(March 6, 2023) The whole world is humming ‘Naatu Naatu’ and all eyes are on Ram Charan and NTR. Shaunak Sen’s All That Breathes has dominated the international film circuit – in 2022, it became the first film to win the Best Documentary prize at Sundance and Cannes. Kartiki Gonsalves’ directorial debut, The Elephant Whisperers, took the world by storm after its release on Netflix. All three films have received Oscar nominations in 2023. Indian cinema has finally earned itself a front row seat at the Academy Awards this year. Global Indian takes a look at the Indians who have made it to the Oscars and the films that got them there.
Academy Award for Best Costume Design for Gandhi
“It took me 17 long years to set up ‘Gandhi’, my dream films and just 15 minutes to make up my mind that Bhanu Athaiya was the right person to create the many hundreds of Indian costumes that would be required to bring it to the screen,” director Richard Attenborough said in his statement to The Academy. Bhanu Athaiya, one of the most important artists and costume designers of the time, made history for India in 1983, when she became the first Indian to win an Oscar. ‘Gandhi‘ swept the Oscars that year, winning eight awards, much like Slumdog Millionaire would do over 25 years later.
A member of the Progressive Artists’ Group, Bhanu’s artistic career unfolded alongside the likes of M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza and Vasudeo S. Gaitonde. She would often exhibit with the group, although she continued her work as a freelance fashion illustrator for women’s magazines. She showed such a talent for it that she switched career paths, joining Guru Dutt’s team. She has worked in over 100 films, with filmmakers like Guru Dutt, Yash Chopra, Raj Kapoor and Ashutosh Gowariker, as well as Richard Attenborough and Conrad Rooks.
In February 2012, Bhanu expressed her wish to return her Academy Award to the The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, as she believed her family would not be able to care for it after her demise. In December that year, the Academy reported that the trophy had been returned.
Winner of an Honorary Lifetime Achievement Award at the 64th Academy Awards
One month before his demise, a video message showing the visibly frail Satyajit Ray lying in a hospital bed and holding the golden statue, was played at the 64th Academy Awards ceremony in Dolby Theatre. Iconic Hollywood actor Audrey Hepburn had just announced the award, describing Ray’s work as a “rare mastery of the art of motion pictures and his profound humanism which has had an indelible influenced on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world.”
Ray’s son, Sandip, told Firstpost, “The air was abuzz since end-1991 that several filmmakers in Hollywood, including Ismail Merchant, James Ivory and Martin Scorcese, were all gearing up to propose the Oscar for father.” Later, they learned that Merchant and Ivory had left no stone unturned in their efforts. Finally, a telegram arrived from the actor Karl Malden, who was the AMPAS president at the time, announcing the award. Ray was ecstatic – he had fallen in love with cinema through Hollywood.
Audrey Hepburn, who announced the award, also sent Ray a telegram, saying she was “proud and privileged to represent our industry in paying tribute” to the giant of Indian cinema.
Winner of the Academy Award for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, for Slumdog Millionaire in 2009
He’s possibly one of the biggest names of all time in Indian cinema but even Rahman “felt like a gladiator” in the run-up to the Oscars. The composer, who released a video recently recalling the experience, said, “I wen tot all these amazing dinners before the Oscars. But still I was unsure, and the whole of India was cheering. When they announced my name for the score, I was like, ‘Is this real? Or is this a dream?'”
Rahman hadn’t prepared a speech and when he heard Penelope Cruz speak in Spanish, he decided to go with Tamil, saying, “All perfect praise belongs to God alone.” The legend won two Oscar awards that year, for Best Original Score and Best Original Song, which he shared with Gulzar for Jai Ho. The Dev Patel-starrer that went on to win a whopping eight awards, the highest number received by a single film that year. Rahman has received a total of five Oscar nominations, receiving three in 2011 for 127 Hours.
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Winner of Best Original Song for Jai Ho
A colossus of Bollywood, the ever-modest poet-lyricist Gulzar said, that Jai Ho would not have won the award without the contributions of the maestro, A.R. Rahman. “It was because of A R Rahman the song won the award. Although Sukhwinder Singh also contributed to making the song a hit by putting a lot of energy into it,” he said, a decade after winning the award.
As it happened, Gulzar and Jai Ho singer Sukhvinder Singh were both noticeably absent at the award ceremony and watched the Oscars glamour unfold on TV. Singh was even supposed to perform at the ceremony with AR Rahman and many eyebrows were raised. It turned out that Singh and Gulzar had failed to receive the official letter from The Academy.
“I dedicate this award to my country. This is not just a sound award but a piece of history that has been handed over to me.” Resul Pookutty was all smiles as he received the Oscar award in 2009, as the sound designer for Slumdog Millionaire. Sharing the award with Ian Tapp and Richard Pryke, he dedicated the honour to his country. Pookutty is also a BAFTA winner and became the first indian to win the Cinema Audio Society award for best sound mixing.
Pookutty was born into poverty in Kerala. His father was a private bus ticket checker and a young Pookutty would walk six kilometres to school everyday, returning home in the evening to study in the light of a keroscene lamp. He attempted a law degree and dropped out before completing it, joining the FIlm and Television Institute of India in Pune instead. He moved to Mumbai after that and got his big break with Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s Black, after which he received several big ticket opportunities as a sound mixer.
Life didn’t go too smoothly for Pookutty after his Oscars honour, however, despite him being one of India’s most celebrated sound mixers. In 2020, he took to Twitter to say that the Hindi film industry had turned its back on him after he won his Oscar, even calling it the ‘kiss of death in Bollywood.”