So far it was all about following the West rather than the West following us. In that sense, our Oscar wins are not pleasing any lens except our own. They are Made in India product,’ say culture impresarios.
In the end, India’s wins at the Oscars were about turning ‘Made in India’ into a global superbrand. They were not about seeking Western approval but about the ease at being at one with ourselves and imprinting the vibrancy of our navarasas in the effete chambers of the Dolby Theatre. They were certainly not about being arthouse — Oscars are anything but — but making commercial sense. So there was the moving image of producer Guneet Monga’s triumphant punch in a simple red sari, emblazoning the honesty and rawness of felt emotions in our first Oscar-winning documentary short, ‘The Elephant Whisperers’. Then there was MM Keeravani, singing the Carpenters song, ‘Top of The World,’ in a black, embroidered kurta, only to show how he had reinvented the wheel. The Oscar crown for Naatu Naatu has legitimised our rambunctious song and dance sequences as the language of popular films that has so far been out of Hollywood’s idiom.
If India had been tentative about wetting its feet in world cinema, these twin wins certainly made sure that there would only be pushing fast forward hereon in a language that we know best. Much has been said about SS Rajamouli’s aggressive courting of the West, his big spends — about Rs 83 crores at last count — his persistence in parking himself in Hollywood and getting key members of the Academy of Motion Pictures to watch screenings of RRR to get a nomination and now winging it with the statuette in hand. But what he did was give the Indian film industry, the second oldest in the world and the largest producer of films, and India itself a brand makeover. For he knows that no brand can succeed without promotion and the greatest of storytellers, that India has abundantly, wouldn’t succeed if the right people didn’t hear them. In this respect, he has followed legendary ad guru David Ogilvy’s wisdom — “Don’t count the people that you reach, reach the people who count” — and got the high decibels going on the Indian method of storytelling.
The figures speak for themselves. Despite being a voice of the global South, India has so far just had four films in the best foreign film category and no wins. Korea and Japan may have two wins each while the foreign film has gravitated to reward mostly European cinema. Rajamouli didn’t go by category, he pitched for all categories. Remember RRR wasn’t even the official Indian entry.
“One may argue that we had other Indian filmmakers under the Oscar scanner, be it Mira Nair, M Night Shyamalan or Shekhar Kapur, the latter even directing a film on Queen Elizabeth I and trusted enough as a narrator of European history. Some India-born producers like Ashok Amritraj have had success in Hollywood. One may also mention music maestro AR Rahman’s ‘Jai Ho’, the song from Danny Boyle’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ that picked up Oscars but we all forget that they were stories about India seen from the Western perspective and stereotypical representations. It was all about following the West rather than the West following us. In that sense, Rajamouli’s is a soloist venture that is wholly Indian and not pleasing any lens except his own. It is a Made in India product,” says Roy.
Filmmaker Bharat Bala, who reinvented the spirit of Jana Gana Mana and Vande Mataram, has often heard youngsters complain that India didn’t look cool enough in popular culture. “In the end there is no greater storytelling than owning the honest truth, saying it like it is and letting ordinary people do the talking,” he says.
Nowhere is this better reflected than in our documentary short The Elephant Whisperers. “This is the real game changer. With no funding, no promotional platforms at home and self-willed efforts, our docu-dramas have quietly been picking up international accolades. These are real life stories of a real India, told honestly, and their resonance should be encouraged even more. Let’s not forget that they are also brand India, which is not crafted, but inherent. Both the documentary feature, ‘All That Breathes’, and ‘The Elephant Whisperer’, talk about man’s relationship with the environment, a discourse that ties in with climate change and environmental sustainability, areas where India is already taking leadership. Shouldn’t we be consolidating this then? Both tell us about the Indian way of co-existing with heritage, something which can be a template for others to follow,” says short filmmaker Vevek Paul, founder, The Great Indian Film Festival.
he Hollywood Critics’ Association (HCA), the entity which is a dipstick for Oscar acceptability, has already given Rajamouli’s brand of “masala” filmmaking global credibility. If James Cameron’s gigantism impressed even desis with his ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’, RRR has shown that Indian films can manage operatic orientalism and epical scale just as well. Not only did HCA bestow the Best International Film honour on RRR, it chose it over Tom Cruise’s blockbuster ‘Top Gun: Maverick’ in the Best Action Film and Stunts categories. Critically speaking, there are huge gaps in finesse but Rajamouli’s point is just that, overlook the gaps to see an emergent narrative that needs to be heard.
“The Indian idea of fun is no more outlandish but mainstream. If it is swinging people from Seoul to Abu Dhabi and LA, then it is deep acknowledgement of the fact that Indian culture is dependent on a musical tradition that seeps through the masses. So far there was a global craze for Korean music. The post Naatu Naatu obsession with Bollywood film songs on social media, from Poland to Kenya, shows that our songs have branded Indian celebratory traditions, from Bollywood to festivals and weddings. Loudness, colour and noise are no longer befuddling, they are legitimate fun,” adds Roy.