Mother India (1957), Salaam Bombay (1989) and Lagaan (2002) all carry the prestige of being former nominees for Best Foreign Film at the Academy Awards, but unfortunately none of them succeeded in winning.
Both Gandhi (1983) and Slumdog Millionaire (2009) in comparison won a fleeting victory of eight awards each, including Best Picture. The former was a UK/India co-production, whilst the latter a UK production with a cast and crew mainly from India.
The fact is that both Gandhi and Slumdog Millionaire could have easily been homegrown Indian productions. It's quite revealing that the historical epic feel of Lagaan shares much DNA with Gandhi as much as the plight of Mumbai's homeless youth is an issue explored in both Salaam Bombay and Slumdog Millionaire alike. So where did the UK productions go right?
Many would argue that the sole reason behind the winners' successes is that they were led by Danny Boyle and Richard Attenborough - western filmmakers with no Indian background. It has been said that if the same films were made by Indian filmmakers that there would have been no chance either would have won Best Foreign Film awards, let alone Best Picture. These films were not only directed by non-Indians but written by them too.
It may potentially be that an outsider's viewpoint of India is more palatable to an international audience than an Indian countryman's - ironic, seeing that the majority of the aforementioned films favoured to show the low-class drudgery and village life of the country, in contrast to the glossy sheen that is more acceptable to India's cinema-going audience. Acclaimed films like Slumdog and Roland Joffe's City of Joy (which was shot in Kolkata) serve as strong doses of ugly realities for some Indians, and this isn't what they are looking for after a hard day's work.
Then there are the internal politics of the selection process to think about - both in India and the US. Many throw blame for Indian cinema's failure at the Oscars on those who choose the national entry. This was none the more evident than in 2005 when a film like Paheli beat competition from Black, Swades and the national award-winning Page 3 to become India's official Oscar entry. Times have changed however, and despite not being in the Hindi language nor endorsed by a big Bollywood star, India's entry this year was the independently-made Malayalam film, Adaminte Makan Abu. In spite of its critical acclaim, it did not get through to nomination.
Presidents do not win general elections through the promise of their politics but through the strength of their campaign. In a similar fashion, the marketing campaign is paramount to winning at awards ceremonies. Unfortunately for Adaminte Makan Abu which was made on a shoestring budget, there was insufficient funds available to do itself justice. However, it may only be Indian films like this that now stand a chance to win at the Oscars - small, independent films that vie for international acclaim, since the main concern for commercial Indian cinema tends to be all about the box office, with the majority of new releases now being remakes and sequels. Hardly good fodder for the Academy.
So there it is where Indian filmmakers have their first dilemma: do they make a film that promises to portray India in all its magical, street-level (ahem) 'culture' that prestigious award juries love so much, or pander towards India's prime commercial audience who would prefer the masala of watching Katrina Kaif's bare torso to seeing the injustice of slum kids getting badly beaten? Bucketloads of money or international recognition? Commercial or arthouse? This is naturally the filmmaker's prerogative, but as Lagaan has proven, there is nothing stopping Indian cinema from being both commercial, arthouse and Oscar-worthy.
Nonetheless, the success of any film hinges on one thing, and one thing only - the script. Danny Boyle only accepted the invitation to direct Slumdog Millionaire after he discovered that award-winner Simon Beaufoy was writing the script. Richard Attenborough rejected several scripts for Gandhi over 20 years before turning to John Briley. Mira Nair worked on the screenplay for Salaam Bombay with Sooni Taraporevala, someone she trusted enough to work with for two more films. Aamir Khan only chose to do writer-director Ashutosh Gowarikar's Lagaan when he was a hundred percent sure that the script was right.
Without this faith in the script, it's unlikely that any of these films would have had their deserved successes, but this script development process is still very rare in Indian cinema. Writers are still very low in the food chain, and despite the amazing concepts explored by Indian filmmakers today, they are rarely executed well. Indian cinema is still very much a director's medium, and until there is more faith put in the writers' abilities to write, and the editor's ability to edit, there will continue to be a stream of films that are all style and no substance. The Hollywood triumvirate is of Writer, Director and Producer. The Indian counterpart seems to be more like Hero, Director and Producer. This needs to change.
Development is key. Yes, it is my favourite Bollywood film of all time, but even with Lagaan, the British characters sometimes came across one-dimensional. And the Disney-like visualisation of 'O Rey Chori,' with an actress singing "Oh I'm in love", was ridiculous. It's not impossible to think that an Indian film can win at the Oscars. All it will take is some strict filmmaking discipline - less dictatorship on the part of the director and producer, and more teamwork with the writer and editor. The producer produces, the director directs. Let the writer write, and let the editor edit.
Ultimately, we should question the selection process for the Oscars. In the past ten years of nominees for Best Foreign Film, 39 of the 50 films have been European. 8 out of 10 winners for Best Foreign Film have been European. There is definite favouritism happening here. Hollywood itself is heavily inspired by European films, so there is a natural bias the American jury would have towards them. 56 years of nominations, 280 nominees, 3 Indian nominees and 0 Indian winners. The numbers speak for themselves.
Which leaves us to one final question: how important is it to win an Oscar, or any award for that matter? Some filmmakers do what they do for the money, some for the accolades, whilst a few feel so strongly about an issue that they need to make a film about it. With a 1.1% chance of even being nominated for an Oscar, is this a goal that Indian filmmakers should be pursuing? If a film is bringing in money, has an audience, and the filmmaker manages to maintain their self-respect and vision, should the approval of a select jury of strangers really hold any real importance?