Oscars go desi, India looks inward for global recognition

The Elephant Whisperers, a deeper film, speaks of a harmonious way of life increasingly forgotten—and which, too, is very much Indian.

Published: 14th March 2023 12:48 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th March 2023 02:29 PM   |  A+A-

Gurukul art student makes painting to congratulate The Elephant Whisperers for winning Oscar award, at Lalbaug in Mumbai. (Photo | AP)

We knew it was coming, didn’t we, but we dared not believe it until it happened. So, while we cherished and dissected the three Indian nominations (the song, Naatu Naatu from RRR; the short film, The Elephant Whisperers; and the documentary, All that Breathes) for weeks ahead of the Academy Awards, it’s now a relief almost that the first two have won. It’s done; history is made. Let all the weariness of anticipation not lessen the magnitude of these achievements—and what they signify.

For the first time, two Indian productions bagged these awards, regarded as the gold standard in world cinema. A R Rahman and Resul Pookutty won Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire 14 years ago, but that was still a British production. RRR is wholly ours, as is The Elephant Whisperers. As different as both winners are (one’s an extravagant, escapist fantasy while the other’s a painstaking documentation of indigenous life), it may be useful to note that they are similar in how culturally native they are. Naatu Naatu speaks of our style of song and dance. The Elephant Whisperers, a deeper film, speaks of a harmonious way of life increasingly forgotten—and which, too, is very much Indian. It’s a documentary that speaks of love, empathy, and the beauty of living a simple life with family.

Rather fittingly, the big winner of the Oscar evening was another film that had much to say about love, empathy, and the power of a family: Everything Everywhere All at Once. Among its seven honours was the Best Actress win for Michelle Yeoh (the first-ever for an Asian woman). Again, when she dedicated her win to ‘all the moms in the world’ and spoke of all ‘the boys and girls who look like me’, you saw that she was proud of her identity—much like the Indian winners, who won awards not for trying to mimic Hollywood but for telling stories drawn from their land.

Let’s rejoice, but remember that the work is just beginning. Jimmy Kimmel still called Naatu Naatu a ‘Bollywood song’ (despite director Rajamouli’s many interviews in which he clarified otherwise). Of course, there’s also the question of whether RRR might have fascinated the Western world if it hadn’t sat into their boxes of what constitutes Indian cinema. Yet, those are conversations for tomorrow, not today. Today, let’s rejoice and bask in the realisation that for global recognition, it’s enough that we focus inward.


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