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'Lunch' Gets Boxed Out: India's Oscar Pick Controversy

Originally published on Tue February 25, 2014 5:58 pm

The nominations for the Oscars were announced this week, and while many of the big contenders, such as 12 Years A Slave and The Wolf of Wall Street, weren't a surprise, there were some controversies in different categories. Top among the film-world controversies was India's submission for best foreign language film, The Good Road, a drama about a truck driver in the western Indian state of Gujarat.

The Good Road did not make it onto the Academy's final list of five nominees, and some in the Indian film world think there was a better choice: The Lunchbox, a movie widely acclaimed on the festival circuit. Movie critic Aseem Chhabra tells NPR's Lynn Neary that the Film Federation of India chooses the submission, and their process can be mysterious. "They often don't announce who the members of the jury are, although this year the names were leaked out. But it's independent of the Indian government."


Interview Highlights

On why the federation might have picked The Good Road

It's hard to say why they chose it, because The Good Road really did not play in India, it had a very very limited release. The premise of The Good Road is very interesting. There are three parallel stories going on. There is the story with a truck driver, there is a story about a little child who gets separated from his parents and then there's a child prostitution ring.

On whether The Good Road's regional language may have influenced the federation's decision

It was made in Gujarati, a regional language, and there's a very strong regional film industry across India. I don't think that's the reason why The Good Road was picked. I think it had more to do with internal politics. But you know the thing is, that kind of stuff happens across the board in other countries also. There have been cases of Pedro Almodovar's films not being sent as Spain's official entry. That happened in Sweden, for instance. A lot of filmmakers used to be very envious of Ingmar Bergman's success in the West, so if one filmmaker or one film starts to do very well, others start to feel left out.

On where The Good Road falls short:

It could have worked out very well. It's just that the director worked with a lot of amateur actors, and it has a very uneven form of acting. And some actors are convincing and some are not.

On what he liked about The Lunchbox

The Lunchbox is a beautiful, sweet and terribly sad story about two individuals in Mumbai. [There is] a woman who is unhappy in her marriage and she cooks lunch every day. And the story gets very charming because the lunchbox that she sends to her husband gets delivered to a wrong man who also is a sad lonely widower. And this mistake is realized and it's sort of a Jacobean kind of a conversation with each other where they start to send each other little notes and a romance blooms between two people who have actually never met. It's a very quiet film. It's a very Indian story, but it's also a story which clearly would resonate really well in the West.

On whether The Lunchbox might have been nominated had it been India's submission

Clearly there was a lot of expectation that the film Lunchbox should have been India's pick only because it had already done very well in the festival circuit. And I mean it's hard to say but the Academy could have been more favorable towards that film. It's unfortunate because India is the largest film producing country in the world and so far only three Indian films have been picked for nomination, but India has never won the Oscar in the best foreign language category.

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Transcript

LYNN NEARY, HOST:

The nominations for the Oscars were announced this week, and while many of the big contenders, like "12 Years a Slave" and "The Wolf of Wall Street," weren't a surprise, there were some controversies in different categories. Top among the film-world controversies was India's pick for the best foreign language film. Here's a bit of music from the film India picked, a drama about a truck driver in the western Indian state Gujarat called "The Good Road."

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

NEARY: "The Good Road" did not make the list of nominations and some in the Indian film world think there was a better choice. They expected that India would choose a movie widely acclaimed on the festival circuit called "The Lunchbox," which opens in this country in late February. Here's what that film sounds like.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "THE LUNCHBOX")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Life is very bleak these days. There are too many people and everyone wants what the other has.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (Foreign language spoken)

NEARY: To help us understand what all this means about film and culture in India, we've brought in Aseem Chhabra, a film critic based in New York. Good to have you with us, Mr. Chhabra.

ASEEM CHHABRA: Thank you.

NEARY: Let's begin with the process for selecting the foreign film. As I understand it, each country is allowed to make one submission for the Oscars and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences picks five of those as the nominees. Is that right? Has it got the process right?

CHHABRA: That's right, yeah.

NEARY: OK. Who makes that decision in India?

