Mayank Shekhar: How to watch the best Indian films?

Mar 06, 2018, 06:14 IST | Mayank Shekhar

Hope for a proper desi 'Oscar', showcasing the finest Indian movies, regardless of region, complete with people rooting for their favourites

Producer and director Guillermo del Toro (left) and producer J Miles Dale with the Oscar for best picture and best director for the film The Shape of Water. Pic/AFP
Producer and director Guillermo del Toro (left) and producer J Miles Dale with the Oscar for best picture and best director for the film The Shape of Water. Pic/AFP

Which film did you root for at the Oscars? Whichever one, I'm quite certain, by dint of equitable distribution that the Academy practised this year – The Shape Of Water bagging the big-ticket gongs (four), along with Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (two); and the technical top prizes pretty much shared between Dunkirk (three), and Blade Runner 2049 (two) – no one would've been sorely disappointed. I guess it must've been the predictability in the announcements that I passed out watching the show early morning, although that might be for lack of sleep, rather than blandness of ceremony, of course.

One huge letdown though: Lady Bird picked up nothing. That such a self-expressive, personalised work of art even made it to the top, speaks volumes for the Oscars already. Which film did I pray for, knowing that it was never going to win? The Post. Because, I'm a journalist; also, there isn't a film more important for the times we live in. So what if it lacked procedural drama? Or, as a flight of imagination, it doesn't compare with the stunning The Shape Of Water, or even the darkly delirious Three Billboards…, for that matter?

The Academy hasn't simply honoured achievements in motion pictures and sciences in the past. It's inevitably made political statements through its choices. Either way, I'm glad The Post made it to the final few. In the same way that it warms the cockles of a desi heart that the Pakistani-born Kumail Nanjiani's The Big Sick picked up the Best Screenplay nomination, even if the script seemed only as good as Hasan Minaj's stand-up set on Netflix.

And, that's how we love a movie more than others: Some just speak to us more directly. How does a film get a Best Picture Oscar nomination? When 10 per cent of the 8,000-plus Academy members vote for it as their best film. Is it then the best film? No. It's their favourite film (which is what the award should be titled). It is this favouritism inherent to the Oscars that the mildly eccentric Woody Allen says he stays away from it.

Now, favouritism is essentially true for any award. Are the Oscars different? Yes. For 90 years they've often put on pedestal pictures that audiences would not necessarily flock towards-unless guided by global acclaim. There is such FOMO associated with the Oscar films that as soon as the nominations are out, audiences that would otherwise gravitate towards super-hero Marvel or DC universes, attain film-buff cred, by catching movies on human exploitation, or super-humans, who did much for the world.

I've spent the past couple of days finding moments in the crevices of time to match the show timings of Oscar nominated films playing at various corners of the city – just so I was suitably prepared for the big Monday test! I still couldn't catch Darkest Hour, which is to say I hadn't covered the basic syllabus. Knowing that it was a biopic, and the setting was British, it was almost obvious the film would pick up the Best Actor statuette. It did.

Is there a formula to an Oscar win? Of course. No one knew this better than producer Harvey Weinstein, who's been thanked the most number of times at the Academy podium – only after God. This is where he had built his reputation, and where that ought to have been buried as well. Unlike last year, the presenters were surprisingly soft in expressing their anguish, whether on #MeToo, Trump, or his immigration debate. Either we're simply coming to terms with the world (and it is what it is), or the films speak for themselves. Shouting from the top of the Oscar stage is no different from a trending hashtag, or a news headline anyway.

The Shape Of Water, with a Mexican director, a physically challenged lead character, a gay man, and a black woman, as the two important supporting parts, perhaps expresses a lot more, while the film intrinsically argues for the triumph love (whether believable or not).

What the Oscars do is incentivise filmmakers to make them. This, despite the fact that, as host Jimmy Kimmel put it, "Only two out of nine films (in the running for Best Picture) made more than $100 million... Each and every one of which got crushed by Black Panther." Top film festivals like Cannes, Venice, Berlinale, have traditionally somewhat done the same to glamourise European off-beat cinema, and lift its audiences, globally (with much less success).

Imagine if there was a genuine, full-on, glitzy Oscar-like Indian award show that pitted, say for 2017, the astoundingly brilliant Thondimuthalam Driksakshiyum, from Kerala, against the incredibly minimalist Ribbon, from Versova – on the basis of sheer cinematic merit, rather than popularity, or stardom? You would be curious enough to watch the best of Indian cinema for the year. The film industry would watch an audience grow. That's what awards should do. What's the point otherwise.

Mayank Shekhar attempts to make sense of mass culture. He tweets @mayankw14. Send your feedback to mailbag@mid-day.com

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