The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) hosts the Oscars every year as a self-congratulatory ceremony for all the hard-working people of Hollywood. Now, while many look at the Oscars as a beacon of film awards and the winners as some of the best motion pictures of the year, there are even more skeptics who consider the Oscars as a very poor marker of cinematic quality. There is no doubt that when it comes to judging American feature films, the Oscars are hell-bent on balancing the sensibilities and tastes of America’s mainstream critics (like Ebert, Dargis, Scott and Travers) with the tastes of America’s movie-going population. Instead of satisfying both customers, the Oscars always end up on the losing end of the stick, alienating both critics (with nominees like Avatar) and the lay moviegoer (with nominees like The Tree of Life) and reaffirming the rule that you can’t please everyone when it comes to art. While the “Big 5” (Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director & Best Screenplay) are always a hot topic for debate, there is no category that draws as much ire and frustration on a global level as the category for Best Foreign Language Film. This category, constantly being reviewed and renewed, is the most frustrating because it not only has to whittle down a gargantuan feast of films to just a few nominees, but it also has to factor in a smorgasbord of cultures, tropes and tendencies unique to each of the 70-80 nations which compete for this singular honor.
The Oscar for Best Foreign Language film is notorious for the fact that it is very one sided when it comes to the countries that actually get a fighting chance to have their film represented in the 5 nominees announced in January, or even in the 9 film shortlist announced in December. It’s much like the Olympics, where the strongest and most competitive athletes are all from only a handful of countries. The cinema that populates majority of the nominees is, without surprise, European. Italy is currently in the lead with 13 wins and 27 nominations, France in 2nd with 12 wins and 36 nominations, and Spain in 3rd with 4 wins and 19 nominations. Out of the Top 10 most winning and nominated films of the category, only a single one is a non-European nation (Japan). This may be accepted willingly by a lot of film aficionados and cinephiles because after all, Italy, France, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, Germany and Russia are cinematic giants and have given us some of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived. In today’s world though, is it a valid excuse for what I call the 2nd-tier cinematic nations like Iran, India, South Korea, South Africa and China? When does it instead become an argument of cultural barriers rather than barriers of cinematic quality?
The most staggering evidence of the Foreign Film category is the realization of what has happened just in the past decade alone. South Africa (Tsotsi) and Iran (A Separation) both won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film (2005 and 2012 respectively) for works which, through all real examination, can be confidently called Hollywood-style productions. Both Tsotsi and A Separation are not what one is used to seeing from South Africa and Iran respectively… the former releasing mostly B-grade low budget pulp films and the latter some of the most refined art-cinema from world-class but egregiously ignored and repressed filmmakers like Abbas Kairostami, Mohsen Makhmalbaf and Jafar Panahi. The point here, is that these 2nd-tier cinema producing nations won for cinema which was able to break almost all forms of cultural barrier between the East and West, but which did not necessarily represent the best ‘cinema’ the nation had to offer. South Africa and Iran won for films which followed a Hollywood mold and were they actually made in Hollywood, would have fit right in with America’s latest trend of socio-political plight films. Then, you have India, home to the largest film industry in the world and a nation which has been represented in the final 5 nominees a whopping 3 times in over 50 years of competing; once in this century (Lagaan, 2001) and twice in the last (Mother India – 1955, Salaam Bombay – 1988). India is unlike any other nation which submits to the Oscars because the country’s film industry is centered on music and poetry rather than pure narrative. This in itself, aside from culture and geographic location, is a giant barrier that is hard to cross for any film or filmmaker. Musicals, for Hollywood, are a thing of the past. A passé genre of cinema which is defined through overacting and uninspired song sequences that jar the storyline. Hollywood looks at Indian cinema as an industry of films which evoke not much more than a few nostalgic reference points to the Hollywood classical age. As Peter Rainer of New York Magazine mentioned in his review of Gowarikar’s nominated musical, “Watching Lagaan without ever having seen a Bollywood film is like watching Gone with the Wind without ever having seen a Hollywood film.” 
Another reason India is so different from any other competing nation is because it has more than 10 different regional cinemas to choose from, all of which embody a spirit, style and sensibility of their own. Academy voters, in the past 3 years, have received 3 unique submissions from 3 very different backgrounds of film from India. In 2010, it was Paresh Mokashi’s Harishchandrachi Factory, which embodied a very traditional Marathi aura, featuring characters taking pride in the pure vegetarian Brahmin (commonly called “Konkanastha Brahmin”) way of life, dry humor and in their eagerness to bring astrology and black magic as valid topics of discussion. Then in 2011, the Bollywood film Peepli Live was submitted, which was a perfect showcase of Hindi cinema’s latest obsession with political conspiracy (in this case government’s neglect of farmers), brash talking females (both the wife and mother curse and make nasty faces throughout the film) and unabashed social preaching (the ending scene has the camera scanning the distressed faces of farmers with the song “Chhola Maati Ke Daan” moaning in the background and the obligatory PSA message superimposed on black before the credits). Finally, in 2012, was the film from Kerala; Adaminte Makan Abu, which displayed the dense, almost tribal jungle-villages of the state as well as a beautifully balanced view of the sizeable Muslim population, who are extremely devout and peaceful. It is difficult to really examine the thought process and psychology behind India’s selections because there is such a vast difference in the cinema in relation to the geographic location of its origin. All elements add up together to create an excruciatingly difficult situation for India when it comes to the Oscars. It’s even more confusing because the IFF rarely selects a film based on pure merit, but instead, selects a film based on whether it will please a target audience of conservative western film aficionados, who make up majority of the Academy voting bloc. This way of thinking is something which plagues a lot of 2nd-tier countries, where once they realize that cultural barriers are too thick to break down with simply great traditional cinema of the nation, they try to maneuver around and pander to voters by creating cinema that would hit closer to their home. It’s this reason that Iran succeeded with Farhadi’s A Separation but could never succeed with a Kiarostami film.
For India and the Oscars, the relationship is one of misunderstanding. It must, however, strive to become a relationship of give and take, one where a mutual readiness to explore cinema of a different region or of a different kind in order to gain a genuine appreciation of the art on an international scale. Hollywood and Bollywood are the two largest and arguably the most influential film industries in the world, so it only makes sense for them to work on a global cinematic vision together. Gowarikar was eager to point out after his Lagaan was trounced by Bosnia’s No Man’s Land that “Americans must learn to like our films” and he is right in a way. No matter which film India selects or the merits of the film chosen, once the Academy voting process begins, it is simply in American hands to determine the nominees, and if American voters don’t warm up to Indian filmmaking, then there is no chance for India to win in the category. Again, it’s less a matter of quality as it is a matter of cultural barriers. This year alone, India has shortlisted some highly acclaimed pieces like Anurag Kashyap’sGangs of Wasseypur (a Cannes Director’s Fortnight Selection), Gurvinder Singh’s Anhe Gorey Da Daan and Umesh Vinayaka Kulkarni’s Deool. As long as India continues to distinguish and market such films to the western world as a representation of the nation, there will come a day when a mutual understanding of the art behind the cinema will take place, and that understanding must be ignited from the American side of the deal.