India shone bright at the 95th Academy awards. As an ecstatic MM Keeravani sang out his thanks in tune with that Carpenter’s immortal sappy ditty, the auditorium exploded in hoots, whistles and loud cheers. His ‘namaste’, a delightful little tailpiece to his acceptance speech, echoed the sentiments of a billion Indians on the top of the world after ‘Naatu Naatu’ won the Best Original Song at the Academy awards.
It’s not just the song which had had the globe dancing to its tune from S S Rajamouli’s blockbuster ‘RRR’ that made history at this edition of the Oscars. It was also the Best Documentary Short award for the ‘The Elephant Whisperers’, a heartwarming film on the deep bond between a pair of elephants and their humans, directed by Kartiki Gonsalves, and produced by Guneet Monga. If you haven’t seen the 40 minute film on Netflix, featuring the charming Raghu and Ammu, and Bomman and Bellie, get right to it: it truly is a testament to, as Gonsalves said, the ‘sacred bond between us and the natural world and respect for indigenous communities’.
Naatu Naatu was the first Indian win in the Best original song category, and Gonsalves the first Indian to win in the short docu category. India’s cup would have brimmeth over if Shaunak Sen had won the Best Documentary Feature for ‘All That Breathes’, a haunting film about a pair of Delhi-based brothers who care for injured kites falling from the skies. That loss will be a lasting regret.
Yes, Shaunak Sen didn’t win the Best Documentary Feature for ‘All That Breathes’. But even as Sen’s film kept winning hearts on the festival circuit, from Sundance to Cannes, and we kept our fingers and toes tightly crossed, it was ‘Navalny’, about the imprisoned Russian dissident and hardcore Putin critic Alexei Navalny which had been gathering momentum in the build-up to the Oscars. This was always going to be the year that anti-war sentiment was everywhere, with ‘All Quiet On The Western Front’ the front-runner in the race, which lost out, quite rightly, to Everything Everywhere All At Once.
The German war epic, directed by Edward Berger, had to be content with the Best International Feature, original score, production design and cinematography, and it lost out, quite rightly to the totally bonkers genre-bending multiverse sci-fi-action-adventure ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’, directed by Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert.
Still, two out of three is not a bad strike. History doesn’t always have to be grand sweeps. It can be made out of these small incremental steps, because of what they mean once the hurly burly of the awards night and the zillion pre-Oscars and post-Oscars after parties are done and dusted.
An award on a stage where the world is watching opens up doors not just for the film and its makers, but also the country they represent. Those who’ve been dismissing the ‘song-and-dance’ spectacles of Indian mainstream movies, are now dancing to the infectious rhythms of ‘Naatu Naatu’, even as SS Rajamouli’s RRR will always come with a caveat of whether or not it was truthful to the lives of the revolutionaries it was based on.
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But this is a time to celebrate, not nit-pick. As first-time Oscar presenter Deepika Padukone, the lights on stage making her even more luminous, asked the audience quite rhetorically: do you know ‘Naatu Naatu’, and it played out on stage, it was a moment.
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That live performance may not have matched the mad energy of the song that you see in the film, but the win, which had looked like a shoo-in from the time it was nominated, brings to the fore the joyousness of music, and the stories that can be told via song when words fail. It brings up one of the major strengths of Indian cinema, which is being unafraid of sentiment, of bringing something real and emotional to a world which has been taken over by pallid superheroes and their even more pallid tales which all look and feel similar.
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The 95th Academy awards were significant for other reasons. It was not just India’s night, but all of Asia, with ‘Everything Everywhere All At Once’ making a clean sweep of almost every award it was nominated for. Michelle Yeoh as the first Asian Best Actress winner, and only the second person of colour to win that trophy after Halle Berry in 2002 for ‘Monster’s Ball’, spoke of her Oscar as ‘a beacon of hope and possibilities’. The win built on the tremendous 2020 ‘Parasite’ sweep when Bong Joon Ho won the best director, and the film won both the best picture AND the best international feature film. EEAAO won seven, yes count them, Oscars. Vietnam-born Ke Huy Kwan won Best Supporting Actor, Jamie Lee Curtis, who really should have won for her breakout perf in A Fish Called Wanda ( yes, way back in 1988), finally got hers with a Best Supporting Actress, the Daniels won the Best Director: the film also picked up awards for Best Original Screenplay and Editing.
In an industry where race and representation have mostly stayed buzz words, the ‘Everything Everywhere..’ triumph feels like a shift, where people of colour are being seen and celebrated for who they are, and what they bring to the table, even if the film often feels laden with too many nods to Asians-in-America stereotypes. But what a performance from Yeoh, and a well-deserved win: there was no better film to have got this award in this year.
I’m sad that the fabulous ‘Banshees of Insherin’, a tale of two most unusual best friends buoyed by a terrific performance from Colin Farrell (an infinitely harder one to pull off as compared to Brendan Fraser’s prosthetic-laden turn in ‘The Whale’, which won the latter the Best Actor) and the gentle donkey Jenny, lost out the Best Picture to EEAAO, but I’m very happy that the latter won, won big, and won so emphatically. Thus proving that it is quite possible to be happy and sad at the same time. Now excuse me while I play ‘Naatu Naatu’ at full volume, all over again.