Words by Siddhant Adlakha
This year’s Academy Awards have more Asian nominees than usual, since Asian American indie Everything Everywhere All At Once leads the pack with 11 nods in 10 different categories. However, it’s also an unusually big Oscar year for Indian films specifically, despite the South Asian juggernaut—whose combined industries produce more movies than any other nation; nearly 2000 annually—being part of neither the Best Picture nor Best International Feature lineups. Action epic RRR was a breakout favorite in the west; it just received its second U.S. re-release, and it seems poised to win Best Original Song for the euphoric dance battle “Naatu Naatu.” Meanwhile, conservationist Indian docs The Elephant Whisperers and All That Breathes are equally strong contenders in the short and feature documentary categories. However, despite Indian films and nominees rarely being a major Academy highlight, this weekend’s 95th ceremony isn’t the first time nominees from India (or of Indian descent) will walk the Oscars’ red carpet.
When speaking of India at the Oscars, the two films which immediately come to mind are the 1982 biopic Gandhi and the 2008 romantic drama Slumdog Millionaire, each of which yielded significant Indian Oscar winners and nominees, and themselves went on to win the Best Picture trophy. However, whether they can be classified as “Indian films” is a complicated matter. While Slumdog Millionaire featured prominent Indian crew members—several of whom won Academy Awards, including sound mixer Resul Pookutty, score composer A.R. Rahman, and a second win for Rahman alongside legendary lyricist Gulzar (for the song “Jai Ho”)—it was also a British-funded production, with British directors, writers and producers, and is generally considered an outsider’s view on the nation. The Indian perspective on Gandhi tends to be similar, since it cast a British actor of Indian descent in the lead role (Ben Kingsley, born Krishna Bhanji) and similarly had British writers and directors at the helm. However, the aforementioned complications arise through the question of its funding, as it’s technically a co-production between British and Indian companies, including the National Film Development Corporation of India.
When speaking of India at the Oscars, the two films which immediately come to mind are the 1982 biopic Gandhi and the 2008 romantic drama Slumdog Millionaire...However, whether they can be classified as “Indian films” is a complicated matter.
Regardless of whether the English-language Gandhi is technically Indian, British, or both, it led to several great Indian artisans being recognized, including nominated composer Ravi Shankar and winning costume designer Bhanu Athaiya, each of whom had storied careers in Indian cinema. This also made them the first Indian citizens to ever win Academy Awards (which they shared with their respective collaborators, George Fenton and John Mollo). However, recognition for work on films nominated for Best Picture only seems to come the way of Indian artists when working on partially or wholly non-native productions, which is why the possibility of period action blockbuster RRR making it to the Best Picture lineup seemed so significant (it didn’t make the cut, but it had plenty of support from Hollywood filmmakers and American critic organizations alike).
Although not as frequently recognized as their white peers, actors of Indian origin raised in the west (like Kingsley, and the British-born Dev Patel, who was nominated for the movie Lion) end up being awarded and nominated far more than their peers in the Indian subcontinent. The reasons for this are twofold. On one hand, films from India very rarely cross over to Western audiences—at least, those viewers not belonging to South Asian diasporas. On the other hand, there remains a tendency amongst Academy voters to value Asian performers far less than those from the west, even for successful films like Best Picture nominees Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Life of Pi, and Best Picture winners Slumdog Millionaire, Parasite and The Last Emperor, whose ensembles were either largely or entirely made of native Asian performers, but which received zero acting nominations.
Despite India’s wealth of cinematic output, no Indian-produced film has ever scored a nod in a category generally considered “major” (Picture, Director, the four Acting categories, and the two Screenplay awards), though a handful of filmmakers of Indian origin working elsewhere in the world have come close to some of these coveted trophies. Indian-born Ismail Merchant, who co-founded the legendary British film imprint Merchant-Ivory Productions, saw three Best Picture nominations during his career—for A Room with a View (1986), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993)—while Indian-born, American-raised Hollywood sensation M. Night Shyamalan received Best Director and Screenplay nods for his horror classic The Sixth Sense. (Indian director Shekhar Kapur helmed the 1998 Best Picture nominee Elizabeth, though he himself was not nominated.)
One place where Indian films might seem more likely to find success is in the Best International Feature Film category...though despite India submitting entries nearly every year since the award’s 1956 inception, Indian movies have only been nominated thrice.
One place where Indian films might seem more likely to find success is in the Best International Feature Film category (formerly Best Foreign Language Film), though despite India submitting entries nearly every year since the award’s 1956 inception, Indian movies have only been nominated thrice; the majority of the award’s recipients have been Italian, and the majority of its nominees French. India’s first nomination—and its first ever submission in the category—was Mehboob Khan’s post-Independence epic drama Mother India (1957). The second was Mira Nair’s neo-realist indie Salaam Bombay! (1988), while the third was Ashutosh Gowariker’s cricket-and-colonialism musical Lagaan (2001). No Indian film has been nominated since.
