since the Oscars began in 1927-8 and the foreign film category opened up, informally in 1947 but properly from 1956, only 3 Indian films have made it to the final five – Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Lagaan: Once Upon a Time in India (2001). Slumdog Millionaire might have been based in India but remember, it was not an Indian film. All the three Indian films were well made, had engaging stories, good performances and were truly rooted in Indian soil. On our production tour to Mumbai from the FTII in my second year in 1991, I remember music composer Vanraj Bhatia telling our class that people in the West were hooting and laughing at Parinda since the background score included a particular piece of Western classical music which had a very specific connotation and when they heard it used in Parinda, they cracked up. And sure enough, that was enough to knock it out of contention that year.

We need a selection committee that not only understands intricacies of filmmaking, but one that also researches and sees what are the likely films in competition, what type of films work at the Oscars in the Foreign Film category, one that analyzes what are the sort of films which have won in the past, one that studies what unique aspect of their country do these films represent, and how do those films break all important cultural barriers before they choose the film if we are to make any impact at all in the future. To be honest, I would say from the Hindi film lot itself (I haven’t seen too many of the regional films, unfortunately and am not going into the bias against them here), Paan Singh Tomar or Vicky Donor were far more original, better crafted films and more deserving than Barfi!. Unless we change our system of selection, we’ll continue to moan and groan that we never make it to the Oscar short list while the West will continue to rate our cinema as mediocre, find it good enough only to be laughed at and occasionally to be enjoyed as exotic kitsch. And this is an easier alternative. It would be a far, far tougher task to try and get the Academy members to watch our films while leaving their brains behind!

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  1. Karan, a very well written piece. I do hope it gets read by many, many people, as it deserves to be. As you mention, the kind of plagiarism we pass off as acceptable, and almost the norm in our cinema, is just not acceptable in the West. I have witnessed this first-hand with my diploma films (using recorded music, without copyright, being student films) at festivals abroad. On that count alone, a lot of our films do not qualify to be sent for the Oscars.

  2. This is an important piece. I was shocked to read in the news today that Barfi has been chosen over films like Pasn Singh Tomar. We shud get this message across and try to rectify the system. It has to start somewhere and this piece makes the right points. 🙂

  3. First thing first, as expected a sensible piece like this had to come from Upperstall. To me personally it also means the revival of its legitimacy which was getting shaken in between. So thanks a ton for driving home some very basic points in this piece. Frankly it is ridiculous that Barfi has been chosen, but what is more appalling is the collective orgasm people are having at large. That a powerful corporate mafioso bullied Barfi’s way into the nominations is a given over films like Vicky Donor and first half of Pan Singh Tomar or even Kahani (not sure how much of that was copied, but certainly a better film) but the euphoria of the “discerning” middle class and most importantly film/ tv officials is bigger indicator of the malaise, that content, cinematic raft , originality etc have no value, infact looked down upon by the fraternity and audience at large. Frankly, like the people get the government they deserve, they also get the art/cinema they deserve. From my experience in television I can say, almost all my original, or breaking the norm shows have bombed while the regular scheming saas-bahu sagas have done well. Same is true for cinema. The way in which twitter, FB, BBM and what’s app got orgasmic over Barfi nomination saddened me. To some I had to tell it is just an entry by the our film industry so not to get too excited. Anurag is a friend and certainly a better film maker than most but that doesn’t qualify film for oscar entry and NOT nomination. What saddens me even more that a genuinely super act by Priyanka Chopra as an autistic is getting little or no mention. It is all about the khandani Kapoor, whereas Priyanka’s performance whetted by my psychiatrist dad and the AutisticSociety is being overllooked. So much for our cinematic sensibility ? It speaks volumes of our bias towards gender and pedigree. Ranbir was so confused. He was not sure whether he is to do a Chaplin or play deaf and mute. The maker and he tried sailing in two boats and made a mess of it. One can go on and on about Barfi or any such fare which is lauded beyond reason, but thanks for such a wonderful
    And much need blog, as the orgasm was nauseating. The Oscar committee, as rightly pointed out will ridicule and spoof the film. Frankly I don’t have a problem with Wanted, Dabangg and Singham, as they make no claims of sensitive cinema and I have enjoyed the above three immensely, but this disguised lie isa put off. Thanks again for writing such a piece.

