The Oscar nominations for 2017 are out (among other things, Meryl Streep scored her twentieth acting nomination) and so it’s the perfect time to do what lots of people around the world will inevitably do – examine how films and filmmakers from their country have fared at the Academy Awards over the years.
India’s biggest chance for an Oscar has, of course, always been the entry for the Best Foreign Language film. Ever since the inception of this award in the mid-fifties, India has diligently sent a film nearly every year; however, we have only been nominated thrice – in 1958 for Mehboob Khan’s Mother India, in 1989 for Mira Nair’s Salaam Bombay and in 2002 for Ashutosh Gowariker’s Lagaan – and have never won. (Our entry this year, the Tamil film Visaaranai, did not make it.)
But Indians and people of Indian origin (whom, naturally, we claim for our own in situations like these) have had several encounters with the Oscars – and even won a few. The first Indian national to ever win an Oscar was Bhanu Athaiya, who won an Oscar for Best Costume Design for Gandhi in 1983. Ben Kingsley, who is of Indian origin but British nationality, also won that year for Best Actor for Gandhi. (He has received a further three nominations.) Ravi Shankar’s score for that film was nominated, but didn’t win.
However, these weren’t the first Indians to be nominated. In 1935, Merle Oberon was nominated for Best Actress for The Dark Angel. She was Anglo-Indian, with a most murky heritage, which she tried to conceal for most of her life, so we will pass on. Ismail Merchant, another Indian-origin filmmaker, known for his association with James Ivory, was nominated in 1961 for Best Live-Action Short Film (The Creation of Woman); later, his films A Room with a View, Howards End and The Remains of the Day got Best Picture nominations in 1987, ’93 and ’94, respectively. (Merchant was credited as producer.)
Several short films have been nominated that have been from and about India. In 1979, Vidhu Vinod Chopra and KK Kapil were nominated for Best Short Documentary for An Encounter with Faces. Ashvin Kumar’s Little Terrorist was nominated for Best Live-Action Short in 2005. Smile Pinki, not made by Indians but about a little girl with a cleft lip near Varanasi, won the Oscar for Best Short Documentary in 2009. And last year Indian-origin Sanjay Patel’s film Sanjay’s Super Team was nominated for Best Short Animated Film.
American-born M. Night Shyamalan made the widely acclaimed The Sixth Sense, for which he was nominated for Best Director and Original Screenplay.
Deepa Mehta’s Water was unique in several ways. It was nominated for Best Foreign Language Film in 2007, but it was Canada’s entry. It was written and directed by, and starred, Indians, but was produced in Canada. It also became only the third Canadian entry for this award that was not in French (and of the other two such, one is entirely in an invented language).
In 2009, of course, Resul Pookutty, A.R. Rahman and Gulzar won a total of four Oscars for Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman scored two more nominations in 2011 for 127 Hours. In 2013, Bombay Jayashri was nominated for Best Original Song for Life of Pi.
Satyajit Ray is the only Indian to be given an honorary Oscar – for Lifetime Achievement in 1992.
And finally, this year, the third person of Indian origin to ever be given a nomination is Dev Patel, nominated for his supporting role in Lion.
India has done relatively well for itself at the Oscars, what say?