Chandrabose and MM Keeravani with the Best Original Song award at the 95Th Annual Academy Awards (Photo: Getty Images)
The Oscar acceptance speech is either a personal tribute or a political statement. But at times it is heart and nothing else. When MM Keeravaani and Chandrabose accepted the award for Best Original Song for ‘Naatu Naatu’ from RRR, Keeravani didn’t immediately go on to thank dozens of people, he didn’t talk about his childhood. Instead he said, “Thank you Academy, I grew up listening to the Carpenters. And I now here I am with the Oscars.” He then took a deep breath and in a happy but shaky voice sung his version of the Carpenters’ song ‘Top of the World’; “There is but one wish on my mind…so it was for Rajamouli and my family…” His personalised ditty not only delighted the audience in Los Angeles but also millions back home for being simply a moment of unadulterated joy.
Having caught the imagination of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, ‘Naatu Naatu’ was referenced more than once during the ceremony and when it won (pipping Lady Gaga and Rihanna to the post), it underlined India’s arrival, albeit late, on the global entertainment stage. Host Jimmy Kimmel saying the Oscar music signalling ‘time’s up’ for the winners on stage would be replaced by a band of dancers from SS Rajamouli’s epic RRR, and an effervescent recreation of ‘Naatu Naatu’ against the backdrop of the Ukrainian Presidential Palace—emphasised the mood of the moment.
Junior NT Rama Rao, who has an iconic cinematic face-off with a tiger in RRR, got the animal recreated in gold on his Gaurav Gupta achkan as he walked down the Oscars red carpet for Best Original Song at the 95th edition of the Oscars. Guneet Monga ordered a Banarasi sari from Ekaya with elephant motifs to wear on stage for her Oscar for Best Documentary Short Film for The Elephant Whisperers.
That was the level of detailed planning Indian winners did for the Oscars this year, as befitting their increased visibility. Two wins in one year for a country which has only a handful of Oscars, that too for non-Indian productions, has been described as the India Moment and with good reason. There have been other times when it seemed India was making its presence felt at the Oscars after Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi in 1983—in 1989, when Salaam Bombay! was nominated for Best Foreign Film; 1999, when Elizabeth, directed by Shekhar Kapur, was nominated for seven Oscars and won one; in 2001 when Aamir Khan took Lagaan to a nomination for Best Foreign Feature Film; and in 2009, when Slumdog Millionaire won eight Oscars. Sure Resul Pookutty and AR Rahman went up to receive their awards but it was a Western production.
Ask Mira Nair about her experience at the Oscars in 1989, and she immediately refers to an article she wrote in Time in 2006. “We were gypsies, Sooni (Taraporevala, her collaborator) and I,” she wrote. “Two sisters in saris surrounded by tuxedoed strangers. But instead of taking our Banjara bullock cart to the nearest water hole, we were in a limo en route to the Oscars, where our first film, Salaam Bombay!, was nominated as Best Foreign Language Film. It was 1989, before the government even recognised filmmaking as a legitimate industry. Armed with just good wishes and some telegrams from family and friends, we spent a few days in the luxury of the Beverly Wilshire, not really minding that we were neglected by our own country. When it came time for our award, Jacqueline Bisset and Candice Bergen tripped and stuttered through the foreign names. As Jackie and Candy announced the winner (it was Pelle The Conqueror from Denmark) in another miasma of mispronunciation, Sooni leaned across and said, ‘India is still too far.’”
This time there were three Indian nominees and though only two won, none of them left anything to chance. RRR’s campaign was run by the privately held Variance Films and consultant Josh Hurtado, who has been a Rajamouli evangelist since his sci-fi thriller Eega in 2012; Netflix handled The Elephant Whisperers and HBO strategised for All That Breathes. RRR was submitted in 14 categories—Best Motion Picture, Best Director (SS Rajamouli), Best Actor (Jr NTR and Ram Charan), Best Supporting Actor and Actress (Ajay Devgn and Alia Bhatt). ‘Naatu Naatu’ was submitted for Best Original Song, while MM Keeravani was nominated for Best Original Score.
The idea was to not treat RRR as an exotic, international feature film, but a feature film that could compete with the best of Hollywood on its own terms, an idea that was brought home by the Korean language drama, Parasite winning Best Picture in 2020. RRR propelled its stars and director to talk shows, red carpet interviews and magazine profiles. Rajamouli was the subject of an in-depth interview in The New Yorker, a guest at The Late Night with Seth Meyers and a speaker at the Directors Guild of America. Ram Charan was invited to Good Morning America and Entertainment Tonight while Junior NTR was all over the Golden Globes and Oscar red carpet with Variety’s Marc Malkin. The winners Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose were interviewed backstage, with Chandrabose explaining how every line in the song ‘Naatu Naatu’ was based on his experience in his village.
Shobu Yarlagadda, Rajamouli’s friend and producer of his Baahubali films, was at the Oscars as well and calls it a watershed moment in Indian cinema. “The win means it will bring more focus to Indian cinema. Also, for Indian filmmakers, the Oscars will no longer feel out of reach and can widen their horizons and dream bigger. It’s important though that this moment is sustained by other Indian films joining this in the coming years,” he says.
