Paved with Good Intentions

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The films that India considered for its entry to the Oscars this year may not merit the mania around them, but are part of an emerging cinematic sensibility that is worth our time if not the Academy’s

Much like the Rahul versus Modi debate, the argument over Oscar contenders The Good Road and The Lunchbox is one that has exposed our lack of genuine choice. Those who have braved a journey on The Good Road have found it neither enlightening nor uplifting, and definitely not entertaining. The Lunchbox, on the other hand, has fed the soul of Indian audiences, but apparently left the selection jury hungry, perhaps for meatier content.

If one expected of the former an expressway showcasing a shining Gujarat, one was led instead onto a meandering path filled with amateurish twists and turns, paved with illogic, cemented with bad writing and peopled with one dimensional characters. Forget the Oscars, this one doesn’t deserve an entry into our homes, and if we had been fortunate, it would have gathered dust in the offices of India’s National Film Development Corporation, as many of its products do. Its surprise selection as India’s entry to the Oscars has heated up a debate that is rehashed year after year.

It is not my contention that The Lunchbox is the perfect film for the Academy’s consideration or otherwise. It requires a rather vast suspension of disbelief—a staple of traditional Hindi cinema, but not usually expected of ‘good cinema’ bound for the Oscars. It has its uncomfortable moments, especially one when the lead character describes being touched ‘down there’ to a woman he barely knows—not as cringe-worthy as The Good Road’s exploitative display of teenage girls playing prostitutes in tiny shorts and feathers, perhaps, but embarrassingly close. Audiences enjoyed the film, however, and as with a loved one, accepted it with all its flaws. At its core is the loneliness of individuals trying to find a connection, and who among us cannot identify with this sentiment?

But are we the audience these films are aiming for at all? Or are we just unlikely beneficiaries of the feast in the lunchbox, landing up by mistake on what we were promised was the good road. For if these films were made for us, surely their titles would be ‘Dabba’/‘Dabbawala Love’ and ‘Sahi Raah’/‘Accha Raasta’. It is obvious that both these films—and the quiet third contender in the fray, Ship of Theseus—were aimed at the festival circuit, and arrived at our multiplexes by default.

The loneliness of the human heart is not a theme that is particularly popular with Oscar juries. Films that triumph at the Academy Awards usually address loftier themes. A lofty agenda must be followed by lobbying, but at its heart, the US Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences prides itself as the curator of the best of world cinema.

American sympathies—and consequently the Oscar jury’s—swing with the country’s internal preoccupations and the global political climate. The film that pipped Lagaan, our last shortlisted entry in 2002, in the race to the winner’s stage was No Man’s Land, a film about soldiers stuck on opposite sides of a conflict. In a world full of futile wars, the lone soldier lying atop a landmine left to fate resonated with the jury. Last year’s winner Amour, a stark look at old age, revived the debate on euthanasia. The Lives of Others, which won in 2007, took on the loss of individual liberty in an authoritarian state, a popular theme in a nation that styles itself the land of the free. This is also why The Secret in Her Eyes, set in Argentina’s dark past, and Divided We Fall, a tragedy set in Nazi-ruled Czechoslovakia, find themselves in the final five.

Then there is the Western preoccupation with the Middle East and larger Islamic world. Films from and about Israel and Iran seem to have a free pass. This year, for the first time, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan have entered films in the foreign language category. These films look inward into the country’s ills and prejudices, exposing the darkness within and shedding light on a culture the West wants to understand.

Theoretically speaking, The Good Road, with its focus on the Indian underbelly, conforms to this trend, and, were it not for its amateurish execution, may have stood a chance. Water, Canada’s entry to the awards in 2007 and the only Hindi film to make it to the shortlist after Lagaan , was a stark look at the plight of widows in the country. Dharm, which was about religion and conscience, and Parzania, set in the Gujarat riots—for riots are always ‘relevant’ in the West—may have made it to the final five, but neither the paying audience nor the jury were particularly enamoured of these films.

Audiences took a few films to heart this year. Full of righteous national pride, we may all agree that The Lunchbox and Ship of Theseus are the jewels in our crown, the best we have to offer, but the world is free to disagree. A writer of many successful films likened this to a contest between Lalita Pawar and Nirupa Roy. If that’s all that is on offer, sure, we will find the latter beautiful. But that doesn’t mean anyone else will concur. Our sensibilities, cinematic and otherwise, are, after all, born of specific cultural constructs.

This year, America anointed Nina Davuluri, of Indian origin, its most beautiful woman. A girl like Nina, had she the temerity to enter a pageant in India, would have a hard time getting anywhere close to the top. The Lunchbox may be our idea of beauty, but the Oscar jury may not see it through our eyes.

The good news, if we ignore the Oscar selection controversy, is that more films are being made for people who like their staple Bollywood song-and-dance fare supplemented with more wholesome offerings. It is from this audience that the new age director has emerged to tell stories that are recognisably our own. Stories that shy away from both the escapist fantasies of the traditional Hindi film as well as the western cliché of a crowded chaotic country a la Slumdog Millionaire. These are stories of the hopes, aspirations, quirks and catharsis of a quietly confident new Indian audience for cinema.

Nawazuddin Siddiqui at Cannes is not the big story; Nawazuddin being a large part of four of the biggest hits of the year is. Vidya Balan’s sartorial choices on the Croisette are hardly of significance; her ability to green light interesting projects revolving around her is. Anurag Kashyap, jury-member for prestigious international film festivals, is not as important as Anurag Kashyap, chief mentor to a generation of young Indian filmmakers and inspiration to a legion of film geeks.

The West may or may not understand our films. It does not matter. It should not matter.

Sure, a golden Oscar statuette would make a nice addition to Tagore’s lost Nobel and Chakra’s missing golden leopard. But it would be better still if films succeeded in reaching both our minds and hearts without having to make a long arduous journey via Cannes, Venice or Telluride. This is possibly the best time for Indian cinema in its history, with captive audiences eager for content that talks to them. It does not matter whether it talks in Marathi or Mandarin as long as it manages to forge a connection.

The considerations of an Oscar award, bound by the constraints of another culture, can only limit Indian creativity. Our filmmakers should aim higher. So that one day not too far away, a small film born of a new Indian cinematic sensibility can aspire to a Filmfare or Screen award.

Any chance Lunchbox will triumph over Lungi Dance this year?