ON SUNDAY, MARCH 12, Indian cinema won two Oscars after receiving nominations in three categories. It was a night when many celebrated Asian successes, including the brilliant Michelle Yeoh being the first Asian actress to win Best Actress, although, as Uther Charlton-Stevens notes, Vivien Leigh, who won for Gone With The Wind (1939), was born in Darjeeling to an Armenian mother, Gertrude Yackjee.
The attention paid to the Oscars, the awards of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, an American trade association based in Beverley Hills, is in part because many people watch Hollywood cinema. It could be said that such attention reinforces the idea that Hollywood is the standard bearer of all cinema and explains why other cinemas are hence named Bollywood, Tollywood, etc. It follows therefore that the Oscars are the pinnacle of all awards and other cinemas seek to be acknowledged above all in the US. There is another argument, that it is all about business, that other cinemas want recognition in order to break into the American and other markets, and to create an awareness of their movies, as well as the honour of winning any award.
Entering and winning is said to be a ‘science’ (Kaveree Bamzai in the October 14, 2022 issue of Open shows how Indian films approach it: https://bit. ly/3ZMiaIn) and once again there is talk of eye-watering amounts of money spent on massive campaigns.
There have been Oscars for India before—the 1992 Satyajit Ray Honorary Academy Award just before he died and for British-Indian co-productions, notably the eight awards for Gandhi in 1983 where Bhanu Athaiya (Best Costume), became the first Indian to win. Slumdog Millionaire received 10 nominations and eight awards in 2009, with Indian wins for AR Rahman (Best Original Score and Best Original Song, with Gulzar) while Resul Pookutty shared the award for Best Sound Mixing.
I don’t think anyone was surprised that the award for the Best Original Song went to ‘Naatu Naatu’ by MM Keeravani for RRR. Given that one of the known distinctive features of Indian films is the original songs in almost every film, this is an area where Indian movies could easily succeed, and although there will be grumbles that there were other songs, and this is not MM Keeravani’s best, it’s still a catchy and fun song.
The cultural context of the song or indeed the film is not necessarily important to the audience, however significant it is. SS Rajamouli (MM Keeravani’s cousin) also makes films that respond to contemporary India by re-examining its past, notably in the two Baahubali films as well as in RRR. The latter is based on a story about two Telugu revolutionaries, Komaram Bheem (played by Jr NTR) and Alluri Sitarama Raju (Ram Charan), who were from different times and never met, as the film does not aim to be historically accurate.
The two protagonists are commemorated in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh but perhaps not so well-known nationally until the film was released. Komaram was a Gond who led rebellions against the Nizam, and after his death in an encounter in 1940, he became an important figure in the Telangana Rebellion of 1946 (studied by my late colleague at SOAS, Christoph von Fürer-Haimendorf at the request of the Hyderabad State) and the recent formation of the state of Telangana.
Alluri Sitarama Raju, an Adivasi known as ‘Manyam Veerudu’ or ‘Hero of the Jungle’, was executed by the British in 1924, after fighting for the freedom of movement for the Adivasis in the forests, leading the Rampa Rebellion (1922), written about by another former colleague at SOAS, David Arnold. Alluri Sitarama Raju’s image shows him with a bow and arrow, like Lord Rama, and he was a sanyasi.
In a similar way, the song may be appreciated by those who don’t regularly watch Indian films. I note that many translate ‘naatu’ as ‘dance’, whereas for the writer and filmmaker Gautam Pemmaraju it means something more like “desi”, “local, native, vernacular, etc.” The song’s references to bulls in fields or types of bread with chillis have local (naatu) meanings that even non-Telugu speakers will not necessarily know.
One can watch the incredible films of SS Rajamouli as universal struggles for political and cultural independence without knowing their wider context, enjoy the music, the anticolonial stories, and the dazzling spectacle while unaware of the language or the cultural references of masculinity, traditional values, and religion, let alone history or film stardom. (MM Keeravani gave a charming Oscar-winning speech where he mentioned his love for the Carpenters before singing his own version of ‘Top of the World’. Congratulations to MM Keeravani and the whole team.)
I don’t think anyone was surprised that the award for the best original song went to ‘Naatu Naatu’ by MM Keeravani for RRR. Given that one of the known distinctive features of Indian films is the original songs in almost every film, this is an area where Indian movies could easily succeed
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The other two nominations from India were documentaries. The Elephant Whisperers won Best Documentary Short Film. This beautiful short about cute baby elephants is an instant crowd-pleaser. The film also raises issues about the Adivasis and their particular skills and relationships with elephants, which leads to their being employed by the Forest Department. Their compassion and knowledge of the precious forests are now known to be highly valued. Let’s hope that it increases awareness of the precarity of India’s beautiful forests and wildlife, too, at a time when stupendous infrastructural development is underway across India. Congratulations to Kartiki Gonsalves and all involved.
I was disappointed that All That Breathes, nominated as the Best Documentary Feature Film, did not win. The film shows the amazing dedication of two brothers to save kites (cheel) who keep falling from the sky. The film doesn’t explore what is making the birds ill but focuses on the brothers’ relationship and their determination to keep their late mother’s injunction to respect “all that breathes”. The film draws attention to the fragile ecology of the whole world and India’s important role in maintaining a balance.
The many shots of the birds soaring free in the sky are set along what is almost a second film within the film, which draws attention to the 2019 disturbances in Delhi about the Citizenship Amendment Act. Many outside India will not be familiar with this or indeed engagement with the animal kingdom in Islamicate culture.
The film shows many other animals who inhabit Delhi, notably the rats in the opening credits, and raises issues of ways of living together, irrespective of what we feel about other fauna and notions of disgust. The boys mention that some bird sanctuaries don’t want to look after meat-eating carnivores and I’m sure I’m not alone in finding the scene showing the mincing of meat repulsive. Congratulations to the whole team.
It is fascinating that the three nominations from India all concern ecology, forests, and animals, as there is much more to be said about what India can teach the rest of the world, drawing on its traditional knowledge systems and science. This is not just some fashionable ecocriticism, but shows India’s considerations of striking a balance between the past and the future as it develops rapidly and is being noticed globally, even if the questions are raised indirectly and not fully addressed.
It is noteworthy in light of this year’s Oscar awards that Indian commercial cinema doesn’t travel well to the rest of the world even though RRR has had a major impact. Why is it that if Indian documentaries are regarded as Oscar-worthy, we don’t see more of them, and see them more easily when we do? These questions need to be addressed, but right now it’s time to enjoy the current success.
About The Author
Rachel Dwyer is an author and culture critic based in London. She has written extensively on Hindi cinema and is an Open contributor
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