Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Oscars, Kathryn Bigelow, Hurt Locker: Quintessential America

Much has already been written about Hurt Locker's double win at the 2010 Oscars and of course, the historic achievement of a woman director finally achieving the "Best Director" award. And congratulations are indeed due to Kathryn Bigelow. This however is neither a review or a comment on her win, but rather general thoughts that came to me as I read various pieces about her.

First, in all historical fairness, technically a woman director HAS won an earlier Academy Award, except not in the coveted best director category: Marleen Gorris directed Antonia that won the Best Foreign Film award back in 1995.

Also, I am somewhat bemused that Bigelow's seems to play right into the narrow, almost archaic feminist narratives that I thought we had moved beyond. Way back in the 1980s as a student in US, I would remain silent about my reservations regarding a feminism that seemed only to apply to white, middle-class women, and required these women to somehow behave like men in order to achieve a mythic "equality."  When I started reading the likes of bell hooks, I was hugely relieved! I wasn't alone in being alienated by that narrow definition of feminism.

The Bigelow win (along with recent events discussed on this blog in the past week) brought back memories of those days.  Yes, she got the Oscar, but she got it for a properly "American, boys movie."  Ironic, by the way, just how many veterans have been questioning the veracity of the film's events!  These are most likely the same guys who pump their fists and cheer along to 24, not only for great entertainment but also for its "realism."  In fact, the narrow confines of the discussion around Bigelow's win is perfectly demonstrated by this NYT article.  In a way, Bigelow exemplifies the early feminist model: you want to play with the boys, dress like the boys, act like the boys, BE one of the boys! It is a strangely Euro-American model of feminism and one I have never quite managed to understand (coming from a country where wearing a sari gives me far more power cred than square shouldered suits would).

Reading the NYT piece, I was reminded of Sai Paranjape, a self-avowed feminist director from India who won the Filmfare award for best director back in 1985. Her movie, by American standards, would get classified as a "girly" one or worse still as Disney's latest quest to drop girl titles from fairy stories shows, a "chick flick" that "alienates boys."  Paranjape's Sparsh was a delicate exploration not only of relationships, but also the complexities of the male ego, the consequences of physical disability, and the human ability to sabotage our own happiness. Yet it is as easily accessible and impactful for a man as for a woman.  Its neither a "women's" movie nor one that attempts to out-macho the boys.

Of course, the list of the Filmfare winners has a definite preponderance of male directors, and god knows, we could do with more women filmmakers everywhere around the world, including India, but the list also shows a clear difference from the Oscar winners: most of the films on the Indian list are not muscle-bound macho sagas (regardless of their liberal/conservative leanings) that seem to dominate Hollywood in varying guises.  Even the male directors from India seem to explore far more social and emotional issues in their narratives than those on the Oscar list and in ways that are neither hyper-masculine or indeed with any particular male view (perhaps this may be one reason, in addition to the obvious issues of competition for market share, that India has yet to win an Oscar in the Foreign Film category?).  Of course, the issue of scopophilia (that Bigelow mentioned in a run-up interview) doesn't even begin to apply to Bollywood's multi-gaze, multi-perspective cinematic universe.

I was also reminded that I can think of influential women in cinema right through my childhood. The 1930s screen legend and producer, Devika Rani was the first recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke award for contribution to cinema, the country major "life-time" achievement award.  Raj Kapoor's key films not only featured Nargis, his muse and actress, but she also worked on scripts and production, a positive corollary of the industry's "heterogenous mode of production."  Beyond the confines of the industry, women actresses, producers, filmmakers, have served on national committees for film and culture and served as chairs for the country's (very problematic) censor board. They have been good, bad or indifferent in doing these jobs, but have rarely been judged based on their gender.

Even today, I can think of a dozen or so filmmakers who make quality cinema in India. And, in the particular case of Farah Khan, it is a woman director who (for the moment) has a 100% blockbuster ratio for her film production, a figure that can only be compared to Don Bradman's batting average!

This year's Oscars also scored another "historic" moment:  the first African American - Geoffrey Fletcher - won the award for screenwriting (for Precious).  Of course, Lee Daniels was also in the running with Bigelow for the Best Director award for that movie (strange echoes of Obama elections here).

I suppose that brings me to the second difference I have noticed between the Oscars and the Filmfare. There has yet to be an African American filmmaker to win the biggies! And even the nominations in the past, including that of Spike Lee, have always been for clearly "black" films rather than an "all-American" movie.

Again, I am reminded of the huge difference between Hollywood and our much derided "Bollywood" industries. (Clarification: The example of the Muslim minority in India as a comparison is meant simply because the community is the most sizeable, and given various US "reports" on other countries, narratively linked to the subaltern status comparable to race ones in the USA. This does not intend to exclude the "caste", language, or regional minorities or other religions, all of whom have been closely involved with the film industry).

Can we Indians imagine a film industry where no Muslim won the best director or best film award for decades on end?  Can we even begin to imagine an industry without the likes of Mehboob Khan, Sohrab Modi, Ardeshir Irani, Kamal Amrohi, John Matthew Mathan, and other directors of all sorts of minority affiliations?  Even worse, can we imagine a Muslim filmmaker only making "Muslim" movies? What would be do without Mehboob Khan's Mother India? Or Farhan Akhtar's Lakshya?  Or Salim-Javed's extraordinary scripts? Or Kaifi Azmi's delicate lyrics.  And god forbid that they decided to stay only within the confines of the "minority" flicks, rather than big India narratives!!! 

I know we are supposed to be keen on the Oscars, but I stopped watching them nearly two decades ago. Too boring, too same-same. Frankly, and yes I do mean this, give me Filmfare awards any day (the clowning around with Saif and SRK, and all those glitzy dance numbers help as well!). Days like this, I have to say: hooray for Bollywood.