India at The Oscars

Namaste Oscars, India is Here!

Ask any Indian who watches TV at least for 10 minutes per day what RRR is and inevitably he’ll start speaking about the recent accolades added to the viral soundtrack of the movie by S.S. Rajamouli. Ever since its release “Naatu Naatu” has been a chartbuster, and recently its tally stood at around 150 million – just shy off the viral sensation Gangnam Style by Psy – the only difference being Gangnam Style never won the Oscar. Be it the catchy beats, or the flashy steps that generally is West’s perception about the Bollywood – we always ride camels, play Holi around the year and yes, we all have pet snakes in our home.

Tell the same thing to any movie buff and he’ll call you delusional. India has always been present at the Oscars just after independence. With the outdated technology and limited infrastructure that the then film making industry had to offer – Indian directors finessed their craft and often produced masterpieces and cult classics as nominees to the Oscars. It won’t be long before your spectacled Kim ki Duk, Nolan worshipping friend will start pulling out record books about how Mother India got nominated for Oscars, how Ravi Shankar almost won the Best Original Soundtrack for Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi – but however ask him about how many Indians have actually tasted the gold – strangely also say RRR – only the names being Ray – Rahman – Rajamouli – the holy trinity.

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The Golden Club

Very few Indians have been honored by what is commonly considered the highest honor in cinema around the globe – the Oscar awards. One of the most proclaimed Indian filmmakers Satyajit Ray was honoured by the Academy at the 64th Academy Awards in 1992 with the Honorary Award but Ray could not be there in person to collect his award in person owing to his ill health.

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At the time, Ray was hospitalised in Kolkata and could not fly to Los Angeles but a video message from the auteur was shown at the ceremony in Dolby Theatre. Ray’s award was announced by actor Audrey Hepburn who described his work as a “rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and his profound humanism which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”

Ray’s video has him lying in a hospital bed with his Oscar statuette in his hand as he gives his speech. “It’s an extraordinary experience for me to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award, certainly the best achievement of my moviemaking career,” he said.

Ray spoke about the impact that American cinema had on his filmmaking journey. He said, “I have learnt everything about the craft of cinema from the making of American films. I’ve been watching American films very carefully over the years and I love them for how they entertain and then later, loved them for what they taught so I express my gratitude to the American cinema, towards the Motion Picture Association who has given me this award and who made me feel so proud.”

The ceremony in 1992 was held on March 30 and less than a month later, on April 23, Ray passed away at the age of 70 in Kolkata. To date, Ray is the only Indian to have been honoured with an Honorary Award.

Ray is known as one of the finest filmmakers in the world and is remembered for his films like Pather Panchali (Little Songs of the Road), Charulata, Mahanagar, Sonar Kella, Shatranj Ke Khiladi among others.

After Ray there was along vacuum in the Indian movie scene at the Oscars as Bollywood started focusing more on star based movies rather than script based – the art of storytelling with audio and visual – what Jean Luc Godard termed as the “mastery of your own world” was slowly getting lost – until another Indian stepped in and rejuvenated India in a new light. His tool was different from that of Ray – as he used symphonies and melodies to tell his story to the world – A.R.Rahman – the virtuoso that cemented India as a musically well endowed nation with his score on Danny Boyle’s Film- “ Slumdog Millionaire” a movie of immense significance in Indian cinematic history as India made a comeback – not once but twice and with two Oscars under his belt – Rahman inspired everyone to dream again – dream what every director , actor or music director dreams of – winning the highest accolade in films was suddenly possible again. The most recent entrant to this club was Rajamouli – and hold your horses before you call us biased – but “The Elephant Whisperer” is a documentary – a niche genre with an entirely different set of panelists – competing with mainstream movies like Elvis with fire music tracks is a big deal – and RRR did exactly that – it won its due for Naatu Naatu amidst tough competition – and no matter what the elitists say – it was tough.

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Why is Oscar 2023 Special?

Indians have been celebrating their historic double win at the Oscars as the moment their country found the global recognition it has craved for years.

The rollicking song Naatu Naatu from the film RRR won best original song – it was also performed live at the ceremony in Los Angeles on Sunday night – and the Elephant Whisperers won best documentary short film.

The euphoria across social media and in public stems from the fact that India has traditionally not fared well at the Academy Awards, despite numerous nominations over the years. No Indian film has ever won a best film Oscar. Naatu Naatu is the first song from an Indian film to win an Oscar.

“It’s just the beginning of everything,” composer M.M. Keeravani said backstage at the ceremony. “For the world, particularly the western world, folks are more on India and Asian music. It’s just long due. I feel very happy to open doors and the world to embrace my culture.”

Indian film and music lovers expressed their jubilation on social media, while political leaders from across the spectrum tweeted their pride.

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When Cinema unites Politics

Prime Minister Narendra Modi tweeted: “Exceptional! The popularity of ‘Naatu Naatu’ is global. It will be a song that will be remembered for years to come … India is elated and proud.”

Opposition Congress Party President Mallikarjan Kharge tweeted: “We join millions of Indians in rejoicing at the great news … Thank you for bringing so much joy and happiness to India’.

The Elephant Whisperers is a tender portrait of a poor couple in Tamil Nadu and their strong bond with a baby elephant called Raghu. Made by two women, Kartiki Gonsalves and Guneet Monga, the documentary shows the mutual understanding between the couple and the orphaned calf in their care. The significance of the documentary is however not only limited to its accolades and material awards – it is a milestone for India as the women continue to break glass ceilings in an erstwhile male dominated world.

In an Instagram post, Gonsalves said: “Tonight is historic as this is the first ever Oscar for an Indian production.”

The performance of Naatu Naatu is only the second time an Indian song has been performed at the Oscars. The first time was the song Jai Ho from the film Slumdog Millionaire in 2009.

Naatu Naatu is the centrepiece of RRR, the hit epic action drama directed by south Indian director SS Rajamouli.

RRR, short for Rise, Roar, Revolt, is a story of two Indian men who forge a friendship in the 1920s to fight British rule, in particular, a ‘villainous’ governor and his equally nasty wife.

The film instantly became a massive hit after its release last year. Made on a budget of US$72m, it is the most expensive Indian film to date.

The foot tapping Naatu Naatu was filmed at Mariinskyi Palace, the official residence of Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenksiy in Kyiv a few months before the Russian invasion.

The song’s awards momentum has been building up for months. In January, it won the best original song award at the Golden Globes.Indians noted that RRR was not, as many people abroad might assume, a Bollywood film but a south Indian film in the Telugu language. Film critics said they hoped that regional Indian cinema would start being recognised instead of the film industry being synonymous with Bollywood.

Naatu Naatu has been viewed 125m times on YouTube and Indians are hoping its success may give them a Gangnam Style moment in popular culture.

Film analyst Komal Nahta called the song ‘phenomenal’ and said it richly deserved the Oscar. “After Jai Ho, this is a song that’s transcended international boundaries to become hugely popular,” he said.

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