When Bong Joon Ho’s South Korean film, Parasite won the prestigious Oscar in the category of Best Picture 2020, it truly opened the awards ceremony to a new era. Parasite after all was the first foreign language film to have ever won an award in this category. While the film also took home a few more Oscars in the categories of best original screenplay and best director, it was truly in its foreignness that Parasite paved a new path for films from all across the world. For anyone who has followed the history of the Oscars ceremony over the decades, Parasite’s win wasn’t just a victory for South Korean cinema but for cinema from all across the world. Subsequently when the film’s director came on stage to accept the award on behalf of the entire cast and crew he left with a profound message for makers of cinema all across the globe. He said in his speech, “Thank you so much. When I was young and studying cinema, there was a saying that I carved deep into my heart, which is that "The most personal is the most creative.That quote is from our great Martin Scorsese. When I was in school, I studied Martin Scorsese's films. Just to be nominated was a huge honor. I never thought I would win.”
Of course Ho’s personality shines in his quote after winning the academy award. He is as he says intensely personal in the kind of stories that he weaves in his films. Sadly however the same cannot be said about many directors from india. Despite the vastness of the Indian film industry, Indian films have never truly achieved much cinematic merit outside the awards given by the government of India itself. Just like every year the Indian pick for its Oscar submission has now been officially removed from the shortlisted films for the 2021 Academy Awards. To give the Indian cinema viewers and filmmakers some merit, the choice of Jallikattu was a distinct one and possessed far more merit than some of the choices made by the council in the previous years. The 15 shortlisted films are from Chile (The Mole Agent), Czech Republic (Charlatan), Denmark (Another Round), France (Two of Us), Guatemala (La Llorona), Hong Kong (Better Days), Iran (Sun Children), Ivory Coast (Night of the Kings), Mexico (I’m No Longer Here), Norway (Hope), Romania(Collective), Russia (Dear Comrades),Taiwan (A Sun) and Tunisia (The Man Who Sold His Skin).
While the story of Jalikattu was both personal and intense as it follows the story of a festival in Kerala where a bull from the slaughterhouse is hunted down by all the village folk, the film failed to rally a cheer behind it for multiple reasons. Cinematographer PG Muthiah also adds, “I actually wanted to debut with the remake of a Hindi film, but was scared that people would assume I don’t have stories to narrate. Also, people would expect me to make a thriller or visually appealing film because I was a cinematographer. But I wanted to break that entire notion. I’m from a village near Trichy, and I have grown up watching jallikattu in Manapparai and Sentharapatti. So, I decided to do a film based on this.” In many ways the film’s story is intensely personal. Especially at the end of Jallikattu when the men of the village pounce on an injured bull. Of course the film showcases how these men are not any better than animals themselves and the brutality is beyond what one imagines humans enjoy. The ending resonates with the ending of Parasite as well. While none of the main characters in the film are killed in Jallikattu it is evident that the film renders them lifeless by comparing them to animals. These themes seem to have struck a chord; the film board of India recognized the film’s merit before sending it as the official submission for Oscars 2021, there was little work done in promoting the film within its home market. Very few indian film viewers recognize the film or the director. Many critics have argued that Indian films need to extensively market themselves as mainstream films with critical acclaim to be recognized as serious contenders by the Oscars committee. Quite simply put, a film that is not recognized in India has no reason to appeal to the international market. Once again one could compare the film with the big win for the South Korean film, Parasite. In its line up to the Oscars ceremony, the film was shown at multiple film festivals including that of Sundance and Toronto. In addition to all of this Parasite won some serious awards in South Korea and later at the Screen Actors Guild for Outstanding Performance by a Cast and also in the category of Best Foreign Language film at BAFTA. Sadly however Jalikattu lacks all of this backing behind it. The film was first premiered in its home state Kerala in October 2019 and premiered at the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival and the 24th Busan International Film Festival, where it received much acclaim. Jallikattu is the latest feather in Pellissery’s cap, who is known for titles such as Angamaly Diaries (2017) and Ee.Ma.Yau (2018), both of which are considered path breaking films in their own right in Malayalam as well as Indian cinema. Jallikattu is the second Malayalam film to be submitted as India’s entry to the Oscars in the past decade after Adaminte Makan Abu in 2011. The previous year in 2019 the official indian film submission at the Oscars was Zoya Akhtar’s musical drama Gully Boy. Gully Boy also never made to the list of shortlisted films. However the history of malayalam cinema certainly has proved that it can contend with other film industries within India.
But to have a chance at getting shortlisted in the nominations list at the Academy awards film producers from India need to look back at their past. The only three indian films that ever made it to the final list of Oscar Nominations were of course Mother India in 1957, Salaam Bombay! In 1988 and Lagaan in 2001. While the films largely differ in the kind of stories they told their post production schedule had a lot of similarity when one looks at their international openings. Film producers need to make sure that they are in Los Angeles a few months prior to the jury making their decisions. They must also hire a publicity team, book auditoriums and influence jury members by holding special screenings and also appear in American media outlets on all mediums, including on the digital front in the modern day and age. Instead in reality the film only grossed about 10 crores in its opening weekend as it was not released in many screens to begin with. Any chance that it did have to impact the world of Indian cinema was snatched by the fact that the film was termed inhumane in its messaging even before many gave it a watch. To give some merit to the producers of Jallikattu, one must recognize that not everything is about money and post production. Both the Hollywood Reporter and Variety magazines reviewed Jallikattu and awarded the film with much acclaim. Of course the controversy surrounding the Jallikattu sport does not help the film make a case at the Oscars either. The fact that the Supreme Court of India decided to ban the festival entirely after an appeal from the Welfare Board of India (AWBI) and People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) instead harms the stand taken by the film board in submitting the film in the official Oscars list.
Jallikattu’s exit from the Oscars nominations list is sad but it is not the end of the world. Instead the film should be viewed for both its merit and failures in the indian market when it comes to selecting a film for the Oscars list in 2022. It will also be interesting to see if the jury at the Oscars retain their ability to award foreign language films or limit their selection to films from the English speaking world once again. The 93rd Academy Awards is set to take place on Sunday 25 April.