Viewfinder: Lessons from Oscar nominees
The writer uses this year's Oscar favourites to suggest a few important takeaways for Tamil Cinema
By the time this piece is out in print, the Oscars will have been announced. As with any other year, there will be deserving and undeserving winners, fair and unfair snubs. Regardless of who gets to give the famous (or infamous) speeches, a big reason I look forward to the event every year concerns how it acts as a catalyst to get me watching all the nominated films. It’s when you finally run out of excuses, and for people like yours truly who grew up overfeeding on Tamil cinema, exposure to any good cinema (local or foreign) often gets me fantasising about us coming up with comparable work too. This isn’t to suggest that we are any lesser, or that we are not making good cinema; this is simply the suggestion that good cinema from any industry has something to teach another.
Here are five top Oscar-nominated films and what I think we could pick up from them:
A Star is Born
Genre loyalty doesn’t come to us naturally. In overzealousness to try and cater to all audiences, we are notorious for forcing comedy into thrillers, action into romances, romance into comedies… you get the drift. A Star is Born may be a story told many times, but we would do well to notice how it never loses track of its genre, of its purpose. At all times, it’s about the Jackson-Ally relationship. The problems too, like in a good romance, are born out of who they are. A strange ex-boyfriend doesn’t show up. A parent doesn’t suddenly decide to murder. A group of strangers on the road don’t begin to harass Ally. Jackson and Ally love each other; they also damage each other. Can they redeem each other?
Every time we make films about our kings and queens, we get tempted to focus on the action. It’s almost like we think that all people did back then was walk around with swords and shields, looking to pick up wars. We will do well to remember that they also lived and loved, and had plenty of other problems to deal with, including the inability to deal with common diseases, and barbaric punishments — like cutting off people’s nose to deal with their infidelity. Many a great drama can be crafted out of the depths of our history. The Favourite is a great example of how a drama can be fashioned out of a time when two kingdoms were at war — and a drama about three women, no less.
Superhero films, as many as they have been, have generally not been thought of as serious cinema — till Black Panther. It showed even while being a wish-fulfilling film about a man with super-powers, it could still handle a topic as delicate as black heritage. We will do well to learn that it’s not just art films and solemn dramas that have the responsibility to portray the oppressed better. Our lighter films will be all the finer for being more aware about such portrayal.
Any country with a long history has plenty of darkness within, and ours is no exception. There’s many a powerful human interest story to be said, and not necessarily with sloganeering or even with content whose form is all serious. A light-hearted film can still be affecting. In fact, the films that strike me the hardest are those that don’t try too hard to do it. The Green Book, under the guise of a comedy, explores the difficulty of being an African American at a particularly toxic time. The film may not be without its problems, but it’s an example of a template that we haven’t quite tapped into.
Of late, our films have become braver in taking on the government — especially the one at the centre. And yet, many of these digs — important though as they may be — do ring rather superficial, and seem like memes converted into movies. Vice is a great example of a film that takes its politics seriously and is unflinching in its depiction of a problematic politician. What if we showed more interest in understanding the depths of the politics of our times? What if we refused to trivialise it for wider understanding? What if we got a mainstream actor brave enough to be part of such a project? A man can dream.