The selection of Barfi! as India's official entry for this year's Academy Awards has generated considerable controversy, reopening the debate about Bollywood versus regional cinema.
Controversy over Barfi!'s Oscars consideration
The selection of Barfi! as India’s official entry for this year’s Academy Awards has generated considerable controversy, reopening the debate about Bollywood versus regional cinema, says Meera Gopal
For the first week after its release, Barfi! dominated office banter, social media posts and the film review sections across India. Critics loved it, women adored the endearing, deaf-mute character played by Ranbir Kapoor and radio stations could not stop playing its songs.
But ever since a Bollywood news site, Tanqeed.com, juxtaposed clips from the movie with other films, opinion turned negative. The director Anurag Basu was accused of plagiarising scenes from films including Singin’ in the Rain, Buster Keaton’s Cops, The Notebook and Charlie Chaplin’s The Adventurer and City Lights.
However, despite the media flak, Barfi! has taken in more than Rs100 crore (Dh69.5 million), and – more importantly – has become India’s official entry for this year’s Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.
The choice led to animated debate about lack of transparency in the Oscar entry selection process and the passing over of possibly more deserving regional language cinema for more popular Bollywood films.
Santosh Desai, an author and social commentator, says: “Bollywood films seem to have an inexplicable hold. But it goes deeper than the Oscars. Look at the National Film Awards over the last two years, even there the big awards gravitate towards Bollywood. This is a part of the larger pattern in which popular cinema has become synonymous with the worthy. The ability to discriminate or consider what might work for a western sensibility doesn’t exist.”
Shoojit Sircar, who directed this year’s critically acclaimed Vicky Donor, an intelligent and sensitive film on sperm donation and infertility, was unhappy that Eros, the production company for both Vicky Donor and Barfi!, did not even send his film to the committee that chooses the Oscar entry.
He shot off a letter that said: “I’m very disheartened, disappointed and angry that one of this year’s most original high-concept stories was not even considered by the producers of the film to be sent for the Jury’s consideration. I was in complete shock when the Jury told us that they have not received the film from Eros for consideration ... This purely shows their disregard for a film that brought them commercial success as well as critical acclaim.”
Rituparno Ghosh, an acclaimed Bengali filmmaker who has made Raincoat, Chokher Bali and Dahan, echoed the opinion of several regional filmmakers as well when he pointed out: “India has a strong enriching tradition of regional cinema being made all over the country. Why then is this continuing emphasis on Bollywood work for the Oscars?”
Basu has defended his film by saying that his scenes were homages to great films and that he was using them as inspiration.
But plagiarism charges apart, the larger question has been of how a country like India – with its vast repertoire of languages and cinema – chooses its official entry. The process involves an 11-member jury from various fields of the film industry. This year, the jury went through 20 films from which Barfi! was chosen, although the method of nomination remains obscure.
The committee defended its decision by saying that it chose the film because of its treatment and freshness that leaves the audience happy and hopeful. Desai says: “The idea of nominating one film from the country, evaluating through one lens, for an award committee that possibly doesn’t understand our context or appreciate its nuances, is hard.
“The moment something is picked out from across the country to represent India, it carries the burden of that representation. And no matter what film was chosen, it would carry that, just like an Oscar winner.”
Compared to the films that made it to the final list, which were essentially “Indian” in terms of plot, characters and settings, Barfi! could have been set anywhere. It’s set in Kolkata and Darjeeling but does not use the cities at all, except for token monuments and typical Kolkata tropes such as trams and rickshaws in the background. It will be hard to find anyone who believes Barfi! has even a slim chance of making it to the final list.
“If we were really inclined to give our most interesting cinema a chance, our chances would probably increase,” says Desai. “India is an emerging country, and if we had something decent to offer, something might have come our way over the years. Honestly, in the past five years, I don’t think anyone has believed that we had any chance at the Oscars.”
The ones that made it
While no Indian movie has won an Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, three have been nominated:
Mother India (1957) – This film was actually not an original. Mehboob Khan, the director, remade his own earlier film, Aurat (1940), starring Nargis and Sunil Dutt. The story applauded the strength of a poor woman who tries to escape the clutches of a moneylender while raising her sons.
Salaam Bombay! (1988) – A Mira Nair film, Salaam Bombay! is about a young boy who runs off to Bombay to earn money and eventually returns to his mother.
Lagaan (2001) – Directed by Ashutosh Gowariker, Lagaan was one of the biggest movies of 2001. Set in pre-independence India, it follows a cricket match between British colonials and villagers incensed by unfair taxes and a cruel regime.