Lessons from Oscar night

  • A look at the Oscar this year shows that Hollywood is changing to catch up with the times
- PRAMOD MISHRA

Feb 28, 2019-

The Oscars have come and gone, and unlike other years, this year I guessed  14 winners out of 24 right. If one does not count short films and documentaries that is. My guesses were right not because i was clairvoyant all of a sudden, but because since last year I have started binge-watching the best pictures right before the night of the Academy Awards. The AMC theatre chain puts up the Best Picture Show for two consecutive Saturdays leading up to the Sunday of the awards, and I have found the over 10-hour-long cinema marathon experience like a long feast of delicious dishes.  

One of the reasons why I don’t feel tired of watching these movies one after the other in a span of just two days is because these movies have been vetted as the best eight of the well-reviewed many that came out the year before. But, more importantly, perhaps it is because the experience compensates for my book and movie deprived childhood and youth. I recall watching only two films an entire year in my first year of college and that too because both were available at half the price since their entertainment tax had been waived. So, with movies books alike-I never get enough of either. Their narratives endlessly fascinate  and aesthetics soothingly  satisfy.  

But when movies are not well-made, when their editing, cinematography, dialogue and movie magic are not well put together, I stop watching movies midway.  That is why, I do not see a movie before hearing a buzz or reading positive reviews about it. And almost always the movie turns out to be good, almost always a classic. And as is with most classics, whether it’s a book or a movie, the work never fails to give pleasure and inspire, even if the work has been read or viewed several times before. That is why, I read and reread the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Recently I bought the Bibek Debroy translated three-volume Valmiki Ramayana and the 10-volume unabridged Mahabharata. I am planning to read them as and when I find the time. As for movies, Dangal—the movie which Amir Khan both acted in and directed—has proven to be a classic. But even after watching it several times, its scenes, dialogues and music bring tears and laughter in equal measure. Always.

The winners of the night

Of the eight Oscar nominations for best picture this year, Green Book clearly was the best in my view for the simple reason that I want to see it again soon. Each scene and dialogue in the movie is loaded with elements of menace, humour, violence and historical tragedy of a country founded upon the  principle of equality, life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Yet, despite all the heavy load of history hovering over the narrative, the viewer never fails to delight in a rainbow of emotions in the unfolding drama, ultimately leading to a realisation of the essential value of humanity. As soon as Green Book won the best picture, the twitterati lit up in both support and disgust. In disgust because they thought that the movie was given the award by the Motion Picture Academy voters (majority of whom are white) as the movie assuages white guilt.  While white guilt or white rescue mindset might have played some role, the movie as a work of art has its own innate value. Of all the eight Oscar nominated best pictures I saw, this one was both entertaining and instructive in equal measure at every step of the viewing experience, like Dangal.

As for assuaging liberal guilt, or focusing on the life of the historically marginalised—the LGBTQ, the non-European, even women—and portraying the human condition, there was plenty of that as well.  Roma revolved around the work and life of a maid in a Mexico City enclave, performed by an indigenous young actor, Yalitza Aparicio. She herself had been nominated for best actor in the leading role female category.  Rami Malek took home the award for the best male actor, a first generation Egyptian American for performing the role of Freddie Mercury, the Africa-born Indian-origin Parsi (Zoroastrian) lead singer of the 1970s band Queen. Both male and female best supporting actor awards went to African American actors. The best director award went to Alfonso Cuaron for Roma, which also won the best foreign film award. Out of the eight nominated best pictures, two were based on African American themes; one centered around an Indian gay singer and one was about a maid of indigenous descent in a European-origin household in Mexico.    

A look at the Oscar this year shows that Hollywood is changing to catch up with the times. It may be a response to the sharp criticism the Motion Picture Academy received a couple of years ago or it may be the result of the changing politics in America and Europe. It may just be a result of the shifting terrain in both consciousness and world geopolitics. Half a century after the Civil Rights movement, decades after curricular changes in colleges and universities to make them more inclusive, with dozens of new voices in writing and film making from the margins, the changes we see in both the quality of work of art from the margins and the raised consciousness to appreciate it seems to have arrived.  

It is time we invite  change

Bollywood while maintaining its originality, has made quite a leap in the past decade in the art and craft of movie making. But the question remains: when is a country like India or Nepal going to learn from the Oscars?  When will there be classics on the underprivileged , showcasing how  despite centuries of indignity thrust upon them, they have kept their humanity and dignity intact? As Ahuti, the Nepali intellectual, had taken to task the Nepali movie Prashad in his first column for Kantipur daily recently, many of these Nepali and Indian directors choose these marginalised figures in society in order to justify the indignity of caste rather than expose its inhumanity.  South Asia needs many more Amir Khans to make up the lost time.

Mishra is the department chair of English Studies at Lewis University in the United States.

Published: 28-02-2019 11:15

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