Will Peepli Live make it to the final Oscar nomination list? It’s a bit early to start the debate, but the dark comedy about corruption and famers’ suicides stands a chance, feel experts, who say it is an accomplished film. Aamir Khan’s production venture is India’s official entry for the Academy awards in the foreign film category for which the nomination list will be announced Jan 25 next year.
Indian poverty was exploited to the hilt at the 2009 Oscars with director Danny Boyle going to the extremes in showing the miseries of the marginalised in Slumdog Millionaire; so did American documentary filmmaker Megan Mylan in Smile Pinky.
“The nomination depends as much on luck as excellence in cinema, and there is no denying the fact that it is world cinema. See, for them (the academy jury) the movie has to be culturally rooted in that country. It is not that they are fascinated by or sympathise with Indian poverty,” film critic Anupama Chopra said.
Peepli Live was one of the few films that hit the jackpot. Made at a shoestring budget of Rs. 7 crore sans stars and glamour, the satire grossed Rs.28 crore at the box office. Journalist-turned-director Anusha Rizvi combined the power of pen and camera to highlight issues like corruption and farmers’ suicides and managed to impress both the classes and the masses with her black comedy. Film veteran Utpal Borpujari says the Oscar nomination will depend on what kind of films are coming from other countries.
“Looking at Peepli Live, it is a very accomplished film. Going by its content and quality of cinema, it does stand a chance in the top five… It is one of the better entries in recent years from India,” said Borpujari. Despite being one of the largest film producing countries in the world, India has managed to get only three nominations for feature films so far in the Oscars list, which will see its 83rd year in 2011. The Oscar nomination summary of the three films shows that bosses at the Academy fancy stories from rural India with poverty as the sub-theme.
In 1958, Mother India, about a rural woman and her struggle to survive, became the first Indian movie to enter the prestigious list in the foreign film category.
After that, India had to wait for three decades to make it to the list when Mira Nair’s first feature film Salaam Bombay, based on the lives of street children in Mumbai, was nominated in 1988. The common factor between the two nominations was “poverty”. The third nomination didn’t come soon either. It came 14 years later in the form of Ashutosh Gowariker’s period drama Lagaan starring Aamir Khan. Set in pre-Independence rural India, it was about a bunch of poor villagers trying to get tax exemption from the British government by winning a cricket match. In 2004, Little Terrorist, a short film directed, written and produced by Ashvin Kumar was nominated in the Live Action Short Film category. Unfortunately, none of them could win the coveted golden statuette.
“You have to campaign if you want to win the Oscar. It is like a political campaign,” said Mira Nair. Boyle’s underdog drama Slumdog Millionaire was not the first film with India’s poverty as theme to make it to the nomination list. In 2007, Cananda-based Deepa Mehta’s Water, about the plight of widows in pre-independent India, was Canada’s official entry in the foreign film section.
But Boyle was the first one to triumph with his poverty story and in the same year Megan Mylan too took home the golden statuette for Smile Pinki, about a poor girl whose cleft lip made her a social outcast in her village in Uttar Pradesh. The Final Inch, about Indian workers’ fight against polio, was also nominated with Smile Pinki, but didn’t win any award. American director Gregg Helvey’s Hindi film Kavi, about child labour, had been nominated in the Short Film (Live Action) section in this year’s Academy event. With a population of over one billion, India is the world’s largest democracy and the fourth largest economy in purchasing power parity terms. However, poverty remains a major challenge. According to the revised official poverty line, 37.2 percent of the population (about 410 million people) remains poor, making India home to one-third of the world’s poor people, according to a World Bank report.
Legendary filmmaker Satyajit Ray, who was honoured with a Lifetime Oscar, was accused by commercial cinema of “selling Indian poverty” in his films.
But Borpujari said: “The Academy doesn’t look at the backdrop of a film – what matters is how strong it is as a piece of cinema and how powerfully has the story been told. The Academy members are very politically active. They often go for films based on current political issues like No Man’s Land.”