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S. S. Rajamouli, poses with the Best Foreign Language Film for RRR at the 28th annual Critics Choice Awards in Los Angeles, on Jan. 15.AUDE GUERRUCCI/Reuters

More than a decade ago, when the Hindi film Dhobi Ghat premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, its lead actor Aamir Khan had a very pragmatic response to my question about how popular Hindi films were viewed by a non-Indian audience.

“Indian films have just one role to fulfil,” he said, fixing me with a stare and an ironic smile, a look he used to full effect in Dhobi Ghat. “They need to entertain Indian audiences. Bas. (That’s it).”

At the time, Indian films were conflated with the razzle-dazzle of Bollywood – melodramatic and vibrant films full of singing and dancing. The concept of Indian independent cinema, whose origins can be traced back to the beginnings of India’s silent films in the 1920s, wasn’t well-known. Although part of the latest wave of Indian independent cinema, the poetic and dreamy Dhobi Ghat, featuring Bollywood celebrity Khan as a jaded artist, was being feted at TIFF and beyond for its naturalism.

This was almost a decade after Khan had led a protracted campaign for Lagaan: Once Upon A Time in India at the 2002 Academy Awards. I remember watching clips of Khan, director Ashutosh Gowariker and a few other members of the film’s crew at the 74th Oscars, grinning in their formal Indian outfits as they hobnobbed with Hollywood heavyweights and other international film celebrities.

Nominated in the best foreign language film category, the Lagaan team was representing a popular, period Hindi film about a ragtag bunch of villagers taking on their colonial masters at a game of cricket. It lost out to Bosnia’s No Man’s Land, a deeply moving film about the absurdity of war.

While I am happy for RRR’s success at theatres across North America and its best original song Oscar nomination for the pulsating Naatu Naatu, I’m bemused and perplexed by the attention that it is getting. This is especially true in a year when the Academy left Viola Davis and Danielle Deadwyler – both Black – off the list of best actress nominees while surprisingly including white actress Andrea Riseborough, fuelling continuing debates about systemic issues around nomination decisions.

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I’m not even touching RRR’s subtle overtones of the current political discourse in India, its questionable depiction of caste politics and its total disregard for female characters. Taking out all the quibbles I have with the film, it’s a fun watch with trademark directorial flourishes by S.S. Rajamouli: the cinematography, the visual effects and the slow-motion everything. Nevertheless, I am genuinely curious as to why this period film about the colonized striking back at the empire, bringing the jungle with them in fantastic CGI glory, was able to build a zeitgeist around itself.

This isn’t about Hindi cinema versus Telegu or any other Indian-language cinema, either. As Parasite director Bong Joon-ho of South Korea said in his 2020 Oscar acceptance speech, “Once you overcome the one-inch tall barrier of subtitles, you will be introduced to so many more amazing films.” There are all sorts of films coming out of India, and other parts of South Asia, which deserve a wider audience despite sometimes poor subtitling.

In fact, it was disappointing when Joyland, Pakistan’s submission to the Oscars’ best international feature film category, did not make the final cut. When it played at TIFF last September, it moved audiences to tears with its deeply empathetic depiction of a trans woman’s life and the repercussions of her relationship with a married man. It’s a view of contemporary Pakistani society that is rarely seen in any sort of popular media.

At the same time, there are two Indian films competing in the documentary categories: the feature-length All That Breathes and the short doc The Elephant Whisperers. While the poetic All That Breathes defies a traditional documentary narrative to tell a story about two brothers running a hospital for scavenger birds called black kites, The Elephant Whisperers is an unlikely love story and a nature documentary.

What to make, then, of RRR, whose only Oscar nomination is in a musical category? There’s a lot of song-and-dance involved in running an Oscar campaign for your film, which the RRR team has clearly been invested in. It has been a pleasure watching the on-screen bromance between lead actors Ram Charan and N.T. Rama Rao Junior playing out on the Golden Globes red carpet, or Charan going solo on Good Morning America to the thrill of the local Indian diaspora.

The film might even win for Nattu Nattu – a song that I personally find relentlessly effusive, and which will be performed live during the broadcast Sunday night. (Give me the ebullience of the Malayalam song Entammede Jimikki Kammal or the insouciance of the Tamil song Rowdy Baby any day.) And then?

Will more people become aware of the multilingual film traditions from India? There will likely always be an audience – local and international – for Indian period films. After all, the mythical Indian past is ripe for all sorts of cinematic indulgences, from costumes and design to plots full of passion and intrigue.

There’s more to Indian cinema than period films, however, no matter what language they are in. The box-office success of a Hindi movie like Pathaan, for example, makes talk of an Oscar nomination almost tangential. There’s no way that a movie whose success relies simply on the charisma of its three lead actors (Shah Rukh Khan, Deepika Padukone and John Abraham), with a barely-there plot about spies and international intrigue, will ever have an Oscar nomination.

The Oscars still need to do a lot of soul searching when it comes to representing cinematic excellence within Hollywood and English-language cinema, forget about reflecting languages and cultures from around the world. Even if Nattu Nattu ends up winning in its category, it’s hard to say if it will open any more doors for other Indian filmmakers or music composers. I doubt that it will encourage deep dives into the work of Rajamouli, or Telugu-language cinema or South Indian films by a general audience, either.

Then again, as Khan said, a film’s first concern should be to entertain its audience. RRR did that, and then some. And it should be lauded for that.

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