Filipino 'Ladies' laffs to Oscars, India's 'Shwaas' takes grassroot route

While the foreign language Oscar race fields its fair share of international heavyweights, some smaller pics from unexpected places pop up on the radar. Two that are fighting for recognition this year are “Shwaas,” a drama from India, and “The Crying Ladies” from the Philippines.

“Shwaas”

When the Film Federation of India picked “Shwaas” (Breath) as the country’s foreign-language entry to the Oscars, few had heard of the film or even the language it’s in.

But with some divine assistance from the Hindu god Ganesha, who removes obstacles, the director hopes to change all that.

“Shwaas” marks the debut of writer-director Sandeep Sawant, who shot the film in Marathi, regional language of Maharashtra state, home to Bollywood.

Sawant says his film is an indie in the American sense of the word. Instead of studios or banks financing it, the eight producers passed around the turban among family and friends.

Despite having won several awards within the country, the pic doesn’t have a sales company, and funding for a marketing campaign has been at a grassroots level.

Money was raised through donation boxes at Bombay’s Siddhivinayak Temple; its trustees contributed, as did local politicos and the state government. Published reports put the total collected at about $65,000. Sawant, 37, who’s visiting the U.S. with his wife and marketing chief, declines to talk about the money.

“The common people did it out of their good wishes,” adds his wife, Neeraja Patwardhan, who designed costumes for the movie. The donation boxes were removed in case they broke Academy rules.

“For Maharastra, this is a source of pride. It’s been 50 years since a Marathi film won” the national award, Sawant says. “It’s the first Marathi film going to the Oscars.”

“Crying Ladies”

Despite its title, “Crying Ladies” is a comedy, an unlikely choice to represent the archipelago nation. The directorial debut of Mark Meily managed to trounce equally well-reviewed melodramas from prominent helmers vying for the honor, and become the first comedy ever selected to rep the Philippines in the foreign-language Oscar derby.

“Crying Ladies,” about three women hired to weep at a Chinese-Filipino funeral, opened in both the Philippines and the U.S. just two months apart. Positive reviews from the New York Times, L.A. Times and other publications boosted its profile in the Philippines.

Fledgling local distrib Unico Entertainment faced an uphill struggle to secure distribution for the pic in the U.S.: It is the first Asian indie distrib to be releasing its own pics in its own territory and the U.S. With no track record, circuits didn’t take Unico seriously.

“They thought that our bookings were four-walled, as opposed to legitimate arthouse engagements,” says Vincent Nebrida, Unico’s New York-based VP of marketing and acquisitions. “Without the help of consultant and industry vet Richard Abramowitz, it would have been almost impossible to secure bookings or even get our calls returned,” Nebrida recalls.

Unico has also released docu “Imelda,” which has won kudos from various fests and earned nearly $200,000 in the U.S.

“Crying Ladies” grossed $131,000 in the domestic wickets. Unico releases both pics on DVD this month in the U.S.

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