IT MATTERS, NASEERSAAB
“I don’t know why we hanker after this Oscar business,” says Naseeruddin Shah. Yes, let us not “hanker”, but let us not be dismissive of a global stage either
By Anna MM Vetticad
Two important — seemingly unrelated — events occurred on the Indian entertainment scene in the past month. First, the National Award-winning Marathi film Court was selected as India’s entry for the race to the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar next year. And Quantico — the American serial that marks Bollywood superstar Priyanka Chopra’s international TV debut — finally premiered in the US and then India, following a several-months-long publicity blitzkrieg in both countries.
One involves a cinematic work, the other a teleshow. One an annual occurrence, the other on an unprecedented scale.
What is the connection, you ask?
There is one. It is the question that surfaces each year around the time India, like most other countries, chooses its Oscar entry. And that question is: why do we care?
This year it came from one of India’s most respected actors. When asked about Court’s chances at the Oscars, Naseeruddin Shah reportedly said: “I don’t really care about the Oscars. Court is one of the finest films and in fact the best film to have released in recent times. I don’t know why we hanker after this Oscar business… I think it should be enough for makers of Court that the film has been liked and much appreciated in our own country and that is what matters.”
As Uriah Heep might have said, I would like to ’umbly disagree with Naseersaab.
Acceptance from your primary audience is obviously important, but unless an artiste chooses to limit herself, why should anything be “enough”? Wider reach matters. A global stage matters. It matters not just to individuals, but also to societies as a whole, not just because a larger audience means more money, but because it translates into several long-term benefits.
Film artistes are influential due to the reach of cinema. And so, every time an Indian film artiste speaks on a platform in another country, she has the opportunity to demystify India just that little bit abroad. Every time an Indian star performs in an overseas production that is worthy of her stature at home, she could endear India just that little bit more to people of other nations.
“Worthy” is crucial here. The idea is not to be a token brown-skinned prop in an inconsequential role or to play a part in pigeonholing an entire race. I remember Anil Kapoor telling me that between Slumdog Millionaire and the TV series 24, he turned down several scripts requiring him to play a stereotypical, caricaturish Indian. Last year, Chopra told me she absolutely would not accept a role abroad that would “cater to the stereotype of what Indians are like”.
Over the years, Team Slumdog, Anil on 24, Shashi Kapoor and Irrfan Khan in their multiple ventures abroad (not counting Khan’s embarrassingly marginal appearance in The Amazing Spider-man 2, Om Puri in East Is East and Nimrat Kaur in Homeland, among others — sometimes playing Indians, sometimes not — have served to unobtrusively remind some of the most powerful countries and moneyed audiences that Indians are not ETs. You know, like Apu from The Simpsons?
Complementing these artistes’ work on the global stage are those whose internationally acclaimed home-grown creations have taken Indian culture abroad, from Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and Mira Nair to youngsters like director Neeraj Ghaywan, whose Masaan won two awards at 2015’s Cannes Film Festival, and Chaitanya Tamhane, whose Court earned two trophies at Venice 2014. India needs more of them, familiarising foreigners with who we are in ways that a career diplomat would find hard to achieve.
The obvious pay-offs are enhanced bank balances and exposure for Indian artistes. Less obvious is another effect: the potential of a country’s cinema to make the culture of that country attractive to the world. US embassies and businesses — from clothing chains to pizza joints and fried chicken — owe much to Hollywood, which has been America’s most effective brand ambassador across the globe.
This is why it is important for India’s film industries not to have a frog-in-the-well attitude, but to work hard towards improving their international distribution and marketing. As long as it is done with dignity, there is no shame in promoting a beautiful film like Court at the Oscars. After all, a win at the world’s most-watched film awards function is every film-marketing professional’s dream.
Besides, you can’t put a price tag on soft diplomacy.
Could there be a more effective effort at de-exoticising India in American minds than Aishwarya Rai responding to this question from talk-show host David Letterman in 2005: “Do you live with your parents? … Is that common in India for older children to live with their parents?” Sweetly, yet with a knife-like thrust, Rai replied: “It’s fine to live with your parents, because it’s also common in India that we don’t have to take appointments with our parents to meet for dinner.”
Today, as sections of the Western media use India’s remarkable anti-rape movement to tar the entire country with one brush, there are few better illustrations of our social complexities than an Indian woman — Chopra — telling CNN.com in the run-up to Quantico: “My Dad always told me, ‘As a girl, you should not be someone who tries to fit into a glass slipper. You should shatter the glass ceiling,’ and that’s what I’m trying to do.”
So please, let us not “hanker” after global recognition, but in the global village that we inhabit, why “should” any space be considered “enough”?
(Anna MM Vetticad is the author of The Adventures of an Intrepid Film Critic. Twitter: @annavetticad)
(This column was first published in The Hindu Businessline newspaper on October 10, 2015)
Photo caption: (From top) Priyanka Chopra in Quantico; and a poster of Court
(1) Quantico: https://www.facebook.com/QuanticoABC/
(2) Court: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Court_(film)
Note: These photographs were not sourced from The Hindu Businessline
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