Director: Salim Ahamed
Cast: Tovino Thomas, Siddique, Anu Sithara
Cinematographer: Madhu Ambat
Salim Ahamed’s And The Oscar Goes To opens to a sequence that has become the most cliched in Malayalam mainstream cinema off-late. It begins from a packed movie hall where the screening of a classic film is on, and ends inside a hospital right next to the building, where the protagonist of the film, Issaak, is being born. The camera zooms in to show the baby’s ears twitching, in response to the dialogues thundering from the movie hall. This mythification of the hero, to assert that he was destined to do great things (here, to be an exceptional filmmaker), contradicts the dramatic restraint in the rest of the film.
Issaak Ibrahim (Tovino Thomas) grows up to be a sunny young man obsessed with cinema and an ambition to be a filmmaker. He had a modest youth, spent in watching films in his village’s movie theatres and at the state capital’s international film festivals. In his twenties, finally, he gets down to directing a feature film, like he always wanted. When the film becomes India’s official Oscar entry, cash-strapped and shy Issaak has to take it to Los Angeles and sell it to the Academy members. Issaak does everything he can, like a sincere but average parent who doesn’t know how to support his genius kid.
And The Oscar Goes To is sympathetic to its protagonist, as are Ahamed’s other films. The focus is on the kindness Issaak discovers in various places, often unexpectedly, when he needs it the most. There is a scene, while making his film, where he is told of a crew member who swindled him. But the highlight of the scene isn’t this information, but the generousness of a house owner who decides to let the film crew shoot the film in his house for free since he was deeply moved by its story. After the film wins accolades, Issaak runs into an old friend, an assistant filmmaker with years of experience in the industry (Vettukili Prakashan) who hugs him tight and showers him with love. He tells Issaak of a directorial debut that might, finally, take off soon. But when he walks away into darkness, laughing at himself, you feel the invisible depression that he has been shrouding in this display of optimism. The film is sincere in its portrayal of people in the movie business in a tiny regional film industry, who struggle to find a balance between the market pressures and art.
Issaak Ibrahim is from an idyllic north Kerala village, uncannily similar to the one where Ahamed’s debut directorial, Adaminte Makan Abu (Abu, The Son Of Adam, 2011) was set. It is not coincidental. This is a semi-autobiographical film where Ahamed opens up to the world about the many hardships he suffered while making his first film and after it was chosen as India’s official entry to Academy Awards’ Foreign Language film section in 2011. It was, indeed, a dream debut. The film, which narrated a humble tale of a poverty-stricken old couple’s searing desire to go on an annual Hajj pilgrimage, went on to become one of the brightest indie films from the country that year. It was screened at a bunch of famed international film festivals, including the BFI London Film Festival, before it began its Oscar journey. The film wasn’t nominated to the list of 15, and Salim went back to making films in Malayalam.
For a movie centred around the process of filmmaking, And The Oscar Goes To is terribly misconceived. An awful misspelling of a name (‘Asgar Farhadi’) in an early scene hangs in the film’s atmosphere, reminding you of the lack of attention paid to details. Cinematography by veteran DoP Madhu Ambat is uninspiring for a large part, a blame that has to be shared by the film’s production design department, resulting in visuals that look like stock images. But what hurts the film more is its lacklustre writing. The film’s depiction of Issaak’s personal relationship with the medium of cinema is shallow. A quick montage juxtaposes various stages of his life against vignettes of popular Indian films from the respective era (Sholay, Drishyam..), but it doesn’t examine the question of why he wants to be a filmmaker. What drives him – the whistles inside the movie hall, the cut-outs of stars on the streets and the glitz of the industry, or is it a genuine need for self-expression?
And The Oscar Goes To, it turns out, is less about the process of movie-making than it’s about how a work of art from a third-world country is received in the corridors of Los Angeles, where it’s sold to an audience like a piece of cake at a posh dinner party. The American sales agent, hired to sell the film to the Academy members, mistreats Issaak, humiliates him for his poverty and asks him to get out of the country and never return. The filmmaker suffers in silence, always putting on a smile. Strangely, the film is passive about these episodes of harassment Issaak undergoes. It takes us on a tour of Issaak’s ordeals in Los Angeles – a lengthy sequence shows him going days without a proper meal – but never raises the question of ‘why’. Does Issaak really need the validation of an American film market which favours the richest and brutally pulls down the poor? How should an artiste from a third world country measure himself? Rather than asking questions and provoking the audience to think, Ahamed’s film confines itself to the mainstream trope of romanticising optimism and the concept of a ‘dreamer’. This renders the sentimentalism in the final sequences appear ineffective and set-up.
Tovino Thomas, who is off-late the busiest male lead actor in Malayalam film industry, delivers an earnest performance as the very likeable hero. Thomas’ portrayal of Issaak as a mild-mannered man is immensely moving. Anu Sithara and Siddique play sub-characters without a great arc, but the actors’ on-screen charisma help flesh out the roles beyond what is on the paper. When the curtain falls, one can’t help thinking how more interesting these characters would have been in a different, smarter film. And The Oscar Goes To concludes as a half-hearted commercial drama which isn’t witty to win over the mainstream film audience. The film is reluctant to go over to the other side too, to break popular understandings, explore grey areas of human emotions, and seek answers to difficult questions. Issaak, like Ahamed, is a well-meaning story-teller, but to make a great film, you need much more.
This And The Oscar Goes To review is a Silverscreen original article. It was not paid for or commissioned by anyone associated with the film. Silverscreen.in and its writers do not have any commercial relationship with movies that are reviewed on the site.