'Gully Boy' for Academy Awards: Why are south films not taken seriously?

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'Gully Boy' for Academy Awards: Why are south films not taken seriously?

India has decided that the 2019 entry for the Best International Feature Film category in the Academy Awards will be Gully Boy, a Hindi film directed by Zoya Akhtar. The response to the announcement has been mixed, considering there are several other Indian films which received critical acclaim this year.

A few hours before the announcement was made, there were discussions on social media about the films that were reportedly in contention – these included the critically acclaimed blockbuster Andhadhun as well as a handful of south Indian films, namely Super Deluxe (Tamil), And the Oskar Goes To (Malayalam), Dear Comrade (Telugu), Olu (Malayalam), Oththa Seruppu Size 7 (Tamil), Uyare (Malayalam), and Vada Chennai (Tamil). While Gully Boy received mostly positive reviews, the film has similarities to the 2002 American film 8 Mile – not just in terms of the subject but the characterisation, visuals, and pivotal plot points.

Since 1957, India has been sending an entry to the Academy Awards for this category, save a few years. The overwhelming majority of these films are in Hindi. Of the 52 entries so far, only 20 are in languages other than Hindi. The first south Indian film to be chosen was the Tamil film Deiva Magan in 1969. Other Tamil films which were selected are Nayakan (1987), Anjali (1990), Thevar Magan (1992), Kuruthipunal (1995), Indian (1996), Jeans (1998), Hey Ram (2000) and Visaranai (2016). The only Telugu film which has been chosen is Swati Mutyam (1986). The Malayalam industry, which routinely makes critically acclaimed films, has also not had much luck with just two films being chosen – Guru (1997) and Adaminte Makan Abu (2011). No Kannada film has ever been chosen.

Though the Indian film industry is one of the largest in the world, not a single film has won the Academy Award in this category so far. Only three films have even received a nomination – Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1988) and Lagaan (2001) – all of them in Hindi.

The entry for the Academy Awards is decided by the Film Federation of India (FFI) which has a few rules for filmmakers who wish to submit films for its consideration, including deadlines to keep in mind, a non-refundable fee of Rs 70,000, and an English subtitled print/DCP with synopsis of the film. The FFI looks at films which meet these criteria and selects one. But looking at the submissions in the past year, it's difficult to say how exactly the FFI draws its conclusions. The organisation has been criticised in the past for some of its puzzling choices, including Jeans.

How does the Academy decide?

The Academy Awards are given out on the basis of votes by the members of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (over 9,000 currently). But not all members vote for all the categories. For the Best International Feature Film category, volunteers from all branches participate and shortlist the eligible films. 

The filmmakers have to organise screenings to ensure that the members get to watch their film before casting their votes for the award. When Lagaan was nominated, Aamir Khan spoke about his experience at the time: "I met several people to learn how the system operates. The members have to view 80% of the films nominated to be eligible to vote. If the members view the film, it stands a good chance. But they also said that in the last ten years, none of the Hindi films have been up to the mark. So members usually avoid seeing an Indian film. I just wanted them to see Lagaan. That's it."

According to The Wrap, the shortlist is then "narrowed to five nominees by 10 randomly chosen members of the general committee and 30 hand-picked Academy members in Los Angeles, New York and London, who will view all of the shortlisted films and vote.”

Malayalam filmmaker Salim Ahamed, whose film Adaminte Makan Abu had been sent as India's official entry in 2011, in fact, made a film about his experience at the Academy Awards. Titled And the Oskar Goes To, the film detailed the trials and tribulations of an Indian filmmaker who struggles to get his film noticed at the Oscars. Based on Salim's own experiences, the film shows the protagonist, played by Tovino Thomas, even starving because he has little money to promote his film for the awards. The film reveals that it's not just the quality of a movie that can ensure its performance at the awards – it's also about smart marketing and networking, both of which require money.

Bollywood domination

There's also the perception that Indian cinema means Bollywood.

Director Vetrimaaran, whose Visaranai was sent as the entry from India in 2016, spoke about his experience in an interview: "The problem with the Academy members is that they feel Indian films are too ‘Bollywood’… And they don’t want to sit through a long film and don’t want to see song and dance (sequences). So, to break that (notion) and to bring them into theatres was a challenge. Then after coming into the theatres, they see this visceral and physically brutal film (Visaranai)... That also was not going well with them."

There's a lack of awareness that films are made in several languages in India, not only Hindi.

In the same interview, Vetrimaaran said, "Our intent was to gain respect only. We did leave a strong impact and made so many friends there. The problem is that nobody outside India knows that this country has 22-24 official languages. They feel why are they not speaking in Hindi? I said, ‘I am from India, but I don’t speak Hindi’. It’s hard for them to understand this."

Though the Academy, in a bid to increase diversity, has set up a committee and made an effort to include more members from across the world, the list of Indians who are invited continues to be dominated by Bollywood. In 2018, as many as 20 Indians were invited to be members but not one of them was from the south Indian industries. In 2019, the Academy invited 842 new members, including five Indians - Zoya Akhtar, Anurag Kashyap, Anupam Kher, Ritesh Batra and Srinivas Mohan. Of the lot, only Srinivas is from the southern industries. 

In an interview to Scroll.in in 2018, Academy Award winner Resul Pookutty said that he'd submitted more names from the southern industries to try and make the list of Indians in the Academy more inclusive. He said, “This year, I had submitted a few more names from the South like Mani [Ratnam] sir etc. It is a very, very long process, and it is eventually the decision of the board of governors as to who they should take. We have managed to increase the overall diversity at the Oscars from 2% to 48% in just the last two years, which I think is a huge achievement.” 

The lack of representation means that despite south Indian films like Peranbu, Super Deluxe and Jallikattu making a splash in international circles, the road ahead is long before these industries establish to the international audience that there's more to Indian cinema than only Bollywood.