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As the Oscars sets new rules, where is the inclusion debate for Indian cinema?

Unlike Hollywood, where inclusion riders and #OscarsSoWhite are part of the conversation, Indian cinema has yet to reckon with the many communities it excludes

Bong Joon Ho and the cast of 'Parasite' pose at the 92nd Academy Awards
Bong Joon Ho and the cast of 'Parasite' pose at the 92nd Academy Awards

On 8 September, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, the body that hands out the Oscars, announced a new set of diversity rules. These were part of their Academy Aperture 2025 initiative, “designed to encourage equitable representation on and off screen in order to better reflect the diversity of the movie-going audience". They will come into effect in the 96th Oscars, to be held in 2024. Only by fulfilling these criteria can a film be eligible for a Best Picture nomination.

There are four broad “standards", out of which two will have to be met by the film in question. Each standard in turn can be met by fulfilling one or two sub-categories. Standard A is “Onscreen representation, themes and narratives", which looks at diversity in the main or supporting cast or the film’s subject matter. Standard B is “Creative leadership or project team"—diversity in the crew. Standard C is “Industry access and opportunities"—whether the film company offers training or internships to underrepresented sections. Standard D is “Audience development"—representation in the film company’s marketing, publicity or distribution teams.

While unprecedented, this move by the Academy isn’t altogether surprising. After #OscarsSoWhite trended in 2015, they started to move towards a more inclusive voting body with their A2020 initiative. While this may yield a more diverse slate in years to come, evidence of that has till now been minimal. At this year’s Oscars, only one of the nominees across the four acting categories was black. None of the Best Film or Best Director nominees was black either (the lone Asian director, Bong Joon-ho, won both prizes and made the Oscars look more open-minded than they probably were). The Academy would be hoping these new rules bring about more visible change, or at least insulate them against criticism.

The Academy’s move generated varying degrees of scepticism, from those who said it’ll give rise to tokenism and stifle creativity to others who felt the criteria are broad and too easily achievable. But at the very least, it’s a significant addition to an ongoing conversation about diversity—one which Indian film is barely having. Though there may be an increase in the number of female directors, writers and department heads in the past few years, women (and women's stories) are still underrepresented. Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi stories and professionals are barely represented at all, especially in Hindi cinema; neither is the LGBTQI+ community.

Neeraj Ghaywan, director of Masaan, which played at the 2015 Cannes Film Festival, and whose protagonist is from the Dom caste, says Hindi film is way behind in addressing diversity issues. “Forget about laying out diversity rules or inclusion riders, we don’t even acknowledge we have an alarming diversity problem. Black population is over 13% in America. There are thousands of legendary black artists—singers, musicians, writers, directors, actors – you can think of. Can you name a single Dalit/Adivasi artist here? We don’t have a single acknowledged Dalit/Adivasi artist in all of Hindi film industry history. In front and behind the camera."

“Dalit and Adivasi population is roughly 26%," Ghaywan added. “OBC is 43%. So technically, we have excluded and ghosted 70% of our country’s population in the film industry. If we aren’t acknowledging this as an urgent problem then it is a cruel joke to even begin comparing with Hollywood diversity. We are at least a century behind on this."

Smriti Kiran, artistic director of the Mumbai Film Festival, believes that change, if brought in at an institutional or organisational level, would be more effective than imposing criteria, which could lead to tokenism. At the same time, she admits that right now there’s no overarching body with the clout of the Academy that might push change here. “We don’t have bodies that hold us accountable," she says. “Inclusion is nobody’s priority. It’s driven by individual passion."

The change right now is limited to a few people. Ghaywan told The Wire that from his first film he has ensured that women comprise at least 50% of his crew. In 2019, he put out a call on Twitter for assistant directors and assistant writers from Dalit, Bahujan and Adivasi backgrounds (the controversy this simple action generated is an indication of the uphill task of bringing about wider representation). Non-Hindi cinemas have generally done better with inclusion, bringing forth stories about underrepresented groups and allowing people from the communities to tell them. In particular there’s the example of Pa Ranjith, who in addition to directing Kaala has produced Mari Selvaraj's Pariyerum Perumal, launched an initiative to support women and transgender filmmakers from marginalised communities, and founded the Casteless Collective, a musical ensemble that seeks to fight discrimination and raise awareness.

Laudable as these efforts have been, real change might only begin once the big names start to get involved. “It begins with the stars," Kiran says. “People who have commercial clout. They have the real power here. It has to be them and the studios. And the media that has to consistently hold the ecosystem responsible. These are really the first steps." When Frances McDormand ended her Best Actress Oscar acceptance speech in 2018 by saying “I have two words to leave with you tonight, ladies and gentlemen: inclusion rider", the attendees knew what she was talking about. That would likely not be the case at an awards function here. For progress to happen, we need to move beyond the debate on nepotism and initiate a larger one on who gets to represent our cinema to us.

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