He says it was made possible first and foremost by Rajamouli and his line producer (and son) SS Karthikeya noticing an organic buzz in the US for the film and believing that there was an opportunity to make a mark on the awards circuit in US. This belief was followed through by Karthikeya, who working with American distributor Variance films, brought in right PR teams and others to drive the campaign. “It was a long and exhausting campaign but very fruitful in the end,” he adds.
The Elephant Whisperers was powered by Netflix, which organised a number of screenings and discussions in the run-up to the Oscars. Indian documentaries have had a good couple of years at the Oscars, with Rintu Thomas and Sushmit Ghosh’s Writing with Fire being nominated last year and Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes being nominated this year for the Best Documentary Film Oscar. The Elephant Whisperers ticked all the boxes in the Oscar checklist, apart from being a beautifully made film. It was about indigenous people, the Kattunayakan tribe, of whom there are only 1,700 left. It reflected the man-animal conflict brought about by climate change in the Nilgiris. It was powered by two women of immense spirit and courage. And it starred two adorable baby elephants and their human parents, Bomman and Bellie, who got married in the course of the five years Gonsalves spent shooting 450 hours of footage which she whittled down to 40 minutes.
Gonsalves, 36, is the daughter of IIT Mandi founder-director Timothy Gonsalves and his American historian wife Priscilla Tapley. They divide their time between Udhagamandalam and Chennai and Kartiki was packing up her things and moving home to Udhagamandalam from Bengaluru when she chanced upon Bomman and his baby Raghu. She started shooting their story with no agenda and sent a reel to Netflix who got Guneet Monga on board. Monga with her previous experience on Period: End of Sentence in 2019, an American production that won Best Documentary Short, was in a good place to guide Gonsalves, which she did, inviting her home for a month so they could bond before embarking on the film together.
India’s moment showcased its diversity. There was a Telugu blockbuster, a small Tamil documentary, and a Hindi documentary from Delhi. There was song and dance, there was nature at its best, and there was humanity at its finest. Nothing was an instant success
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They started their Oscar campaign more than a month before the Oscars. They had a series of screenings, one of which was anchored by the astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson at Soho House, New York; and a series of television interviews, from France24 TV to Julia Chatterley on CNN. Gonsalves has been visiting the Mudumalai Tiger Reserve since she was three, and just as Chandrabose talked about the experiences in his village, it is about an experience authentic to her, and something she persevered with. “The Asian elephant is losing its habitat because of climate change. The importance of indigenous knowledge and wisdom was a good space to start to show the sacred bond between man and animal, between Bomman and Raghu. I wanted the audience to stop seeing the elephant as the other,” she said in an interview.
Sen’s All That Breathes, which won several international awards including the World Cinema Grand Jury Prize at the Sundance Film Festival, may not have won but it had its share of fans, among them actors Riz Ahmed and Dev Patel; directors Mark Duplass and Nair, who loved its meditative quality. The wins mean that Indian filmmakers are now at ease in their own idiom and don’t feel they have to borrow from the West. This year India’s nominees were as comfortable at the parties in the run-up to the Oscars as they were on the big stage, whether it was the South Asian Excellence night hosted by Priyanka Chopra Jonas and her manager Anjula Acharia, or the Oscar nominee luncheon, the Women in Film LA lunch for the women nominees or even the Vanity Fair after party. It helps that the editor of Vanity Fair is an Indian-American, Radhika Jones, as are a host of actors, filmmakers, and studio executives in Hollywood now.
It was all for the big day on the big stage and the Indians did well under the intense global spotlight. There was Deepika Padukone, flawless in her Louis Vuitton gown and Cartier jewellery, introducing ‘Naatu Naatu’ to the audience; there was the energetic performance of ‘Naatu Naatu’ by a group of American dancers; there was Sen and his producer Aman Mann, dressed in sharp Arjun Saluja suits, rubbing shoulders with the best in the world.
In contrast, when Elizabeth was nominated, recalls Kapur, he didn’t even know he had to canvass the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences for their attention. “I had no clue what to do,” he says now.
India’s moment showcased its diversity—as Monga has said in many interviews—there was a Telugu blockbuster, a small Tamil documentary, and a Hindi documentary from Delhi. There was song and dance, there was nature at its best, and there was humanity at its finest. Nothing was an instant success. Rajamouli took five years to make RRR, Gonsalves took five years for her film and Sen made All That Breathes in three years. There was talent but there was also patience and diligence.
It remains to be seen if 2023’s success on the Hollywood stage translates into international partnerships. Several things are being planned even as we write this. Ram Charan, who is wrapping up his fifteenth movie with S Shankar, has spoken of being in conversation for a role in a Hollywood film. He posted a picture of himself on Instagram with action director JJ Abrams thanking him for inviting him, which may offer a clue.
But for now, the giddy high of hearing a desi version of a Carpenters’ song will continue to ring in many hearts.
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