India’s Unrequited Love Affair with the Oscars

For decades, the Academy has snubbed the world’s largest film industry. Fifty submissions later, India continues to hope.

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Michaela Stone Cross

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October 18, 2019

“So there’s a joke that goes around,” said Harshal Pawar, an aspiring Mumbai director. “If you want to win an Oscar for India, then throw them the poorest of poor India. You’ll definitely grab their attention.”

On September 21, the Film Federation of India announced that Gully Boy (2019) — the story of a slum-born street rapper — would be India’s submission to the Oscars this year, inciting exactly the kind of vitriol Twitter does best. Though Gully Boy was a commercial hit, earning $37 million globally, being chosen for the Oscars submission was a different matter. It wasn’t just that director Zoya Akhtar had clearly, uh, drawn inspiration from Eminem’s biopic 8 Mile (2002) — more than anything, people saw the submission as a ham-handed attempt to cater to the West’s favorite Indian genre: “poverty porn.”

To date, the Oscars has largely ignored the world’s largest film industry by the number of films produced, and when India does make an appearance, it’s usually through the eyes of the West. This is why the success of British director Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire (2008), which was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won eight, still rankles. To this day, no Indian film has ever won Best Foreign Language Feature. Only three Indian films have even been nominated: Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay! (1988), and Lagaan (2001), stories that all have poverty themes. (Deepa Mehta’s Water (2005) was also Oscar-nominated, but was Canada’s submission.) British director Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) won eight Oscars.

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