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Oscars 2002: Glamour and glory

THIS spring's Oscars March 2002) sprung little surprise. Some may not agree with this. They would say Russell Crowe should have been the Best Actor. They would argue that every frame of ``Lagaan'' was worthy of the Best Foreign Language statuette. They would even resent that the ``Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'' lost out to ``A Beautiful Mind''.

They are wrong, having been trapped in media hype or mere convention. Publicity campaigns have the power to completely mislead even the most discerning viewer. Precedence can set dangerous trends. Peter Jackson's ``The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring'' is such an ugly spectacle with every third reel resembling the first that it produces sheer boredom and even a sense of revulsion. I wonder how it managed 13 nominations.

Happily, it belied the expectation that a work with a large number of nods would garner many rewards. The fact that it picked up a few trophies, including those for cinematography and visual effects, had probably more to do with successful seduction than with solid stuff. But, let us not forget that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences refused to give this film any of the major awards. No Best Picture, no Best Director which were bagged by the truly elevating `A Beautiful Mind'', by Ron Howard.

Based on the still living mathematics wizard, John Nash, "A Beautiful Mind" entertains and provokes with a hauntingly wonderful message: how a fallen genius gets up again to win the prestigious Nobel Prize; how mental discipline and will helped Nash to fight a debilitating mental illness.

``A Beautiful Mind'' also underlines the power of love: in one of the most touching and tender scenes, Nash's wife, Alicia (Jennifer Connelly was adjudged the Best Supporting Actress), takes his hand, puts it on her face and says that "this is real". This is one of the first steps the wizard takes towards differentiating between delusion and fact.

Weeks before the Oscars, a nasty crusade was launched to try and derail Howard's movie. It was accused of ignoring Nash's alleged anti-Jew statements, homosexuality and infidelity, and it seemed that history was about to be replayed.

The 1999 ``The Hurricane'' panned for glossing over real-life boxer Rubin Carter cost its leading man, Denzel Washington, his Oscar.

But this time, the 5,700 voting members of the Academy seemed mature enough to understand that a director enjoyed artistic licence to focus on what he thought was central to the story, and exclude what he felt was redundant. Oscar for quality and talent seemed to be the motto.

The Academy used the same yardstick to deny Russell Crowe who played Nash on the screen the Best Actor trophy.

Washington stepped in to receive it for portraying a dirty cop in ``Training Day''. With five nominations and just one victory in the supporting category (``Glory'') not to mention the terrible miss in 1999 Washington was just brilliant in a role which he took up to ``work through something that bothered me and to let it all out on the screen''. Was he better than Crowe? A shade or two, indeed.

Washington's triumph came at the end of an evening which many perceived as the day of the Blacks in Hollywood. Halle Berry - whose performance as a widow who falls in love with her husband's racist murderer fetched her the Best Actress Oscar - was the first ever African-American woman to have been recognised in the top category.

In fact, the Academy had in all its 74 years of existence honoured a Black only once in a lead role: Sidney Poitier in the 1963 ``Lilies of the Field''.

Subsequently, some African-Americans got the statuette, but in supporting slots.

It took Hollywood almost four decades to look at Blacks and their contributions: a Lifetime Achievement for Poitier this year completed his journey and marked a truly memorable day for African-Americans.

With popular artistes like Nicole Kidman (``Moulin Rouge''), Judi Dench (``Iris''), Ben Kingsley (``Sexy Beast'') and Ian McKellen (``The Lord of the Rings...'') left by the wayside on a journey headed for quality street, India's ``Lagaan'' stood very little chance of beating a definitely superior ``No Man's Land'' from Bosnia.

Aamir Khan, the lead star of ``Lagaan'' had to admit that Danis Tanovic's ``No Man's Land'' was a great piece of work. It is not just that: it is brilliant cinema with profound significance. It narrates through two soldiers, a Bosnian and a Serbian, trapped in no man's land, the utter futility of conflict.

Admittedly, a nomination is important, and ``Lagaan'' must evoke a sense of pride. But that alone is not good enough. With two earlier works ``Mother India'' and ``Salaam Bombay'' also failing to win the Oscar it is time for serious reflection.

The Film Federation of India, which sends a movie for probable nomination, has been obviously deploying questionable methods in its selection process. Otherwise, why is it that not one of Satyajit Ray's masterpieces ever found its way to Hollywood. (In fact, the
Academy realised to its dismay, when it was ready to confer a Lifetime Achievement Oscar on the maestro on his deathbed, that it did not even possess a clip from any of his features.)

This time, was not Meera Nair's ``Monsoon Wedding'' much better than ``Lagaan''? Nair's work had even bagged the top Golden Lion at Venice: but for the Federation, with a medieval mindset, such wins make no sense.

In a country which makes 600 to 800 movies every year, many of them copies of Hollywood blockbusters and hardly original, the Federation by refusing to look at the talented and the meritorious, is only pushing India towards humiliation.

And, the Oscars this season clearly indicated that it believes in excellence.

(This story appeared in The Hindu dated March 31 2002)

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