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Features & Opinion

Oscars: A Doubtful American Invention

By Vidyarthy Chatterjee • Published on January 8, 2013

“I don’t understand why India looks up to the Oscars… Audience is my Oscar.” – Mira Nair, quoted in The Telegraph, Kolkata, December 1, 2012

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray

[O]n April 23, 1992, a man died. A tall man once blessed with broad shoulders, a headful of dark, well-set hair, and sharply chiseled features; a man who touched several art forms, enriching whatever he touched. Satyajit Ray had served the cause of art and aesthetics as few modern Indians had before him, and none after. When he died, India mourned and the Bengali people immediately realized that they had lost their last Renaissance man.

Recalling that fateful day, novelist Amitav Ghosh has written: “The day of Satyajit Ray’s death was like none that Kolkata had ever seen before. When the news began to spread, a pall of silence descended on the city. Next morning hundreds of thousands of people filed past his body, braving the intense heat. In the evening when his body was taken to the crematorium, the streets were thickly lined with people standing in silent vigil. Many held up placards which referred to him as “The King”. The whole city was sunk in an inexpressible sadness; everybody knew that an era had ended, and with it, Kolkata’s claim to primacy in the arts. The city was orphaned; its king was gone and there was none to take his place.”

There can be no other opinion about Ray the filmmaker than that he was one of the greatest of the tribe to which he belonged. But one did not have to be in awe of everything that he directed to be convinced of his cinematic pre-eminence. Having said that, it needs to be pointed out that his life-long espousal of the “Hollywood cause” – if one may put it that way – was a kind of blot on his otherwise enviable record. In 1992 when Hollywood gave him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Ray was in no physical condition to travel; so he received the award lying in his hospital bed. Ray had then said that getting the Oscar was the greatest moment in his life – or words to that effect. Many people were deeply disappointed at the way Ray had invested respectability, nay legitimacy, on a doubtful American invention like the Oscar. That a master who had been honoured with the top prizes at prestigious festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice should come to attach such importance to the Oscar was even read by some as a sign of the mental deterioration of a dying man. Whatever the reading, the fact remains that many a cinephile was left cold, if not aghast.

In 1992 when Hollywood gave him an Oscar for Lifetime Achievement, Ray was in no physical condition to travel; so he received the award lying in his hospital bed. Ray had then said that getting the Oscar was the greatest moment in his life – or words to that effect. Many people were deeply disappointed at the way Ray had invested respectability, nay legitimacy, on a doubtful American invention like the Oscar. That a master who had been honoured with the top prizes at prestigious festivals like Cannes, Berlin and Venice should come to attach such importance to the Oscar was even read by some as a sign of the mental deterioration of a dying man.

These words have a direct connection with what Mira Nair said recently in Goa about the Oscars – “I don’t understand why India looks up to the Oscars…” It may sound like blasphemy to Ray-worshippers, but the truth remains that if any single person is to be held responsible for misleading some Indian filmmakers and a section of the viewing public here into believing that getting the Oscar is the same as being born again, it is Satyajit Ray for whom otherwise one and all have deep veneration. Everyone has an “Achilles’ heel”; in Ray’s case it was his unrestrained enthusiasm – at times looking like a pathological excess – for practically anything smelling of American Cinema, particularly of the ’30s and the ’40s. He repeatedly spoke and wrote about how he grew up on that kind of cinema. True, once in a while, he doffed his cap at Italian neo-realism, particularly Vittorio de Sica, or at Jean Renoir who he had grown close to in Calcutta when the great Frenchman was shooting The River, but much of the space in the chamber of Ray’s appreciation of foreign cinema was taken up by Hollywood.

In this context, a thought that has exercised many Indian minds is, whether Ray’s passionate advocacy of Hollywood had anything to do with Martin Scorsese and his friends taking great pains to persuade the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science to give the Oscar to Ray. This is not to undermine their stated admiration for the maker of the Apu Triology and other masterpieces, but to air a popular suspicion in the matter. After all, Hollywood has repeatedly proved to be a “political” place complete with a vigorously-pursued agenda of playing favourites and speaking up for people seen to be tilting towards “Uncle Oscar”.

