^Bolo Na from Chittagong. Winner of the 2013 Silver Lotus Award for best lyrics. In the same year the Academy decided only to nominate two of a possible six films for the Best Song Oscar^
I have pretty big reservations about the Oscars. When this year’s nominations were announced I blogged that:
The pale, male and stale voters of the Academy retain a strong preference for a particular kind of film. The nominations have as always gone disproportionately to English language dramas at the more worthy end of the mainstream with actors and directors the academy is familiar with which go on general release in the United States.
A particularly stark illustration of this comes from the Academy’s music categories.
They are generally much criticised. In a recent article for AV Club Jesse Hassenger works through the most striking songs in the films of 2014 and shows how technicalities kept virtually all of them were kept off the Academy’s Long List. For example, he observes that none of the songs from Belle and Sebastian film God Help the Girl were eligible because they’d appeared on a 2009 album by the band and were therefore not originally from a film. This rule applied even though it appears that the songs were written with the specific intent they be used in a musical and the album was an attempt to garner interest in a project that eventually became God Help the Girl. Hassenger writes that the result is that:
the music division’s old-fashioned tastes combined with various rulings makes them seem vaguely hostile to any musical artists operating outside of a standard movie-score (or in the case of songs, Broadway-style) framework.
Possibly the worse year for the best song category was 2012 when the Academy found the year’s offerings so limited that it only nominated two rather the usual six. ‘Am a man or a muppet’ from the Muppets went on to win. Which is a charming but otherwise not particularly interesting song.
Now had the Academy wished to look for a wider selection of songs from films where would it have had to look? I would suggest the obvious answer is India. It has the largest film industry in the world as measured by the number of feature films produced each year. And of course music plays a massively larger part in those films than it does in Hollywood’s output. This point is illustrated by the fact that India’s National Film Awards have (by my count) six categories devoted to music compared with the two at the Oscars.
Yet the Academy appears never to nominate songs or scores from Bollywood films. Wikipedia’s (extraordinarily short) list of Indians nominated for Academy Awards can be to divided pretty easily into categories: 1) nominees for Best Foreign Language Film and 2) Indians working on British or American produced films. This later group do get nominated and indeed win. A.R.Rahman picked up golden statuettes for both score and song for his work on Slumdog Millionaire. Yet it seems that no one working on an Indian film for a South Asian audience has even got a nomination.
I’ve looked in vein for an explanation of why this is. It might be that they also fall victim to technicalities, that the people drawing up the long list simply don’t think to include choices from Bollywood or that Indian distributors don’t put their films forward. Whatever the reason it is a stark illustration of the parochialism of the Oscars.
The Academy may theoretically be an international organisation but its based in the US and that’s where the vast bulk of its membership comes from. The National Film Awards are sometimes called ‘India’s Oscars’ and perhaps it would be better if we thought about the Academy Awards not as ‘the Oscars’ but as ‘America’s Oscars’. They represent primarily American tastes and a small slice of American tastes at that. They are the output of a process by which a series of heavily lobbied old, white, American men make subjective choices about which films they personally preferred. There’s nothing wrong with that but it means they are not the definitive marker of cinematic quality they are often taken to be.