INDIA shines at the Oscars — the words seem surreal. In a dream-come-true moment as India has picked up not one but two Oscars (Best Original Song and Best Documentary Short) out of three nominations, it’s not just the makers of RRR and The Elephant Whisperers who stand proud. The electrifying feeling of joy in sync with the infectious beats of Naatu Naatu, composed by MM Keeravani, has spread across the country and the whisper is loud and clear — India can do it.
RRR roars once again and Guneet Monga, producer of the Kartiki Gonsalves-directed The Elephant Whisperers, beams, “We as two women from India stood on that global stage making this historical win! 1.4 billion Indians, this is for you. We’ve all manifested this together.”
Indeed, magical! How and why? Before we answer that, the more important question is why India, one of the largest film producers in the world, couldn’t crack the code earlier.
Year after year, we have lamented over why India can’t win an Oscar and reams have been written about our dismal (near blank) record at the prestigious Academy Awards, often considered the hallmark of excellence and gold standard of recognition. Experts have time and again rued that if countries like Iran and South Korea can take home Oscars, what stops India, where there is no dearth of quality cinema. If India-centric films such as Life of Pi, the survival saga of an Indian boy, could win its director Ang Lee the coveted Best Director statuette, why can't our storytellers get it right?
Often, the blame has been laid at the door of our official selections. This year, too, much hue and cry was made when Pan Nalin’s acclaimed film Last Film Show was chosen as India’s official entry to the Oscars. Objections were raised by certain sections to the film, which, after making it to the shortlist, fell out of the race. In fact, similar has been the fate of our entries each year, leaving us to draw comfort in the few that have come our way.
Costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, composer AR Rahman, lyricist Gulzar, sound engineer Resul Pookutty and legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who received an honorary award, are part of the select Oscar club.
But what makes this year’s win truly delicious is that, for once, Oscars are for Indian films by Indian production houses. So far, our Oscar victories have been limited to India-centric films by foreign producers and directors. If back in time, it was Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi that fetched costume designer Bhanu Athaiya an Oscar, making her the first Indian to get it, Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire gave us the chance to chorus Jai Ho. But Naatu Naatu gives us a greater reason to rejoice and break into a hook step that has the world hooked in pure frenzy. In fact, the world has been dancing to the tunes of the ebullient Telugu song for quite some time now.
Prior to its Oscar win, SS Rajamouli's blockbuster RRR picked up the Golden Globe award for Best Original Song, too. The resounding success of the song is not hard to decode. From lilting lyrics to its catchy beats and dance steps and the way it has been picturised, all elements tick the right boxes. What is even sweeter is that it puts to rest all scepticism about India’s naach-gaana brand of cinema and proves that music and dance are our USP, not Achilles’ heel.
But, does the twin Oscar victory mean India has arrived on the world map of cinema? Judging by the standing ovation that the Naatu Naatu performance by its singers Rahul Sipligunj and Kaala Bhairava got at the 95th Academy Awards, one is tempted to say yes. The Elephant Whisperers’ maiden victory for India in the Documentary Short Subject category, too, makes us nod emphatically.
Of course, naysayers are likely to attribute reasons other than quality to India's ascent on the Oscars stage. The fact that we are not only a huge movie-producing country but also a voracious entertainment-consuming one is often attributed as the trigger behind our growing eminence. That this is why Hollywood ropes in our big stars in its films and, now, series too, is not a statement but almost an aspersion. In Netflix, a major OTT player, looking for new markets, too, we can sense a plan and method behind the India push.
Add to it the fact that diversity and inclusivity have been pushed to the forefront in Hollywood for quite some time now. More than one Oscar ceremony has created history. In 2020, South Korean film Parasite became the first foreign language film to win the Best Picture Award at the Oscars, thus breaking the “one-inch-tall barrier of subtitles.” Take this year’s Best Film Award-winning Everything Everywhere All At Once. The Best Actress trophy for its lead actress Michelle Yeoh makes her the first woman of Asian descent to win the award. Clearly, India could not have been ignored for too long.
RRR makers have been making the right kind of noises ever since the film figured in the Oscar nomination list. Let’s admit it — winning an Oscar is as much a marketing strategy, perhaps popular appeal too, as it is a litmus test of excellence.
Of course, the tumultuous response that RRR has generated overseas can’t be orchestrated through a media blitzkrieg alone. India might still be far from winning the best film in even the International Feature category, let alone the overall one. The closest we have come are Lagaan, Salaam Bombay and Mother India making it to the prestigious final-five list of nominees.
Thus, there is no discounting the history we have created this year. It is more than heartening that Naatu Naatu beat top contenders like Rihanna's Lift Me Up from Black Panther: Wakanda Forever and Lady Gaga’s Hold My Hand from Top Gun: Maverick among other nominees and The Elephant Whisperers defeated acclaimed competitors like Jay Rosenblatt’s How Do You Measure A Year? To borrow from the words of Michelle Yeoh, the new tidings at the Academy Awards “is indeed a beacon of hope and possibilities” and, as our very own star of RRR, Jr NTR, said, “It’s only a beginning.” On the red (sorry, champagne) carpet, his co-star Ram Charan remarked, “We are not just coming as ourselves but we are coming as India today.”
So, watch out, world, here we come! With our diversity, cultural specificity and inclusivity intact.
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