With SS Rajamouli’s blockbuster RRR garnering acclaim among international critics and carving a fandom all over the Internet, cinephiles speculated that RRR would indeed be India’s official submission to Oscars 2023 for Best International Feature. Instead, a critical darling and festival favorite Gujarati film called Chhello Show was chosen as this year’s pick from India.
What is Chhello Show about? Premiering in the 2021 edition of the Tribeca Film Festival, Chhello Show (The Last Film Show) is a Gujarati coming-of-age drama directed by Angry Indian Goddesses filmmaker Pan Nalin and produced by Siddharth Roy Kapur.
OMG! What a night this going to be! Gratitude to Film Federation of India and thank you FFI jury members. Thank you for believing in Chhello Show. Now I can breathe again and believe in cinema that entertains, inspires and enlightens! @LastFilmShow1 #ChhelloShow #Oscars— Nalin Pan (@PanNalin) September 20, 2022
The film is a Cinema Paradiso-like tale of how an adolescent from a village in Saurashtra has the summer of his lifetime through the beauty of motion pictures. The plot basically finds nine-year-old Samay working out a deal with a local cinema hall’s projector technician, allowing him to be engrossed with one movie or the other.
As it is, films celebrating the art of movies and movie-watching in such a romanticised fashion, end up being critically acclaimed at international festivals. No matter how localised the narrative might be, the themes of film appreciation tend to incite universal praise. Other than the aforementioned Italian classic Cinema Paradiso, some other cases in point include Harishchandrachi Factory (Marathi), Cinema Bandi (Telugu), Pain and Glory (Spanish), 8 1⁄2 (Italian), and so on.
The first Gujarati feature to be selected for the showcase at Tribeca, Chhello Show also contested at Spain’s Valladolid International Film Festival taking home the top prize, Golden Spike for Best Film.
What is the selection process for Oscars? While it is definitely a moment to celebrate for Gujarati and Indian cinema, this is just the first step. Because of its wide choice of nominees, the category of Best International Feature Film (previously known as Best Foreign Language Film) is probably the most competitive (and arguably exclusionary) category at the Oscar awards. In other Hollywood-dominated categories, every film is officially submitted for particular categories by the producer or distributors of the film.
In the case of International Feature, it is not the Academy that picks the nominees. It is every country’s film/culture ministry or associated bodies that submit their entries. Basically, every country picks one film that was released during the eligibility period. The Academy’s jury reviews these picks further drawing a 15-film shortlist which is followed by the 5-film final list. More often than not, India doesn’t even make it to the shortlist.
In India, the body to pick the country’s official entry is the Film Federation of India (FFI), an apex body of Indian producers, distributors, exhibitors and studio owners.
The “one submission from one country” and other flaws of the Oscars: Now, obviously, India’s official entries to the Oscars aren’t always as well-received. Chhello Show itself has disappointed the people wishing for RRR to be nominated. Some were even backing The Kashmir Files to be India’s choice.
But the selection process has its own weaknesses. For every Jalikattu, there is a Gully Boy!
The former film was India’s official entry to the 2020 Oscars, celebrated as a technical and storytelling achievement in Malayalam cinema that had the potential to compete with other international features. Gully Boy was chosen a year before and in comparison, it doubles as a conventional Bollywood blockbuster despite garnering critical acclaim.
What has been noticed is a trend between an audience favorite and the FFI's favorite. The divided between RRR and Chhello Show is similar to the year 2013 when Liar's Dice was chosen as India's official entry instead of Ritesh Batra's The Lunchbox that was unanimously praised within the global arthouse circles.
Further, for a country like India that is rich in cinematic diversity with films being made in at least 41 languages every year, it would seem unfair to pick just one film as India’s best of that year.
Unsurprisingly, international films from the First World tend to get more press attention and acclaim and even in multiple Oscar winning nations like France, the upper limit of just one submission is a subject of controversy. In the 2020 Oscars, France’s official submission Les Miserables made it to the final list of nominees. While Les Miserables is an universally acclaimed film in its own right, several critics and foreign cinema aficionados were disappointed that Portrait of a Lady on Fire failed to be the French nominee.
The French can make fun of and look down on Hollywood all they want, but we’ll never forget that they submitted Les Misérables to the Oscars instead of Portrait of a Lady on Fire.— oshy olly (@imjoshcoll) March 2, 2022
The lesbian tragiromance had come out in the same year as Les Miserables and appeared on several critics’ year-end lists but still managed to miss out in the local selection round itself.
So, is Best International Feature even relevant at the Oscars today? With over 133 countries contesting for just five nominations, the Best International Feature category is definitely limiting in its very core concepts. But with the Academy trying its best to limit public backlash in a post-MeToo era, the jury has diversified not just its own panel but even choices of nominees and winners.
Ever since South Korea's Parasite created history as the first non-English film to win Best Picture, the scope for non-English picks getting into general categories has increased. For instance, at this year’s Oscars, Japan’s Drive My Car was even nominated for Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Adapted Screenplay. So, even if RRR missed out on Best International Feature, there are chances for Rajamouli's blockbuster to make it in other categories such as Best Picture (or a more specific category like Best Visual Effects to speak realistically).
In that sense, it is still worth noting how international voices are gaining a slightly increased chance at representation in conventional Hollywood-centric awards like the Oscars.
Assessing India’s nominations so far: Are Oscars biased against India? Till date, three Indian films have been nominated for Best International Feature: Mother India, Salaam Bombay, and Lagaan. It is often joked that the Oscars love poverty-ridden underdog stories, especially from Third World countries. This is particularly true not just for Danny Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire but also India’s own nominations.
Mother India is the grueling journey of an agricultural worker who must earn her living and ward off exploitative landowners to raise her sons. The ideal mother trope essayed by Nargis’s character made the Mehboob Khan directorial a huge hit in India. But over the years, it might seem a tad bit dated or overlong for modern audiences.
Then, there’s Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay. Some might still consider it a classic but revised viewings prompt modern watchers to look at Salaam Bombay as a fetishised depiction of “poverty porn”.
Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan was a blockbuster in India while allowing producer and actor Aamir Khan to experiment with familiar Bollywood cliches. Lagaan’s nomination proved that even mainstream box-office hits can make it to the Oscars. Even the absurdly unique premise of the colonisers and the colonised deciding their fate over a game of cricket ensured to capture international fascination.
But one can still wonder if the jury of the 2002 Oscars (comparatively less diverse with today’s panel) purposely chose Lagaan for its cinematic merit or if it met their standards of what India is supposed to be: a scorchingly hot landscape dominated by half-naked men playing cricket. The situation might have obviously changed with even more diverse international narratives making it to the final list but unfortunately, India has never been able to secure a spot after Lagaan.
Would Chhello Show be able to end this dry spell? That question would be answered perhaps by December when the Academy usually announces its shortlist of 15 finalists. As for Indian cinephiles who are eager to watch it, Chhello Show is slated for a theatrical release on October 14.