Tokenism at the Oscars

The Oscars are primarily a Hollywood-driven and American-specific event.


Year after year zillions across the globe and millions in India breathlessly await the most glamorous showbiz event on planet earth with excitement that is truly matchless. Who’s going to be the lucky recipient of “and the Oscar goes to …?” In this surreal scenario, dripping with high voltage glamor and showcasing the who’s who of Hollywood stars and personalities, where exactly does the modest best foreign language film product fit in? Has it ever aroused curiosity, generated interest or unplugged the kind of hi-octane adrenalin that other mainstream awards do? To film-buffs in India, doesn’t this category remind them of the regional award winners at national award events, attracting the same kind of indulgent, polite applause and the right lip service?

Honestly, does anyone recall or demonstrate the slightest interest in these award winners or films once the award ceremony, photo-ops and razzle-dazzle is over? In this edition of the Oscars show, wasn’t the OMG crazy selfie the smashing standout memory to take home? How many times did the camera, during the entire Oscar ceremony, really swing or zoom-in to the foreign film category players? Sure, the Foreign Film category lot provide the Hollywood mainstream hotties their fair share of quaint, smile-friendly accents and mannerisms. This time it was Paolo Sorentino, whose Italian English amused and charmed them as he scooped up the top prize for The Great Beauty. But deep inside aren’t most of the Hollywood stars dying to get back to the real action (and accents) they love and understand?

In the first instance, what exactly is meant by the word foreign film? Is it white-skinned, manufactured European stuff, all arty and avant-garde, or the more exotic Oriental material from the East, with a different shade of color and drama emanating from the Middle East or East? International star Kabir Bedi, minces no words: “I think there are some facts that need to be remembered. The Oscars are primarily a Hollywood-driven and American-specific event. They are also, largely — as their records indicate — a white-bias competition where the best foreign film has mostly gone to Europeans as against others of the dark-skinned variety.”

Bedi adds that people tend to forget some other critical forces required to make the cut. “A good product is only half the story, buddy. Promotion, marketing, advertising, networking and lobbying are all crucial components along with deep pockets. Now, many countries may have great films, but to present them to the right jury members at the right time in the right way is no joke and this is where countries who don’t have the required knowledge or resources to crack it, disappear. Simply put, there is much more to the best foreign film category winning than what meets the eye.”

Theatre and Film Director Feroz Abbas Khan begs to differ. He believes that this category “should work as a role model to our Bollywood-obsessed award functions which, tragically has today also infected the erstwhile transparent National Awards, mandated to celebrate (in fair, free and fearless fashion) the best of Indian cinema. We are constantly fighting about which film should go. There, time and time again, this category has saluted gems from world cinema, irrespective of the size of the country or location.”

Khan rejects the criticism that the Oscar for foreign films is trivial: “Even if it’s not a mainstream, English-language, glamorous, star-studded venture, the fact that they have got an Oscar gives them a huge fillip in terms of honor, popularity and curiosity along with a built-in message of acknowledged class in terms of quality. This, because of the most spectacular platform that Oscar is, also provides these films a marketability that is undeniable, across the globe. So, honor, prestige, popularity with niche audiences and a definite guarantee of commercial gains is assured. Can this be compared to the plight of our brilliant, unsung and ignored regional award-winning films, begging for audience exposure, across every media channel available, in vain?”

Another international star, Victor Banerjee argues that the foreign film category is actually more consequential: “Actually much more authentic and valid than the marquee, mainstream awards are the foreign film category awards, because they are chosen totally on artistic merit, the only baggage they come with, The Hollywood stuff are star-driven and often awarded for reasons other than the reasons, criteria, qualities and parameters they are meant to be measured against. It could be sympathy, causes, flavor of the day, favoritism, whatever, which is why there are frequently startling choices! For me, the go-to awards relating to the Oscars is definitely the best foreign film category. They celebrate the best of good, global cinema, minus the seductive star-dust, saluting a narrative offering soul-uplifting truths at 24 seconds per frame…”

Khan and Banerjee could well be right. Foreign language films can hardly hope to compete with the more extravagant, star-studded, big-budget players, but the Oscars, by honoring them, goes beyond tokenism to give them an aura, chutzpah and glow that translates beautifully into an experience that is truly fulfilling for both film-makers and audiences.

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