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On Jan. 24, India had three reasons to celebrate: an original song Oscar nomination for “Naatu Naatu,” the showstopping tune featured in the film RRR; a documentary feature nom for All That Breathes; and a documentary short nom for The Elephant Whisperers — a respectable showing for a country that takes great pride in its cinematic output. But if leaders of the nation’s film industry had played their cards differently a few months earlier when deciding which film should represent India in the best international feature Oscar competition, there could have been even more cause for celebration.
For that Oscar category, a country can submit only one title. There are no exceptions for countries with vibrant film industries that produce multiple worthy candidates each year because, as it is, Academy members who volunteer to evaluate the submissions barely have time to consider that many. Indeed, 92 countries and regions entered a title this season.
The Academy requires that each country form an “organization, jury or committee” to pick the entry. The group must include, but is not limited to, local “artists and/or craftspeople from the field of motion pictures.” Some countries entrust this decision to their own academy (Spain always goes with the pick of its 1,500-member Academy of Cinematic Arts and Sciences, while Israel automatically enters whichever film the Israeli Academy of Film and Television chooses to honor with the top prize at its Ophir Awards). But most countries, including India, defer to a relatively small committee.
In September, such a group was convened by the Film Federation of India — its participants’ names had to be made known to the Academy but not the public — and voted unanimously to enter Pan Nalin’s Last Film Show, a Gujarati-language drama about how Nalin fell in love with filmmaking as a boy, rather than RRR, a Telugu-language historical fantasy epic helmed by India’s most commercially successful director, S.S. Rajamouli, and built around two of its biggest stars, N.T. Rama Rao Jr. and Ram Charan.
While Last Film Show is charming, and did land a spot on the international feature shortlist of 15 finalists, it didn’t come as a surprise when it, like every other Indian entry of the past 21 years, failed to advance to the final five.
After premiering at Tribeca, Last Film Show grossed just $81,424 worldwide and registered little recognition on the awards circuit. In contrast, RRR raked in $155 million worldwide — the third-highest total ever for an Indian film — en route to winning the best director New York Film Critics Circle Award; the Critics Choice Award for best foreign-language film; best original song honors from the Golden Globe and Critics Choice groups; and the L.A. Film Critics Association Award for best music.
Why did India submit what was clearly going to be a harder sell to the Academy than the alternative available to it, as the nation previously did when it chose Lagaan — which was ultimately nominated before losing — over Monsoon Wedding, which grossed nearly $14 million in the U.S. and could have won, and The Good Road — which ultimately wasn’t nominated — over The Lunchbox, which grossed more than $4 million in the U.S. and could have won, too? And why have many other countries behaved similarly?
Motivations vary. Some countries enter whichever film is most successful domestically. Others try to figure out which project the Academy, which remains largely American, is most likely to respond to (John C. Reilly, an American-born actor of Irish descent, was recruited to this year’s Irish committee). And still others consider things like whether a film’s director had a film previously submitted; how a selection could impact relations with a particular distributor (France is thought to have entered The Intouchables, which wasn’t ultimately nominated, over Rust and Bone, for which Marion Cotillard went on to receive a best actress nom, because the former was distributed by Harvey Weinstein, who a year earlier had guided the largely French film The Artist to major Oscar success); how a film reflects on the country’s major film festival (Italy’s committee includes Venice chief Alberto Barbera, and France’s, until this season, included Cannes chief Thierry Frémaux and tended to select films that had premiered at his fest, like polarizing Palme d’Or winner Titane, which ultimately wasn’t nominated).
Some countries even prioritize the degree to which a film projects an image of their country that they wish to present to the world — hence the presence of government bureaucrats and censors on the Chinese, Iranian and Russian committees — and punish prior indiscretions: Japan passed over Akira Kurosawa’s Ran after Kurosawa skipped the film’s opening-night screening at the Tokyo International Film Festival, the head of which later served on the selection committee; and some suspect Mexico declined to enter Alfonso Cuarón’s Y Tu Mamá También because officials resented his earlier satire of the nation’s AIDS policy, Sólo con Tu Pareja.
It’s undeniably awkward when a film that wasn’t entered for best international feature ends up being recognized in other categories. Cases in point: Sweden’s Cries and Whispers (cinematography win and picture, directing, writing and costume noms), Germany’s Das Boot (directing, writing, cinematography, editing, sound and sound effects editing noms), Italy’s Il Postino (picture, director, actor, screenplay and score noms), France’s La Vie en Rose (Cotillard won best actress), Spain’s Talk to Her (Pedro Almodóvar was nominated for best director and won original screenplay) and now RRR.
Clearly, the process through which countries decide which film will represent them is far from perfect. But for the time being, it appears to be — to paraphrase Winston Churchill’s thoughts on democracy — the worst system … except for all the others.
This story first appeared in the Jan. 27 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. Click here to subscribe.
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