CHHABRA: In India, there's an organization called the Film Federation of India, which is - well, the film industry itself has made up this party. But it functions in very mysterious ways. They often don't announce who the members of the jury are, although this year the names are leaked out. But it's independent of the Indian government.

NEARY: And this committee chose "The Good Road" as India's submission. So, tell us a little bit about that film and why they might have chosen it.

CHHABRA: Well, it's very hard to say why they chose it, because "The Good Road," it really did not play at all in India. It had a very, very limited release. The premise of "The Good Road" is very interesting. There are about three parallel stories going on. There's a story with a truck driver. There's a story about the little child who gets separated from his parents. And then there's a child prostitution ring. So, it could have worked out very well. It's just that one of the things the director did was that he worked with a lot of amateur actors and it has a very uneven form of acting. And some actors are convincing and some are not.

My issue with "The Good Road" was that it was trying to be an art house film, and I think it didn't succeed really. But clearly, there was a lot of expectation that the film "Lunchbox" should have been India's pick only because it had already done very well in the festival circuit. And, I mean, it's hard to say but the Academy could have been more favorable towards that film.

NEARY: Perhaps the acting wasn't as good, but I have to say in "The Lunchbox," just the opening of the film, which shows how that lunchbox gets from the woman's house to the office, was absolutely mesmerizing for me.

(LAUGHTER)

CHHABRA: It's a big business and it's a very successful business in Mumbai. And, you know, it's foolproof, they never go wrong. And hence there's a charm in the story that there's one small mistake made where the lunchbox gets delivered to a wrong person.

NEARY: What did you like about it so much? I know you were disappointed that it wasn't the pick.

CHHABRA: Well, I thought "The Lunchbox," it's a beautiful, sweet and terribly sad story about two individuals in Mumbai - a woman who is unhappy in her marriage and, you know, she cooks lunch every day. There's a whole, this business of lunchboxes being picked up from homes and then being delivered in the offices. It's a perfect foolproof system where there's never a mistake. And hence this story get very charming because the lunchbox that she sends to her husband gets delivered to a wrong man, who also is a sad, lonely widower. And this mistake is realized in the start. It's a very sort of a Jacovian(ph) kind of a conversation with each other where they start to send each other little notes. And a romance blooms between two people who actually never met. It's a very quiet film. It's a very Indian story, but it's also a story, which clearly would resonate really well in the West.

NEARY: "The Good Road" was made not in Hindi, which is the language of the Bollywood film industry, but in a regional language. Is that significant? I mean, did that indicate some kind of cultural shift going on in terms of film in India?

CHHABRA: I wouldn't agree with that. I mean, yes, it was made in Gujarati. So, that's a regional language, and there's a very strong regional film industry across India. I don't think that's the reason why "The Good Road" was picked. I think it had more to do with, I would say, it's internal politics. But you know the thing is that kind of stuff happens across the board in other countries also. There have been cases of Pedro Almodovar's films not being sent as Spain's official entry. In Sweden, for instance, a lot of filmmakers used to be very envious of Ingmar Bergman's success in the West. So, if one filmmaker or one film starts to do very well, others start to feel left out.

NEARY: The actor who stars in this movie would be well-known to Western audiences because he was in "Slumdog Millionaire." He was in "Life of Pi." Again, this movie did very well at Western film festivals. And I wondered if the committee almost deliberately stayed away from the film "The Lunchbox" because of that, because it already had a following in the West and it wanted to put the spotlight on a sort of smaller, lesser-known Indian film.

CHHABRA: Well, that may be so, but the thing is that the race for the foreign language film gets so competitive. Films that have a lot more buzz at film festivals before clearly start to attract the attention of the Academy. So, therefore, if India had picked a film that was already in the conversations - there were bloggers who were writing about it, Hollywood Reporter and Indiewire - a lot of bloggers saw it in Toronto and they said this should be India's official entry, because they understand how to the process works with the Academy. So, you know, it's unfortunate because India's the largest film-producing country in the world and so far only three Indian films have been picked for nominations, but India's never won the Oscar in the best foreign language category.

NEARY: Film critic Aseem Chhabra. Thanks so much for being with us.

CHHABRA: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.