  4. The basic question is “why should films be any different?” We adore mediocrity and never ever stop to think about what the rest of the world is doing right. We celebrate the partial opening on Bandra-Worli sea link (delayed, over budget, and not yet complete) as a great national achievement while the rest of the world looks aghast at the silly state of affairs of our “Infrastructure”. One could say that we should look at China and the rest of Asia, and learn about how to get people out of poverty, but no one cares.

    So the people with power over film selection are swayed by corporate interests, and we keep applauding mediocrity. Gandhi and Slumdog are proof that the Academy will reward films about India, provided they are up to the standards. Even a, admittedly flawed Gangs of Wasseypur would have been fresh. Great article PdP. (Atleat they didnt send Shanghai)

  5. Honestly I do think plagiarism will only grow – what with the creative bankruptcy that hindi mainstream cinema is steeped in. It may only be stalled when writers are paid their due so that full time writing for films becomes a financially viable pursuit and when copyright infringements are legally confronted and prosecuted. The former seems to be dawning upon our directors and producers in some infinitely small measure but the latter still has no takers.
    That the average Indian cinegoer’s mental aptitude will barely challenge a 5yr olds is debatable. How then can one expect that they will rise beyond mediocrity. Do they really know any better?

  6. Thanks Sharad, Batul, Sanjivan for not just reading but adding your comments and sharing the page as well.

    Sharad, I don’t think the legitimacy of Upperstall was shaken or compromised at any stage. The approach is as it has always been.

    Jayesh, agreed at least they didn’t send Shanghai, which had also provoked a piece from me – http://www.upperstall.com/blogs/punjab-da-puttar/no-stars-here/ earlier.

    Vikas, agree wholeheartedly. Bollywood is a largely braindead filmmaking enterprise today. And if Anurag and UTV have even a semblence of a conscience – especially after all the exposure by postings of actual scenes v/s copied on fb and twitter – they should gracefully withdraw the film from consideration.

    Jyotin, With fb and twiiter full of the copied scenes with examples from youtube, the case for outright dismissal of Barfi! in the initial viewing by the Academy members has got even stronger.

    Rajesh, Sorry but The Dirty Picture was a lousy film too with accent only on the body and little else. And we give Vidya Balan the National Award for it. Now, that’s a joke! Here’ my take on the film – http://www.upperstall.com/films/2011/the-dirty-picture

  7. Very well written Bali! Am going to share this on twitter and FB for the people who matter to read! It’s time they realize that only a financially strong producer who can promote his film for Oscar need not be the ONLY criteria for getting selected to represent the country!

  8. clippings of original “Barfi” is already on FB. our Barfi will certainly becum a joke at oscar. I fully agree wid the view that “Paan Singh Tomar or Vicky Donor were far more original, better crafted films and more deserving than Barfi!”

  9. I guess it would be obvious to everyone barring the selection committee that you cannot send a film with “lifted” scenes for the Oscars. I am sort of okay with an actor being inspired by a Chaplin, but yes, deaf and dumb are not retarded. I’m not talking of lifted scenes, I mean a Chaplinesque way of performing. I didn’t mind Barfi (so, kill me) but I’d not send it for the Oscars, over-rated awards they may be. I don’t know what I’d send. A “Shala” maybe?

  10. BARFI as Indian entry for Oscar awards: Is it a joke?

    Anurag Basu and his stars like Ranbeer Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra are justifiably elated over BARFI’s selection as the official Indian entry for an Oscar in the Foreign Language Category to be given away by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for the year 2013. My congratulations and I generously wish and pray that Anurag Basu, who is busy savoring the ‘the icing on the cake’, finally gets to have a piece of the Oscar pie as well.

