India’s Portrayal at the Oscars

-Shatabdi Banerjee

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Recently the whole world witnessed the 89th Academy Awards, popularly known as the Oscars .The  ‘Academy Awards’ or the ‘Oscars’, is presented by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for excellence in Cinematic Achievements.

India’s contribution to the Oscars, if not that immense but still it is noteworthy. The history of Indian Cinema dates back to 1913 that is nearly a century when Late Dadasaheb Phalke directed first full-length Indian film, Raja Harishchandra. India made its way to the Oscar with the epic film Mother India, in 1957 at the 30th Academy Awards in the category of Best Foreign Language Film. Though it failed to win any award, this movie grabbed the attention of the world at once.

India till now has sent approximately 50 movies, out of which only three got nominated, namely, Mother India(1957), Salaam Bombay(1988) and Lagaan(2001), although none of them won any award. Some of the other movies with an Indian set-up directed by Hollywood filmmakers also paved their way to the Oscars , namely Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and the most recent Lion (2016).

If one notices the trend of the Indian movies or movies with an Indian backdrop , selected or ‘nominated’ for the Oscars, one can clearly see the types of movies selected for the nomination are actually the way the west ‘wants’ to see India: rural, backward and impoverished.

  1. Mother India(1957) One of the epic films Bollywood has ever produced, this Nargis Dutt, Sunil Dutt and Rajendra Kumar starring film has wonderfully portrayed the “poverty-stricken  Indian village –woman named Radha (Nargis), who in the absence of her husband raises her sons amidst many troubles and sets an example of an ideal Indian woman.”
  2. Salaam Bombay(1988)- A Meera Nair’s directorial venture, this film sketches the life of  an impoverished, homeless little boy striving hard to keep his body and soul together in an urbane, fast-moving city, Bombay. In this movie a striking contrast has been drawn between both the lives; life of a homeless child and the urban life.
  3. Lagaan(2001)-  An Ashutosh Gowariker directed film , starring Bollywood’s heartthrob Amir Khan, this movie, set in India in 1893, is a story of how the common villagers win a game of cricket, a game of which they are completely unaware of, challenged by the tyrannical, racist Capt. Russel (Paul Blackthorne) with the help of Captain’s sister (Rachel Shelley). The movie showed the condition of villages and the villagers who were dependent solely on rain (the condition hasn’t changed though since!) and also on the British Raj, who mercilessly used to exploit them.
  4.  Slumdog Millionaire(2008)- A British-drama film, directed by Danny Boyle, narrates the story of an eighteen years old boy Jamal Malik (Dev Patel), an Indian Muslim from Juhu slum is a contestant of the Indian adaptation of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? He is one question away from winning the grand prize when the police arrests him, because of the impossibility of a “slumdog” with very little education knowing all the answers. Hence, this movie was a complete portrayal of the crowded, poverty-stricken slums of Mumbai and how people there, are just striving amidst all the troubles.
  5. Lion(2016)- This film is based on a real-life incident of Saroo Brierly. A five-year old boy who lives with  his poor widow mother, his elder brother and his small sister, unknowingly gets up on a train and travels 1600 kilometres gets lost on the streets of Calcutta (now, Kolkata) and later adopted by an Australian family. Half of the film portrays the difficulties and hardships of Saroo’s Indian family who thrives on his widowed mother’s meagre salary as an unskilled labourer and sometimes on what his elder brother manages to get from under the berths of trains. 

All of these movies are at their best when it comes to screenplay, cinematography, background score etc. But the question is, why the Oscars always select the movies which show the impoverished side of India, and why not those movies which glorify India in some or the other way such as Earth(1999), Shatranj ke Khiladi(1978), Jodha-Akbar(2008), Rang De Basanti(2006). These films not only  portrayed the other side of our country but they also had various themes to show to the world unlike the aforementioned movies which showed the ‘malnutrition’ side of our country.

Indian cinema has always portrayed a myriad of emotions on the silver screen, which not only portrays the new India which is emerging and spreading its wings of development worldwide, but also the Young heart of our country. It’s high time that the West should stop considering India as an ‘underdog’.

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