Apart from the 1992 Honorary Oscar bestowed upon legendary Bengali director Satyajit Ray (The Apu Trilogy), Indian films and filmmakers have found more success in what are often considered “smaller” categories. Merchant’s 1960 short film The Creation of a Woman was nominated for Best Short Subject (Live Action), a category for which Ashwin Kumar would go on to become India’s youngest nominee (at 31 years old), for his 2004 short film Little Terrorist. While the 44 year gap between their nominations is unfortunate, several other Indian shorts have been nominated in other categories as well. Fali Billimoria’s 1968 film The House That Ananda Built was nominated for Best Documentary (Short Subject), as was K. K. Kapil’s 1978 film An Encounter With Faces, the same award for which Kartiki Gonsalves’ The Elephant Whisperers—a gentle film about an indigenous couple rescuing a baby elephant—has been nominated this year. Only one Indian-born filmmaker, Ishu Patel, has been nominated for Best Animated Short Film—for the 1977 and 1984 Canadian productions Bead Game and Paradise—while American-born director Sanjay Patel was nominated for the same award decades later, for his 2015 Hindu mythology-inspired Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team.
More recent Oscar ceremonies have seen Indian and Indian-origin filmmakers featured more prominently, and some categories no longer have to wait several decades to see new Indian nominees.
However, more recent Oscar ceremonies have seen Indian and Indian-origin filmmakers featured more prominently, and some categories no longer have to wait several decades to see new Indian nominees. British-born editor Tariq Anwar, who was nominated for 1999’s American Beauty, finally received his second nomination for the 2010 drama The King’s Speech (both films went on to win Best Picture). Two years after A.R. Rahman became the first Indian to win two Oscars in one night for Slumdog Millionaire, he was nominated for Best Original Score once again, for the 2010 Hollywood production 127 Hours. Soon after, Indian vocalist Bombay Jayashri was nominated for Best Original Song for 2012’s Life of Pi, for the song “Pi’s Lullaby.” (It’s worth noting that, while Indians Jayashri and Rahman were recognized for Original Song, composer M.M. Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose’s nomination for RRR is the first time an Indian movie has been recognized in the category, despite the country’s enormous history of musical productions).
During the 2020s, artists of Indian descent have become a much more common fixture of the Academy Awards, starting with a nomination at the 2020 ceremony for the 2019 short documentary St. Louis Superman, produced by Canadian-born Sami Khan and American-born Smriti Mundhra. The following year saw a nomination for Indian American songwriter Sarvan Kotecha (for “Husavik,” from the 2020 comedy Eurovision Song Contest: The Story of Fire Saga), and last year even saw filmmakers of Indian origin lifting their respective trophies: British director Aneil Karia won for the live action short film The Long Goodbye, and Indian American producer Joseph Patel was one of the four winners of Best Documentary Feature for Summer of Soul, which beat nominated Indian production Writing With Fire (about women from the Dalit caste who run an independent journalistic publication). Writing With Fire was the first Indian film ever nominated for Documentary Feature, and just one year later, Shaunak Sen’s striking New Delhi portrait All That Breathes could be the first to win the award this coming weekend.
At this Sunday’s ceremony, in addition to three Indian-produced movies in various categories, Rafiq Bhatia—an American of East Indian African descent—has also been nominated for Best Original Score as part of the group Son Lux, for Everything Everywhere All At Once. Son Lux’s electronica-heavy score is fun and propulsive, and Everything Everywhere is the strongest Best Picture frontrunner in years, but the Oscar for Best Score is likely to go to Justin Hurwitz for Babylon or John Williams for The Fabelmans, which have more traditional compositions. However, the three nominated Indian productions, in various different languages—Tamil-language The Elephant Whisperers for Best Documentary Short Subject, Hindi-language All That Breathes for Best Documentary Feature, and Telugu-language RRR for Best Original Song—all appear to be likely winners in their respective categories.
If they emerge successful, it would make what already appears to be a very Asian Oscars potentially the best ever showing for Indian cinema on the Academy stage. In a best case scenario, this could represent a potential shifting of the tide for how strongly mainstream award bodies consider India an important part of the global cinematic conversation.
Published on March 11, 2023
Words by Siddhant Adlakha
Siddhant Adlakha is a critic and filmmaker from Mumbai, though he now lives in New York City. They're more similar than you'd think. Find him at @SiddhantAdlakha on Twitter