Indians at the Academy Awards: From Satyajit Ray to Deepika Padukone

Come Sunday, Indian cinema is launching one of its biggest offensives ever at the Academy Awards. Naatu Naatu from S.S. Rajamouli’s RRR is up for Best Original Song; it won the Golden Globe, to frenzied jubilation everywhere, two months ago. Meanwhile, two documentaries — Shaunak Sen’s feature-length All That Breathes and Kartiki Gonsalves’s 41-minute The Elephant Whisperers— are in with a shout in their respective categories. It really does look like our year, with celebrations planned and congratulatory posts drafted out in advance. The cinephile excitement is at a peak, so what more could we want?

One answer is Deepika Padukone. Last week, Oscar enthusiasm hit the roof when it was announced that Padukone, after unveiling the FIFA World Cup Trophy in Qatar in 2022, will present an Academy Award alongside the likes of Riz Ahmed, Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt and Samuel L. Jackson. Padukone will be part of a double treat for Indians watching with sleepy eyes on Monday morning, with MM Keeravaani conducting a 2.5-minute Naatu Naatu piece on stage (sadly, no Ram Charan and Jr. NTR to lead the dancers; they’ll be in attendance with director Rajamouli).

Indians at the Academy

Indians, and Indian movies, have been thinly represented at the Oscars. In a history of 94 years, we’ve won six times (the number is marginally improved if you include the technical achievement awards). On the face of it, this shouldn’t be too depressing; the Oscars remain a predominantly American bash. Yet the Academy — a 9000-plus-members honorary body that gives out the awards — has been pushing for increased diversity, and includes many Indians. On a more pedestrian level, if there’s one country as frenetically obsessed with red carpets, flashy performances and celebrity jamborees as the US — the difference, perhaps, is only one of prestige — it’s probably India.

S.S. Rajamouli’s globe-trotting awards tour leading up to the Oscars might make it look like a breeze, but it wasn’t always the case. Indian artists, like Indian scientists and Indian sportspersons, have always starved for budgets. In 1957, the Academy created a separate competitive category for foreign-language films; a year later, Mehboob Khan’s Mother India was sent as India’s first official submission to the Oscars. Khan, already debt-ridden by the film’s gargantuan production, turned to Jawaharlal Nehru for help. He eventually reached LA with his wife Sardar Akhtar and attended screenings for Academy voters, with one concession: the famous sickle-and-hammer logo of Mehboob Productions was excised so as not to upset American sensibilities.

The stratagem didn’t help; Mother India lost out to Federico Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, significantly — it is claimed — by a single vote. Khan attended the ceremony, but there contrasting reports of his response; he either laughed off the defeat with a smile or was crestfallen enough to suffer a heart attack the following day (Khan died of a heart attack on May 28, 1964, a day after Nehru’s death).

Like Khan, a young Vidhu Vinod Chopra also lacked the means for intercontinental travel when his An Encounter with Faces (1978) was nominated for Best Documentary Short (the saviour, this time around, was LK Advani, the then I&B Minister).

It wasn’t the same experience for Bhanu Athaiya, legendary costume designer and India’s first Oscar winner. Athaiya was awarded for her work on Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi. Columbia Pictures, the film’s distributors, funded her travel to the 1983 ceremony. A trendsetter back home — she dressed films as sartorially wide-ranging as Sahib Bibi Aur Gulam, Teesri Manzil and Razia Sultan. Athaiya walked up to the stage in a shimmery turquoise drape, paired with choker, danglers and handbag in tow. In contrast to the jokey patter of presenters Steve Guttenberg and Ann Reinking, her speech was simple and short: “Thank you Academy and Sir Richard Attenborough for focusing world attention on India,” she said.

Honouring the greats

By the early 1990s, the Academy had honoured world cinema giants like Akira Kurosawa, Jean Renoir, Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles. Now came Satyajit Ray’s turn. In March 1992, Ray was ailing in his hospital bed in Kolkata and could not attend the Oscars ceremony in LA. Audrey Hepburn, while presenting his Academy Honorary Award on stage, addressed him with the phonetically accurate ‘R-ai’ (as opposed to the anglicized ‘R-ay’ so many Indians prefer to use). Holding his golden statuette, in a beige embroidered panjabi, Ray joined via a video-feed and spoke of the influence of American cinema in his life. Despite his failing health (he died less than a month later), the master was calm, eloquent and funny — a tonality of televised award shows he understood too well.

The star of Indian cinema has risen piecemeal at the Oscars. In 1987, Chiranjeevi became the first South Indian actor to be guest of honour at the Oscars; two years later, Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay! was nominated. The new millennium saw Aamir Khan hobnobbing with Julia Roberts and Denzel Washington on the red carpet. His Lagaan was a big deal (ultimately losing out to Bosnian war drama No Man’s Land), but it was Slumdog Millionaire, eight years later, that really kicked down the doors.

Reminiscent of Naatu Naatu’s success, Jai Ho was already a globally downloaded sensation when it won the Oscar for Best Original Song – one of eight the film took home that year. Though a British production, and suitably problematized for its view of urban poverty in India, Danny Boyle’s film turned the Oscars into a joyous Bollywood night. A.R. Rahman, Gulzar and Resul Pookutty won awards, with Rahman winning two. Particularly touching was the final tableau during the Best Picture win — Anil Kapoor beaming, Irrfan Khan struggling to tuck in his cuffs, Dev Patel picking child actor Rubina Ali Qureshi in his arms. A typically Indian assembly, with a bunch of foreigners thrown in.

Deepika Padukone’s appearance at the Dolby Theatre on Sunday will certainly break the internet. Before her, Indian and Indian origin actresses — Priyanka Chopra, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Mindy Kaling, Persis Khambatta — have all partook in the ceremonies, raising the country’s profile and visibility in the global media glare. Chopra, particularly, has displayed an internationalism characteristic of the 21st century Asian crossover star. Now Padukone is poised to do the same. It’s a shiny year for India at the Academy Awards. If a win marks the occasion, there will be nothing like it.

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