India has been sending submissions to Oscar’s foreign language category since 1957, but has scored only three nominations for “Mother India,” “Salaam Bombay” and “Lagaan” with none resulting in a win. This year’s submission, debutant Chaitanya Tamhane’s “Court,” an indictment of India’s labyrinthine legal system, could be the country’s best chance yet.
“Court,” in the Marathi, Gujarati, English and Hindi languages, goes to the Academy having won a raft of awards around the world beginning with its bow in Venice in 2014 where it won the Luigi De Laurentiis Award and the Venice Horizons Award.
The first hurdle, that of the film having a U.S. distributor, was cleared when Zeitgeist Films picked up the film. The second, the cost of the campaign process, is what “Court” producer, and one of the film’s leads, Vivek Gomber is working on now. “I have heard various numbers, from $30,000 to millions of dollars. From what I have gathered $50,000 would be the bare minimum; other than that I believe you can put in as much money as you want to promote the film there. It’s a bottomless pit. As things stand, we have started the groundwork for the campaign, and the funding will be coming from me,” says Gomber.
Help could be forthcoming in the shape of a proposed fund by India’s Information and Broadcasting ministry designed to help Indian films abroad, a plan that reportedly has the blessing of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Gomber says, “My immediate reaction was that this is great, I am glad they are thinking about this, because a lot of the other countries in the world back their chosen film during this period. I am not sure about the details of the fund, in terms of value or how they wish to set it up. It is really hard to say anything else about this since no one has approached us and I have found out about it via the media.”
The road to the Oscars has not always been smooth in India thanks to the selection process. Controversy erupted in 2013 when frontrunner “The Lunchbox,” with Sony Pictures Classics handling U.S. distribution, was overlooked in favor of the little-seen “The Good Road.” This year, filmmaker Amol Palekar was appointed head of the Film Federation of India Oscar committee and controversy arose again when member Rahul Rawail quit, citing Palekar’s “obnoxious behavior” on Twitter. Palekar dismissed Rawail’s comments as “unfortunate.”
Amongst the producers of “The Lunchbox” are Anurag Kashyap, in Busan on the New Currents jury, and Guneet Monga, co-producer of Busan opener “Zubaan,” who had made no secret of their displeasure with their film’s omission. “This is a film that actually stands a chance of making that selection,” says Kashyap about “Court.” “Instead of everybody doing a post-mortem on what went wrong in the jury, people should just get together and support the film, because after a long time we have good representation from India.”
Monga adds, “They should work closely with their U.S. distributor to get as many Academy members to see the movie so that they can vote for it to get nominated.”
That is precisely what Gomber is planning with Zeitgeist. “The plan is to get a publicist on board and raise awareness of the film in L.A., via screenings and ads. I am also considering taking Chaitanya across to L.A.; we have been representing the film in various international film festivals, I think it makes a difference for the audience to meet the makers of the film,” says Gomber.