    However, the sagacity of the jury of the Film Federation of India (FFI) responsible for picking up BARFI as India’s official entry must be questioned seriously. I am sure there will be many well-known names of the film industry in the jury who have years of experience behind them. I believe the other films in the shortlist included Milan Luthria’s THE DIRTY PICTURE, Rajan Khosa’s GATTU, Tigmanshu Dhulia’s PAAN SINGH TOMAR, Umesh Kulkarni’s DEOOL, Sujoy Ghosh’s KAHAANI, Anurag Kashyap’s GANGS OF WASSEYPUR PARTS I AND II, Gurvinder Singh’s ANHEY GHORE DA DAAN, and Madhur Bhandarkar’s HEROINE.

    All these films in the list, excluding the pathetic HEROINE, would have been a better choice than BARFI any day any time on all possible criterion and benchmarks. They are artistically superior and could have provided at least a semblance of competition to the sure shot Oscar winner in the foreign language category in 2013, the Austrian entry Michael Haneke’s AMOUR. Unless the Academy voters are too quirky and out-of-their-minds to recognize an obvious winner, it’s a foregone conclusion.

    The FFI jury has botched up its job. To find out if it’s done innocently or deliberately, some kind of criminal investigation will have to be conducted. Going by the general societal trend of ‘cronyism’ in every sphere of Indian life, it may have been a deliberate mistake unless of course all the esteemed and honorable members of the jury were ignoramuses and knew nothing about the trends in world cinema.

    To send BARFI as an official Indian entry for Oscars is a patently wrong decision in my view when I look at the entries from other nations. The jury should have given some thought to those films if it was serious about its task. Were they aware about the non-English films, apart from AMOUR, that have been creating buzz in the film festivals across the world? I am talking about films like the Romanian entry Cristian Mungiu’s BEYOND THE HILLS, the German entry Christian Petzold’s BARBARA, the Danish entry A ROYAL AFFAIR by Nikolaj Arcel, the French entry THE INTOUCHABLES by Eric Toledano & Olivier Nakache, the Swiss entry SISTER by Ursala Meier, the Canadian entry WAR WITCH by Kim Nguyen, the Hungarian entry JUST THE WIND by Benedek Fliegauf, etc.

    When you participate in a world event like Olympics you look at the strengths and weaknesses of your opponents and your own and then pick your best athletes for the job. This is the least one should do, to know the field before marching in to play. Did the FFI jury do this elementary exercise and analysis before its selection? If it didn’t, it acted incompetently and casually like a bunch of nincompoops. The jury has ignored the films that were obviously better in terms of their artistic and cinematic worth. THE DIRTY PICTURE is a better film than BARFI in whatever way you evaluate it. It’s better directed, performed, and shot. It also has a strong Indian stamp and is not fake stylized cinema. As mentioned earlier, apart from HEROINE all other films in the short list would have been a better choice than BARFI.

    Posted By khullamkhulla to KHULLAMKHULLA LIVE at 9/24/2012 10:10:00 PM

  11. Ram, you forgot Department!

    Irene: Can’t kill you for obvious reasons at least till Jan-Feb 2013! 🙂 Shala was charming no doubt and there is some great work being done in regional cinema especially Marathi and Tamil, and it is unfortunate one doesn’t get to see as much of it as one would like. The other issue here is the total bias against regional cinema when the final selections are done, although it has to be said some of their committees are as bad as the National one. The Tamil one actually shortlisted the awful 7Aum Arivu from their side amongst a couple of slightly better films!

  12. Thanks for exposing the farcical nature of India’s selection process for Oscars. I too like many others wonder why works of Ray, Adoor, Benegal, Kasarapalli et. al never got selected !!! Like you and many others like Sharad, Sanjivan, Banno I too am deeply disappointed, angry and anguished at the present state of Indian cinema and the powers who reign over the this sorry and infantile state of affairs. Its high time Indian viewers, critics, filmmakers and the people with money who invest in cinema stop being frogs in the well and open their eyes to what truly world class cinema is.

  13. Akash, That is simply shameless and pathetic. So putting a poster of Chaplin makes copying his scenes an ‘homage’. Wah! In any case, even on that basis, the rest still remains copying and stealing, doesn’t it?

    Whoa Monish! 🙂 Perfectly understand where that’s coming from though.

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