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Oscars 2001 - Editorial: Oscar goes out

THE LITTLE MAN has realised that there is a world outside the tight confines of Hollywood. This year's Oscars (March 2001) told us this all too clearly, when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences distributed the statuettes not just evenly but also widely, crossing, in the process, what till the other day looked like insurmountable barriers of language and race. Steven Soderbergh's drug thriller, ``Traffic'', has a third of its narrative in Spanish. And the odds were stacked against the man: he had two films - ``Traffic'' and ``Erin Brockovich'' - in each of the two top categories, Best Picture and Best Director. It was widely feared that one would cancel the other, but, on the contrary, Soderbergh actually clinched a trophy for directing ``Traffic'', creating history of sorts. Even at the nomination stage, ``Chocolat's'' inclusion as one of the five Best Pictures was surprising, given the movie's French accented English and setting. A small French town sees a lively spat between a chocolate maker and other inhabitants.

However, it was Ang Lee, the Taiwanese auteur, who by clinching 10 nominations for his Mandarin work, ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'', the highest ever for one in a language other than English, proved that the Academy was finally growing liberal, and beginning to treat cinema as a universal concept. Lee won four Oscars, including those for Best Foreign Language Film and Cinematography. But the Best Picture honour eluded him, and instead went to Ridley Scott's ``Gladiator'', an epic Roman drama of slaves, warriors and royal intrigues. Lee's ``Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon'' was as magnificent, if not more, with an alluring canvas and a sweet poignant tale set in China's 19th century Qing dynasty, which was seen by many as the last decades before Western influences took over life and living there.

The 5,700-member Academy might not have given Lee what certainly was his, but it is apparent that Asian cinema in particular is starting to frame and freeze the medium's great strides and moments. Movies from China, Japan and Iran are now redefining the grammar of this great art form and, more important, the way Hollywood and the West perceive motion and movement. But, India is hardly in the race: the richly deserved and terribly belated Honorary Oscar for Satyajit Ray in the early 1990s, and a big prize for Buddhadeb Dasgupta's ``Uttara'' (in Bengali) at Venice last year are, at best, exceptions for a country that annually makes twice as many films as Hollywood churns out. Of course, most Indian pictures are bad, but devious manipulations ensure that the best of the few good ones produced is not sent up for a possible nomination in the Oscars list. For example, ``Uttara'' never made it to Los Angeles this time. What did was ``Hey Ram''. The Film Federation of India's choice in the past has included works as poor as ``Jeans'', ``Guru'' and ``Indian''. The story is not very different when it comes to participation in international movie festivals. The National Film Development Corporation of India and the Directorate of Film Festivals (both wings of the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry) have been found wanting as far as their brief is concerned: to promote good cinema both at home and abroad. And if this trend continues, Indian celluloid fare will hardly get a chance on the global screen.

(This editorial appeared in The Hindu dated March 28 2001)

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