Coming nearer home, the Indian nation did all it could to show its appreciation of the tall man. Both, the Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian decoration, and the Dadasaheb Phalke award, the most prestigious recognition for an Indian filmmaker, were duly conferred on him. No less a figure than the Prime Minister of India travelled to Kolkata to hand over the Bharat Ratna medallion to Ray. One would have thought that the filmmaker would be just a little expansive about his happiness at being decorated with these awards. But no, he had very little, if anything, to say about the national outpouring of affection and admiration; all he could think about was the Oscar. How pathetic! But, at least this much can be said in his defence that the man was consistent in his praise for Hollywood.

Mira Nair

Mira Nair

Among other things, Mira Nair’s Oscar remark provides an opportunity to discuss at least two of her early documentary films which have been little seen and less discussed in India. It is important to note that these initial efforts have not received the critical attention they deserved. Nair (born 1957) went on to bigger things in subsequent times, scoring at least two international hits in fiction cinema (Salaam Bombay and A Monsoon Wedding), but there are some viewers who nostalgically recall the young Nair’s documentaries as some of the best work she has done. Understandably, the Camera d’ Or at Cannes (for Salaam Bombay, 1988) or the Lion of St. Mark at Venice (for A Monsoon Wedding, 2001) have eclipsed the relevance of the documentaries. Recently, Nair won a major prize at the IFFI in Goa for her latest work, The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

Examining the role of patriarchy in determining social behavior is one of the principal concerns of Nair’s So Far From India (colour, 1982, 52 minutes), a documentary about two worlds, one inhabited by the entrepreneurial, impatient-to-succeed Ashok Sheth, and the other by his ever-patient, neglected young wife, Hansa. Both lives are tense and marked by a sense of deprivation that is more material in the case of the man and more emotional in the case of his wife. Although made some thirty years ago, So Far From India still retains a quality of charmed engagement with familial realities that is difficult to miss. The realities are by turn, disturbing and delightful. Needless to emphasize, this film of considerable sociological importance has gained increased relevance in the wake of globalization and a growing number of people like Ashok Sheth taking off for foreign shores with stars in their eyes and not an inkling about what awaits them at the end of the promised rainbow.

Nair: “Ashok Sheth is one of many Indian immigrants who work in subway news-stands in New York City. His life is anonymous, but it has the advantage of freedom from family obligations and demands. In August 1981, a film crew accompanied Ashok on his first trip back to his hometown of Ahmedabad, when he returned to see his wife, Hansa, and their newly-born son. The resulting film explores the conflicts that arise in the confrontation of Indian culture with American society. It shows us the man’s world in New York, the woman’s world in India, and the charged re-union. It shows lives irrevocably changed by a new country.”

Still from So Far From India

Still from So Far From India

It is obvious from the look of things that large amounts of physical labour and mental exertion have gone into the making of So Far From India. The film is done with care and concern for individuals, for families. It is a pair of sensitive, compassionate eyes looking at the predicaments of the principal players in a domestic drama characterized by both tension and tenderness. Critical issues like the need for love and of loneliness in the absence of it are assessed from different angles and positions. The urge for emotional sharing that is felt more acutely by the one left behind in Ahmedabad is given a human and credible face by Nair. It is easy to make value judgments for or against Ashok Sheth who is shown in varying moods from easy excitability to demonstrative loving, but going by the way in which the film is mounted, one daresay that such judgments would necessarily be at the expense of objectivity.

Nair is against taking sides, and understandably so. Taking sides would have ended once and for all the possibility of a dialogue on a contentious subject first between the director and the couple, and second between the director and her audience. However, it is perhaps unavoidable, in fact necessary, that there should be a faint bias for the wife long separated from her husband, a separation that she thinks need not have been. Hansa cannot understand why her husband should try to “succeed” in distant New York among strangers and at such privations to himself and his family when a decent, reasonably comfortable life could be had at home, in Ahmedabad. The woman’s simplicity in thought and speech, in logic and lifestyle, is in sharp contrast to that of her husband who has, it would seem, picked up quite a bit of high-falutin nonsense during his stay abroad.

