And The Award Goes To…

February 27, 2012 8:34 am by

Salman Khan at the Filmfare Awards, 2011.

Recently, at this year’s Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, there was a panel on Indian cinema. During the customary Q&A session, someone in the audience asked why India doesn’t have awards like the Oscars that applaud good cinema, whether mainstream or non-mainstream. Oscars are respected awards because unconventional films like The Artist aren’t nominated just as tokens, said this audience member. Sometimes, they win, like The Hurt Locker did in a year when everyone was certain Avatar would collect all the Oscars like a garbage truck doing its morning rounds. In contrast, lamented the audience member, India has awards that make absolutely no difference to the public. The Bollywood prizes are predictable and few care about the National Awards. Why don’t we have a set of awards that matter, that make people want to go out and see films? Why don’t we have our own Oscars?

By the time this column goes online, this year’s Oscars will have been telecast and we will know whether or not The Artist has won Best Picture and if Meryl Streep has finally got her third Best Actress award. If the answer is yes on both accounts, I imagine the person who pleaded so plaintively at the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival will want to do a happy dance and then bemoan the absence of real awards in India. Except the sad truth is that in this day and age, the Oscars don’t really matter any more to America’s cinema-goers. With the Internet circulating opinions and a galaxy of awards—respectable and irrelevant—the Oscar buzz isn’t that special anymore.

There are two reasons why people from all over the world are interested in the Oscars. One is the fashion seen on the red carpet. There’s a particular satisfaction to sitting in your jammies, sporting bed hair, and thus being in the perfect position to pass judgement on Hollywood actresses who have spent hours to get their looks just right. More importantly, the Oscars have long had the reputation of being a fairy godmother to films. Oscar nominations and awards acted like the wave of a magic wand over box-office collections. The Best Foreign Film nominations meant international exposure for directors and actors who had often been known only within a select audience in their own country. The winner of the Best Picture was almost guaranteed to see a spike in box-office collections on the weekend after the results were announced. It’s known as the “Oscar bounce”.

Unfortunately, statistics suggest this fairy tale is ending. The year 2012 has been good for Hollywood so far but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences can take little credit for this. According to the Los Angeles Times, most of the films that have been nominated for Best Picture had maximum earnings well before the Oscar shortlist was announced. While being nominated did result in a little spike, the collections were less than what the films made during the end-of-the-year weekend. “We don’t even see a big bump anymore when a best picture winner hits home video,” said one leading studio marketer to the Los Angeles Times. “The Oscars are about ego and recognition.”

Which means, apparently, that the Oscars could soon be about as relevant as the Zee Cine Awards, which has categories like Best Actor in a Negative Role (presumably because it involves thespian qualities that don’t get covered by Best Actor) and makes absolutely no difference to anything or anyone. Considering James Franco and Anne Hathaway’s performances as hosts at the Oscars last year, there may even be a similarity in the quality of compering. With Indian awards shows, like Filmfare, Max Stardust, International Indian Film Academy and the Zee Cine Awards, there’s never any surprise about either the nominations or the winners. Who didn’t guess that Vidya Balan would get an award for her performance in The Dirty Picture? Or that Akshat Verma’s script for Delhi Belly would win prizes? This is because Bollywood films are generally so mediocre that when one is even slightly above average in some aspect, it’s bound to win awards. The Oscars have suffered from a similar predictability, though not because of a surfeit of mediocrity. Once films are released, reviews and screenings in festivals quickly establish the film’s credentials. By the time Oscar nominations are announced, the chatter has almost died down because everyone has already showered all the praise they had. Consequently, it isn’t much of a surprise that A Separation, which is among the most talked-about non-English films of 2011, was nominated for Best Foreign Film.

However, whatever the state of the Oscar bounce, it’s difficult to imagine George Clooney or Meryl Streep doing a song and dance number with a phalanx of sequinned extras behind them. And given how brilliant Hugh Jackman’s opening number was back in 2009, our Bollywood celebrities should be sighing with relief that the Oscars aren’t going the Filmfare Awards’ way. Yet.

Deepanjana Pal is a journalist and the author of The Painter: A Life of Ravi Varma. She is currently a consulting copy editor at Elle magazine.