Hollywood can’t seem to stop talking about how a South Korean film, Parasite, defied the ‘one-inch barrier’ of subtitles to become the first foreign film ever to win the top prize at the Oscars. To me, a movie buff from India, Parasite brings new urgency to an old question: Why can’t India, the world’s most prolific producer of films, make even one good enough for an Academy award?
India has never even won the best foreign film award – let alone come close to winning the best picture of the year award. And it’s not for lack of trying. It has submitted more than 50 entrees since that award was created in 1957. Only a few cinema powerhouses, including France and Italy, have made more submissions, and they have won the golden statue many times. Nor is it just European film powerhouses that shine at the Oscars. Films from 27 countries have received the best foreign film award, including entrees from Iran, Chile, and the Ivory Coast.
India’s apologists offer a lot of excuses. Poor selections by the committee that chooses Indian entrees. Content that works in India doesn’t work for a global audience. Our domestic market is so big, Indian filmmakers needn’t bother trying to please international fans, much less critics. Or, my favourite, Indian films are world class, but the Academy is biased and not a good judge of quality.
None of these excuses can survive even casual scrutiny. Indian movies consistently fall short not only at the Oscars but at every major film festival. Very few make it to the main slate at Cannes, Venice or Berlin. No Indian film has won the Palme d’Or at Cannes or the Golden Lion at Venice. It’s a stretch to suggest that all the world’s judges are wrong about Indian film all the time.
OK, Mira Nair did win top prize in Berlin for Monsoon Wedding. In 2001. Two decades ago. And she spent most of her career working outside the Indian film industry.
No, the truth is that India is not making world class film, and has not for some time. Sift through the lists curated by leading international film critics at publications from the New York Times to Indiewire, and not a single Indian production shows up as one of the top films of the past year, the past decade or the century so far. When just over a year ago BBC put out a list of the 100 best foreign language films of all time, culled from a poll of 200 critics from 43 countries, Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali was the only film from India to make the list. And that was released in 1955.
It’s not that Indian directors should make films to please foreign critics and global audiences: If they made great movies capable of stirring human emotions, at least an occasional Indian film would earn international recognition.
The film industries of China, Japan and even famously insular Brazil also target large domestic audiences, and all fare much better than India at the Oscars, on the film festival circuit and amongst well-known critics. Parasite was a box office sensation in South Korea before it dazzled the international crowd.
So what explains the relatively poor quality of Indian cinema? Movies flow from popular culture, and ours is obsessed with the cult of celebrity to an extent that corrodes quality. In no other major film industry do the leading stars command a larger slice of movie budgets, leaving producers short on money for scripts, editing, and the rest of the arts that make great film. Scripts are often written more to showcase a star than to tell a story, and that largely explains why so many of our pictures leave international critics cold.
India should expect better. The large Indian contingents who show up at international film festivals focus more on what our stars are wearing on the red carpet than on the content of our movies. The media back home laps up flattering sartorial clips sponsored by global brands keen on selling to the Indian market, and says nothing when India repeatedly comes away empty handed. They expect little, and they get it.
For this to change, more folks in the domestic film industry would need to recognise this mediocrity for what it is, and to feel a burning desire to produce world class content.
There are some signs this pressure is building. Over the past few years many high budget films featuring big stars have bombed, while more mid-budget films with stronger storylines have done well. With box office footfalls stagnating, and competition from live streaming, digital gaming and other sources of screen entertainment growing, Indian producers may realise that quality could be the path to commercial survival.
Until then, as an Indian movie fan living in New York, I will keep making my way to the lone godawful dump of a theatre that screens Hindi movies in Manhattan, as a way of remaining connected with a country I love and miss. And I will continue to hope that, one evening in the distant future, I will stumble on an Indian gem with the quality of Parasite.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.