Be that as it may, Nair tries to be fair to both sides. Having herself lived in both India and the United States, she may rightly claim to know something of the varied complexities and contradictions that make for the immigrant experience. So, the film is as much about the not-so-glorious aspects to the lives of desperate immigrants like Ashok, as it is about the ambivalent situation in which they leave behind their closest relatives at home, especially wife and child (or children). The constant hiatus between alluring dreams and actual performance is a cause of pain and resentment to either side – this, may be said to be the most compelling part of the director’s sensitively-stated point of view in So Far From India.

Customary signs of weakness of an early film are in evidence here, such as poor quality of sound recording even while shooting indoors. But, coming to think of the final objective of documentaries of dissection and discovery such as this, the film’s technical blemishes call more for understanding than adverse comment. In fact, such limitations seem minor, even negligible, compared to the urgency of the subject it examines in physical conditions that are far from perfect. To overlook the superior quality of the screenplay which carries the stamp of an inquisitive and imaginative mind, would mean doing a distinct disservice to the film. So Far From India demands to be seen by more perceptive viewers in this country and elsewhere where patriarchy and its concomitant evils are to be easily discerned in different shades and degrees.

The other documentary by Mira Nair that calls for inclusion in any discussion on the subject of family, society and film is India Cabaret (1985, 60 minutes, colour). Heavily laden with interviews, like in So Far From India, India Cabaret explores stereotypes of the “respectable” woman and the “fallen” woman in Indian society. Nair: “The main characters in the film do not conform to the prototype of the chaste, submissive, self-sacrificing figure of the Indian wife and mother; they are cabaret dancers whose marginal existence in society becomes a vehicle for the film’s examination of Indian values and some of their inherent contradictions.”

Still from Indian Cabaret

Still from India Cabaret

Its subject being what it is, it is easy to view India Cabaret as a calculated exercise in titillation; as an attempt at exploiting sexually repressed viewers, admittedly a variety of human beings of whom there is never a scarcity in this land (or any other, for that matter). But the fact is that here is a serious effort to document and analyse the lives of some women driven mostly by economic necessity to the extreme of baring their bodies for a living. In the process, hypocrisies, injustices and abject cruelties in a traditional male-dominated society come to the fore.

The problems and difficulties of the women in the film come to assume an extra dimension with the introduction of Pujara’s wife. (Vijay Pujara, a Gujarati tradesman, is a ‘regular’ at the Meghraj, a night-club in suburban Bombay.) Pujara’s wife, a lawfully-wedded woman, is in a sense treated even more shabbily than the cabaret-dancers who charge a fee for their services and perhaps can opt out of a relationship when they wish to. Urmila, Pujara’s wife, is strong and articulate, but helpless and philosophical about her situation – she is stuck for life with a man who couldn’t care less about what happens to her.

The mind races to the Ramayan which speaks of another Urmila, Lakshman’s wife, who suffered a different kind of indifference from her husband for no fault of her own. The mythological Urmila quietly put up with the cruel injustice of separation from her husband, thereby setting a precedent of the suffering wife that exists as much in folklore as it does in real lives, circa 20th and 21st centuries.

The Urmilas and Hansas of contemporary India – to be found in thousands all over the land, notwithstanding improved education, job opportunities and other facilities – are a reminder of the truism that more things change, the more they remain the same. It is worth noting that, in a sense, these daughters of modern Gujarat – one in Ahmedabad, the other in Bombay – have gained nothing from the industrial and commercial development of western India, this so-called ‘progress’ has not lessened gender injustice or social obscurantism, both of which appear to be increasing rather than lessening. Urmila waits for her husband to return home at night, her dinner uneaten as an expression of her pativrat (vow to serve her lord and master); Hansa’s plight is even more severe for she does not know when her NRI husband will visit her next.

To return to the point where we started – Mira Nair’s admiration for Ray’s creative powers is unbounded, as proved by this extract from an interview she gave years ago. Nair: “Obviously, I admire greatly Satyajit Ray for his purity and capacity to film human truths in an apparently simple way. In art there is nothing more difficult. My admiration, often transformed into emotion, has a personal and cultural motive as well. The Bengali regions he describes are very similar to those in which I grew up, and in his characters I recognize types and nuances that I know very well.”

Yet, when Mira Nair said that she failed to understand why people in India attach such importance to the Oscars, it is unlikely that she didn’t have Satyajit Ray in mind. No one is, or, ideally, should be above responsible and constructive criticism.

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