Indians in Hollywood

Oscar academy membership is ‘great honour’ and ‘huge boost to the talents of Indian cinema’

By adding 15 Indians to its membership, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has kept to its promise of ‘new faces and voices’.

Can increased diversity in the organisation that votes on the Oscar awards change the kind of films that get nominated? Sound designer Amrit Pritam Dutta seems to think so.

Dutta is among the 15 Indians who have been invited to be members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Dutta, whose credits include PK and Kaabil, told Scroll.in, “People from India and other Asian countries have a different perspective on cinema. We know more about our culture and that would mean a greater diversity in the kinds of films nominated.”

Apart from Dutta, the Indians on the list of 744 new members are as follows: Aamir Khan, Salman Khan, Priyanka Chopra, Irrfan, Amitabh Bachchan, Deepika Padukone, Aishwarya Rai, Mrinal Sen, Goutam Ghose, Sooni Taraporevala, Buddhadeb Dasgupta, Arjun Bhasin and Anand Patwardhan. Ujwal Nirgudkar, technical adviser for the National Heritage Mission, is also on the list.

Shah Rukh Khan, despite his recent TED talk and box office clout in North American territories, is missing from the list. There are no candidates from the Southern film industries, at least in this year’s round.

“I am thrilled, it’s a great honour,” said Sooni Taraporevala, the writer of Salaam Bombay! and Such A Long Journey and director of Little Zizou.

“It was a surprise,” added costume designer Arjun Bhasin, whose films include Monsoon Wedding and Life of Pi. “I am honoured and excited to be part of this community.”

If there is a pattern to the kind of Indians who have been invited, it is that they have vastly benefitted from being cast in Hollywood productions. Actors such as Irrfan, Priyanka Chopra, Deepika Padukone and Aishwarya Rai are already familiar to the rest of the Academy, while Aamir Khan’s Lagaan was nominated in the Foreign Language Film category in 2002.

Mrinal Sen, Goutam Ghose, Buddhadeb Dasgupta and Anand Patwardhan are respected names on the international arthouse circuit, which may have facilitated their membership even if none of their films has been sent to the Oscars. However, Sen is an odd choice – at 94, he is one year younger than the oldest invitee (American actress Betty White), and has been indisposed for years, making his ability to vote at the time of the Oscars doubtful.

A clear left-field selection is Anand Patwardhan, the acclaimed director of such documentaries as Ram Ke Naam and Jai Bhim Comrade. Patwardhan said that he was most surprised, especially since he hadn’t sent any of his films for awards consideration. Yet, the decision signalled that “from time to time, the Oscars have been meaningful, for instance, when Michael Moore made his statement against the Iraq War”, Patwardhan told Scroll.in. “The Oscars have been a forum where progressive ideas have to a limited extent been aired – that possibility exists.”

The new members have been chosen from among 57 countries. The decision to include talent from around the world is part of a wider push by the Academy to live up to its promise of increasing its diversity by 2020. Women comprise 39% of the new members, while people of colour make up 30%.

The number of Indians voting for the Oscars might have gone up significantly, but don’t expect to see all of them on the red carpet. The announcement means that more Indians will be voting, but not all of them will be invited to the annual ceremony in Los Angeles, said Academy member and Oscar-winning sound designer Resul Pookutty.

Pookutty is a part of the Diversity Committee, which is in charge of increasing representation across groups within the academy, and he too had put forth a list of recommendations. “I feel particularly happy to see so many of our recommendation and artists who we shortlisted has been accepted by the Board of Governers of the Academy, I feel this is a huge boost to the talents of Indian cinema,” said Pookutty, who won an Oscar for Sound Mixing for Slumdog Millionaire in 2008.

“It’s up to all of us to ensure that new faces and voices are seen and heard and to take a shot on the next generation the way someone took a shot on each of us,” Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the academy’s first African-American woman president, said in a statement. Isaacs, the departing president, had pledged to open up the academy’s membership, which was 92% white and 75% male in 2016.

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