September 17, 2001


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At the Oscars: Wedding or cricket?

Arthur J Pais in Toronto

Mira Nair better be prepared for more showers.

Her Monsoon Wedding, winner of the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, could be a formidable contender in the foreign film Oscar category, many critics and production executives at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) feel.

But Nair is keeping her fingers crossed. "India must first nominate the film," she says.

In India, the film could face stiff competition from Lagaan,which was shown at TIFF. Another strong contender could be Asoka, whose screening was cancelled as its print was held up, along with director Santosh Sivan and star Shah Rukh Khan, in New York in the aftermath of the terrorist attack Tuesday, September 11.

USA Films, which last year nurtured the offbeat drug drama, Traffic, which won several Oscars including the one for best direction (Steven Soderberg), plans to release Monsoon Wedding in key American cities around Oscar nomination time.

"They are very upbeat about this film; they expect it not only to be a hit but also win major awards," says Nair.

Critic Dave Kehr finds Monsoon Wedding an ensemble drama "of charm and feeling."

Writing in The Festival Daily, he notes: "The format may be a familiar one -- members of a far-flung family coming together for a wedding -- but the setting is not.

"For the film looks at culture clashes, opens up deep family secrets and poses moral questions in the context of an arranged wedding in New Delhi. It draws both raucuous comedy and wounding trauma from the continual cultural collision that is modern-day India," continues Kehr. "It is a handsome, engaging, good-natured piece of work."

TIFF, one of the best attended of world film festivals and which has shown over 300 films and documentaries (out of 2500 nominated) from over 50 countries, is considered a great place to create Oscar buzz. The festival is almost considered an American event. "It is across the American border and seems like a special screening event for Hollywood filmmakers," says Philipp Jean, one of the festival organisers.

Some of the hot films at TIFF that went on to win the Oscars are American Beauty and Shakespeare In Love.

Between Monsoon Wedding and Lagaan, the former stands a better chance of getting the Oscar nomination.

The Academy members, who see the films nominated by their respective countries and choose just five of them for the foreign Oscar nod, are notorious for their short attention span. Many films are shut down after a mere 20 minutes of viewing.

Only two Indian films, Mother India, made by Mehboob Khan in the 1950s and Salaam Bombay, Mira Nair's debut film in 1988, have ever been nominated for foreign Oscar.

Gandhi, which won major Oscar awards, was a British and Indian co-production but was generally seen as a British film.

Several critics and industry members feel the shorter the film, the more its chances of holding the judges' attention. Monsoon Wedding, whose running time is less than half of the 300-plus minutes of Lagaan stands a better chance, they say.

But those like Vikram Jayanti, coproducer of the 1997 Oscar winner documentary, When We Were Kings, is convinced that, like himself, viewers will not notice how long Lagaan is.

"It is precisely the kind of crossover film from India that America could embrace," he says.

Among other films that have created strong Oscar buzz are a handful of Iranian films -- Bayan, a political satire; Delbaran, set in an one-camel town near the Afghanistan border, dealing with the exploitation of Afghan refugees in Iran; and Kandhar, which also deals with the Afghan refugee issue as well as the status of women in Iran.

A deeply psychological film dealing with deteriorating relationships and sexual oppression in suburban Austria, Dog Days, which was run over at Venice by Nair's wedding saga but nevertheless won the second top award there, could be a formidable challenger at the Oscars.

The Austrian film has also many sadomasochistic scenes and an orgy scene that lasts for nearly three minutes, which many critics believe have no artistic value. But there is no denying that Dog Days, a raw, passionate film, does not forget its humanity.

The Italian film, Son's Room, dealing with how a therapist tries to face the untimely death of his teen son, and which won the top award at Cannes earlier this year, is another potential Oscar winner in the foreign films category.

It is being distributed in America by Miramax, many of whose films including Shakespeare In Love and Cider House Rules have gone to win Oscars in recent years.

Out of the French entries, the two that created a lot of discussion at TIFF are Time Out, a gripping political drama, and Amelie, a poetic fantasy which is also a huge box-office winner in France, having grossed over $45 million there, and at least $15 million in a handful of European countries where it is now showing.

At least one Canadian film, the Indian drama, Atanarjuat, a three-hour long epic that is both esoteric and approachable, was a big favourite at Cannes. Made with newcomer actors, the film is slow moving but has quite a bit of emotional punch. It got some of the best reviews for a TIFF film.

A handful of mainstream American films that came to TIFF also created the Oscar buzz, especially Training Day, in which Denzel Washington plays a Los Angeles narcotic cop whose efforts to shut down the smugglers and their gangs, push him into deep moral dilemmas and unpleasant choices.

Fast-paced, gripping and yet grimy, the $50 million film may not be a huge box-office hit initially. But with critical rave and several Oscar nods, its popularity could grow. It also has a terrific performance by Ethan Hawke as the novice being trained by Washington and who is forced him to confront his own moral choices.

Another mainstream film that has Oscar written all over is the British import, Last Orders, directed by Fred Schepisi (Russia House) from the Booker Prize-winning novel by Graham Swift.

The movie, which was reportedly made for $20 million -- one third the average cost of an Hollywood film -- revolves around four friends who gather at a London pub to carry out the last wishes of their dead friend. It stars Michael Caine as the dead butcher, and also features Bob Hoskins and Tom Courtney.

Monsoon Wedding: Buzzword at Toronto
A wedding to remember
Mira made us feel very special'
'Mira's a visionary'
The Mira Nair chat on Rediff
Lagaan: Reena's third baby

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