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Oscars 2002 - Editorial: Oscars strike quality

THE OSCARS MADE history today when quality took precedence over considerations like politics and colour. If Ron Howard's excellent film, "A Beautiful Mind", clinched some of the top awards including those for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Supporting Actress for Jennifer Connelly, it proved that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was willing to look at art the way it should be. An ugly controversy arose in the weeks preceding the ceremony about the movie's protagonist, John Nash (the living mathematics genius who won a Nobel Prize despite a debilitating mental illness), and it was feared that "A Beautiful Mind" would go the way "The Hurricane" went in 1999. Critics accused Howard of brushing under the carpet Nash's alleged anti-Jew statements, homosexuality and infidelity. They were forgetting an important aspect: artistic freedom of an auteur to show what he wants to and not say what he feels is unimportant. Howard's is an elevating piece of work which stresses the way a genius mind overcame a terrible obstacle. What is equally pertinent, nay beautiful, is his wife, Alicia's support and love that prop him up in the most trying of times. Yet, only a couple of years ago, "The Hurricane" lost out, because an unnecessary debate ravaged and ruined the film's prospects: it was accused of glossing over the unsavoury side of real-life boxer Rubin Carter.

What is even more remarkable is the way the Academy set right its race record. In all its seven-odd decades, a mere six statuettes had gone to African-Americans, five of which were for supporting roles. However, in a dramatic and almost historic move, the Academy this time chose to honour two leading black performers. Halle Berry, who enacts the widow of a man executed by a racist white prison warden with whom she falls in love subsequently walked away with the Best Actress Oscar for "Monster's Ball". She was earlier nominated along with four immensely popular white actresses (Nicole Kidman and Judi Dench among them) against an unhappy record of oversights and plain simple snubs. In 1972, two African heroines, Diana Ross and Cicely Tyson, got the nods for "Lady Sings the Blues" and "Sounder" respectively. But the star of "Cabaret", Liza Minnelli, bagged the prize. In what is still widely perceived as sheer discrimination, the Academy's failure to recognise sheer talent in Tyson is unpardonable. As far as black men are concerned, the Academy's tally has been just marginally better. Sidney Poitier got the Best Actor Oscar for the 1963 "Lilies of the Field". This spring, Denzel Washington, as the corrupt and ruthless narcotics officer in "Training Day", fills a slot that has remained empty for nearly four decades: he was given the Best Actor Oscar this year. Washington, now nominated five times, has won just once, as a supporting star in the 1989 "Glory". In 1999, he came very close to being named Best Actor, but his movie, "The Hurricane", ran into a storm. The Academy not only gave the top acting prizes to two blacks, but also decided to give Washington's mentor, Poitier, a Lifetime Achievement Award.

Also, it was a case of quality ruling over anything else that brought victory to Danis Tanovic's "No Man's Land" in the Foreign Language category. This film is sheer cinema that reveals the tragedy of a small nation split into three. When a Bosnian and a Serbian soldier are trapped in no man's land, they realise the futility of such divisions, and Tanovic narrates his story with subtle humour. Yet, when tragedy hits, it is profoundly saddening. Most Indians must have been disappointed that the Hindi movie, "Lagaan", could not bring home an Oscar. The only third work to be nominated after "Mother India" in 1957 and "Salaam Bombay" in 1988 "Lagaan" is no match for "No Man's Land". It is unfortunate that the Film Federation of India, which selects and sends a work for possible nomination, continues to pay scant regard to talent and merit. It would be hard to agree with the Federation that "Lagaan" was the best that India produced last year. "Lagaan" is certainly one of the better ones to have been made, but that is hardly enough to compete with some of the world's greats which get a nod.

(The editorial appeared in The Hindu dated March 26 2002)

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