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Will `Devdas' be nominated for the Oscars?

CHENNAI OCT. 28 2002. The Hindi film "Devdas'' by Sanjay Leela Bhansali is the official Indian entry for next year's (2003) Oscars in the Best Foreign Picture category. It remains to be seen if it will be nominated as one of the five contenders in this section. This is the proverbial million dollar question.

After last year's (2001) honour at the Oscars, where Ashutosh Gowariker's "Lagaan'' (also in Hindi) won nomination though not the Oscar itself, India appears to have grown smug.

Admittedly, an Oscar nomination, where five entries are shortlisted for a possible win, is a prized achievement.

But has the Film Federation of India, which selects and sends a movie for probable inclusion in the shortlist, ever made a serious study on why the country that makes a whopping 800/900 films a year (a number which is twice as that of Hollywood) could never get a statuette.

Even the nominations have been few and far between: the first was Mehboob Khan's "Mother India'' in 1957, the second Mira Nair's "Salaam Bombay'' in 1988, and finally the third "Lagaan'' early this year (2002).

``Lagaan'' which tells the story of extremely poor villagers pitted against the might of the British Raj was not only very long, three hours and 43 minutes, by internationally accepted standards of attention span, but also had flaws both in its script and direction.

The Federation would, of course, dismiss these objections by stating that "Lagaan'' got a nod because of its sheer artistic merit.

Talk to people outside the Federation, and they would give you completely different reasons for "Lagaan's'' success.

The tragedy of September 11 made Americans aware of the world outside their own borders: this made it imperative for the 5,700 voting members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in charge of the Oscars to try and select movies which reflected social issues and causes, to try and find a cinema that was meaningful without being melodramatic or grim. "Lagaan'' fitted this bill.

Also, one must not forget that both Aamir Khan, "Lagaan's'' hero, and Gowariker spent about two months in the United States trying, just trying, to get the members watch their film.

Sources aver that the expenses on this kind of publicity can easily run into a couple of crores of rupees.

Now, the point here is, how many Indian producers are willing to spend that kind of money. Or, afford it. An important factor that the Federation may have taken into consideration while selecting "Devdas'' can be the spending power of its producer.

Dubbed one of the most expensive works in Indian cinema, "Devdas'' probably has the kind of money power necessary to catch the eye of the Academy.

Unfortunately, it has little else to flaunt. Based on a Bengali novel by Saratchandra Chatterjee who may have penned it during his teens, though it was published in 1917 "Devdas'' has been made and remade for the big screen.

There have been many versions in different languages, including Bhansali's.

The medium's obsession with this piece of literary effort began in 1928, Calcutta/Kolkata Naresh Mitra's silent edition.

However, it is Bimal Roy's "Devdas'', made in 1955, which is still considered a classic with Dilip Kumar, Suchitra Sen and Vyjayanthimala in the cast.

In comparison, Bhansali presents over two hours forty-five minutes a collage of colour and gloss, extravagant sets and beautiful people. The simple Bengali ambience of the early 1900s is completely lost in a flood of garish chandeliers, gaudy dresses and pretentious attempts at capturing a mood In the end, the tale of broken romance and disappointed love is woven around clever dialogues, synthetic tears and weak bondings.

As it is ,Chatterjee's "Devdas'' was never acknowledged as great prose. It has often been seen as defeatist, where the hero allows his beloved to go away without a fight and then drowns himself in the sorrow of alcohol. Bhansali's camera captures this in a string of frames resembling opulent ad shots, thus pulling out that last semblance of authenticity which men like Bimal Roy tried to inject into the story.

Bhansali's "Devdas'' is undoubtedly a poor choice in the face of other Indian movies made recently: Buddhadeb Dasgupta's "A Tale of a Naughty Girl'' (Bengali), Shaji Karun's "Nishad'' (Hindi), Girish Kasaravalli's "Dweepa'' (Kannada), Adoor Gopalakrishnan's "Shadow Kill'' (Malayalam) and T.V. Chandran's "Dany'' (also Malayalam). One of these could have been chosen.

Yes, if funds are a major impediment, it is time the Government made provisions to ensure that a good film, worthy of putting up a stiff fight at the Oscars, is not allowed to sink by sheer default. This was all the more pertinent this year (for 2003 Oscars), because we made it up to shortlist last time (2002 Oscars), but was pipped at the post by a far superior work, Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land'' from Bosnia.

(This story/review appeared in The Hindu dated October 29 2002)

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