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!