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BAFTA snubbed RRR because Rishi Sunak is enough brown for a year

Shaurya Thapa
Shaurya ThapaJan 20, 2023 | 13:16

BAFTA snubbed RRR because Rishi Sunak is enough brown for a year

The BAFTAs have nominated some unlikely picks from India before but Lagaan and RRR's anti-British narratives might have lost them a chance at getting a nomination (photo-DailyO)

The Britishers accepted Rishi Sunak as their Prime Minister just three months ago, settling for a brown Hindu whose roots lie in India. The turn of fate was such that UK had no choice but to accept a brown man in 10, Downing Street. 

When it comes to cinema, however, the Brits might not want to bow down to India any further, fanning all those narratives about how you can take the British out of the colonies but not the coloniser out of them. This is evident from how the jury of the British Academy of Film and Television Arts chose to snub RRR at this year's BAFTAs.

The BAFTA nominations were announced yesterday (January 19) and while international films like All Quiet on the Western Front and Argentina, 1985 are strong frontrunners in the non-English category, it was surprising to find Austria’s controversial drama Corsage making it in instead of SS Rajamouli’s RRR. The Telugu-language blockbuster is obviously way more over-the-top than its toned-down, realistic competitors but it is this anime-like aesthetic of RRR that has got the Westerners going gaga over it. 

And despite a nomination at the Globes and a win at Critics Choice for Best Foreign Language Film, RRR went empty-handed at the BAFTAs. The British Academy’s awards also lack a Best Original Song category (discontinued since 1984) leaving no chance for MM Keeravaani’s Naatu Naatu to get in either. But RRR’s snub comes as a surprise (or not) given how generous BAFTAs have been with India previously nominating not just film festival picks like Salaam Bombay and The Lunchbox but also mainstream Bollywood hits such as Devdas and Rang De Basanti. 

RRR’s anti-British context: At its core, RRR is a ficitionalised historical drama about two real-life freedom fighters (Alluri Sitaram Raju and Komaram Bheem) who orchestrate their own revolt against the British in the 1920s, a decade when the colonial East India Company was well established in the Indian subcontinent. The very title of the film is an acronym for Rise Roar Revolt!

The British jury at BAFTA might just have been repulsed by all the hype around RRR (among both Western audiences and critics circles), because of its anti-British overtones. This theory might make more sense given how Lagaan also missed out in favour of Mira Nair's Monsoon Wedding in 2002.

What was Lagaan’s case? Unlike RRR, Lagaan didn’t get any recognition at the Golden Globes, Critics’ Choice and other American industry awards. Still, as India’s official submission that year, the Aamir Khan-starrer Lagaan somehow made it to the Oscars as a finalist for Best Foreign Language Film (now renamed as Best International Feature). 

An Instagram post by Sunita Gowariker featuring the Lagaan cast and crew at the Oscars
An Instagram post by Sunita Gowariker featuring the Lagaan cast and crew at the Oscars

Given how even Sanjay Leela Bhansali's arguably self-indulgent Devdas made it to the BAFTAs, it wouldn’t have been surprising if Lagaan made it to the 2002 BAFTAs too instead of Monsoon Wedding. Part of Lagaan’s charm in the West was the unique concept of a cricket match being used as a tool within the Indian freedom struggle with a group of the “colonised” picking up a British game to defeat their “colonisers”.

Further, the half-naked Indians in the film might have even catered to the poverty porn fixation that the white-dominated award juries might have craved even more so then than now. 

Monsoon Wedding which found Mira Nair dabbling in the romantic comedy and family drama genres still had more industry support and awards buzz especially after it won a Golden Lion at Venice International Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination. Regardless of Lagaan’s lack of buzz in non-Oscar ceremonies, it can yet again be theorised that the Brits would have definitely not wanted to consider a movie where some loud-mouthed Indians defeat their white-skinned masters at their own game!

Obviously, 2002 was a strong year with other iconic international films like France’s Amélie and The Piano Teacher along with Birdman director Alejandro González Iñárritu’s Spanish psychological drama Amores perros (which eventually picked up the BAFTA). Interestingly, with the cult classics that Amélie and Amores perros have become in contemporary times, none of them won at the Oscars (with the Spanish feature not even being nominated while Lagaan at least secured a nomination). 

All of this yet again shows us how limiting the Foreign categories of such conventional awards can be, with over 200 countries competing for just 5 spots in the end. But if we just specifically focus on the BAFTAs, it is interesting to speculate the theory of Brits not wanting to associate with any anti-British narratives (at least from Indian productions, 1982's Gandhi was still a British effort).

  • Devdas might have suited the BAFTA’s needs for Bhansali’s trademark elements like flashy set pieces and complex choreography might have catered to the jury’s “great Indian Bollywood musical expectations”.
  • Rang De Basanti, a cult favourite among Indians themselves, plays out as an anti-state drama with Indians standing up against Indians for the cause of justice (even though a few nods to anti-British freedom struggles can be found).
  • The Lunchbox, Asif Kapadia’s The Warrior, and Mira Nair’s two films yet again might have catered to the arthouse “awards bait” crowds in the jury.

Now, even though RRR went empty-handed at the BAFTAs nominations and while it may only have to settle for Best Original Song at this year’s Oscars, the film isn’t going to be forgotten anytime soon in popular memory. Just look at the French romantic drama Amélie. As mentioned earlier, it lost at the BAFTAs and even lost at the Oscars to the Bosnian war film No Man’s Land. And still, an average cinephile from today might not have even heard about No Man’s Land while “doomscrolling” through a hundred reels and video essays on the visual style of Amélie.

As for the British jury at the BAFTAs -- read the RRRoom the next time, maybe?

Last updated: January 20, 2023 | 13:34
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