Last week, I held an Oscar in my hand. It belonged to director Kartiki Gonsalves and producer Guneet Monga, who won it for The Elephant Whisperers, but they were generous enough to let me win a fake one for the photos. This is the closest I will ever get to a golden man.
The statue was heavier than I expected. But its true heft of course comes from the prestige attached to the award. Karthiki and Guneeth will now have the prefix “Oscar Winner” attached to their names for life.
It makes me wonder why, despite making more movies than any other country in the world, in a 110-year tradition of cinematic storytelling, we haven’t created an award that comes close.
For five years, as president of the Film Critics Guild, I experienced first-hand what it takes to create and build an award. Every year, the Guild (the only registered body of film critics in India) awards excellence in shorts, features and series. Its Critics’ Choice Awards, produced in association with Motion Content Group, are pan-India. The process is audited. Categories and winners are pre-determined and excellence is the only criterion. In 2019, in the first edition of the awards, Vineet Kumar won the Best Actor award for Mukkabaaz over Ranbir Kapoor (nominated for Sanju) and Ranbir Singh (nominated for Padmaavat).
But creating a credible awards program that celebrates talent from across the country is a Sisyphean task. The challenges are so awe-inspiring that they can feel like the stuff of black comedy. First, candidates refuse to show up. Many artists will only attend if they know they are winning something. Publicists and managers require us to share this information in advance.
Very few actors are generous enough to praise their peers. This year, Rajkummar Rao drove two-and-a-half hours from a distant shoot location to participate, even though he knew he wouldn’t win, but he’s a rarity. This means, usually, there are only winners in the audience. So when one spots a famous face, one knows that there is a high probability that they are taking home a prize.
Compare this to the Oscars, where actors compete to attend and perform. When candidates don’t show up, it becomes a topic of discussion, like this year when James Cameron and Tom Cruise didn’t show up. “The two guys who asked us to go to the theater didn’t come to the theater,” host Jimmy Kimmel said in his opening monologue.
Even at the Oscars, etiquette is strictly enforced. Rewards start on time. When guests in the front few rows go to the restroom or the bar, seat fillers occupy the empty spaces. Exited persons may re-enter only during commercial breaks. Everyone in the room follows protocol.
Compare this to the experience of trying to arrange a seat here. Most promoters insist that their performers sit in the first few rows, but the performers only arrive when their awards are presented, and leave quickly with them. Which always means dozens of empty seats up front. Guests enter and exit as they please during the ceremony. At the end there is little sense of decoration. Most begin to walk away as the compere gives a vote of thanks for the evening.
It is essentially a chaotic affair that is cleaned up in post-production, for social media and television broadcasts. Given this lack of elegance and esprit de corps, it is not surprising that there are dozens of Indian film awards, but none that have had a significant impact on the careers of its recipients. Can you name a single winner of any major award from last year?
This will not change until powerful enough actors decide it is necessary. I hope it happens in my lifetime, because despite the many problems of the last few years (low ratings, slap-gate, announcement of wrong winners), the Oscars have not lost their luster. That statue is short for excellence. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we had a native equivalent?