Why doesn’t India have an award even half as prestigious as the Oscars?
We make more films than any other country in the world. Yet, trying to create a world-class prize for cinema is the stuff of black comedy, says Anupama Chopra.
Last week, I held an Oscar in my hands. It belonged to director Kartiki Gonsalves and producer Guneet Monga, who won it for The Elephant Whisperers, but they were generous enough to let me fake-win for photos. It’s the closest I will ever get to the golden man.
The statuette was heavier than I expected. But its true heft comes, of course, from the prestige attached to the award. Kartiki and Guneet will now have the prefix “Oscar winner” attached to their names for life.
Which made me wonder why, despite making more movies than any other country in the world, in a 110-year tradition of cinematic storytelling, we haven’t been able to create an award that comes even close.
For five years, as chairperson of the Film Critics Guild, I’ve had first-hand experience of what it takes to create and build an award. Each year, the guild (the only registered body of film critics in India) awards excellence in shorts, features and series. Its Critics Choice Awards, created in association with the Motion Content Group, are pan-India. The process is audited. Categories and winners are pre-decided and excellence is the sole criteria. In 2019, at the first edition of the awards, Vineet Kumar won best actor for Mukkabaaz, over Ranbir Kapoor (nominated for Sanju) and Ranveer Singh (nominated for Padmaavat).
But to create a credible awards event that celebrates talent from across the country is a Sisyphean task. The challenges are so bewildering that they can feel like the stuff of a black comedy. First, nominees refuse to show up. Most artists will only attend if they know they’re winning something. Publicists and managers demand we share this information in advance.
Very few artists are generous enough to turn up just to applaud their peers. This year, Rajkummar Rao drove two-and-a-half hours from a far-flung shoot location to attend, despite knowing he wasn’t winning, but he is a rarity. This means that, usually, there are only winners in the audience. So when one spots a famous face, one knows there is a high possibility that they are taking home an award.
Compare this with the Oscars, where artists vie to attend and to present. When nominees don’t show up, it becomes the subject of discussion, as it did this year when James Cameron and Tom Cruise did not attend. “The two guys who insisted we go to the theater didn’t come to the theater,” host Jimmy Kimmel said in his opening monologue.
At the Oscars, etiquette is strictly obeyed too. The awards start on time. When guests in the front few rows go to the restroom or bar, seat fillers occupy the empty places. People who exit can only re-enter during a commercial break. Everyone in the room follows protocol.
Compare this with the experience of trying to organise seating here. Most publicists insist that their artists are seated in the first few rows, but the artists only come in around the time their award is given out, and leave as soon as they have it. Which invariably means dozens of empty seats in front. Guests enter and exit as they please, during the ceremony. There is little sense of decorum at the end. Most start to walk away while the compere is delivering the vote of thanks for the evening.
It is inevitably a chaotic affair that is cleaned up in post-production, for social media and television broadcasts. Given this lack of elegance and esprit de corps, it’s no wonder that there are dozens of Indian film awards, but none that has a significant impact on the careers of its recipients. Can you name a single winner of any major award from last year?
This won’t change unless enough powerful artists decide that it needs to. I’m hoping that happens in my lifetime, because despite the many pitfalls in the last few years (low ratings, slap-gate, wrong winners announced), the Oscar hasn’t lost its sheen. That statuette remains shorthand for excellence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a homegrown equivalent?