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Oscar fever subsides: Wrong choices?

Subhash K. Jha
25 February 2013

Mumbai, Feb 25 (IANS) So in spite of some scathing pre-Oscar reviews criticising it for turning a real political episode into a populist drama, actor-turned-director Ben Afflect's "Argo" won the golden statuette for the best picture.

And they couldn't have chosen better. From the over-studied historicity of Steven Spielberg's "Lincoln", and the flamboyant feyness of David O'Russell's "The Silver Linings Playbook" to the cold calculated terror chronicle in Katheryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark 30" and the lumbering lyricism of Ang Lee's "Life Of Pi" -- this was the year when the Oscars went to the most undeserving.

Or so it seemed when lobbies bellowed fire and ire against "Argo" for distorting facts pertaining to a 1980 hostage situation in Iran. As though a heightened watchability level of a film automatically eliminates it from the hall of excellence!

By that reckoning, "Lincoln" and "Life Of Pi" were the the most deserving Oscar contenders of the year. Laboured "Lincoln" and "Life Of Pi" in their effort to put the written word into visual terms scored high marks. But both films suffered from an overdose of italicised ideation and an exaggerated sense of self-importance.

"Lincoln" chose to put forward Abraham Lincoln's fight for American Civil Rights with such slavish civility that we were left watching a good two-and-a-half hours of a tale that seemed sponsored by the American Dream.

As for the much-vaunted "Life Of Pi", Ang Lee left one feeling ang-ry. Very angry. The film is a luminously lit, but literal, interpretation of the book, and that monologue where, when interrogated by Japanese officials, Pi (Suraj Sharma) launches into various hypothetical situations that could have arisen in his journey from shipwreck on the high seas to existential marooning on an island of the mind, I felt I was being read out chapters from the book in a voice that didn't quite convey the power to render words into powerful visuals.

What made "Life Of Pi" so loved? Was it the idea of a boy alone on a boat with a Royal Bengal tiger? Or was it just the fascination of watching an adventure tale unfold in painfully detailed welters and waves with the cinematography pelting paeans of poetry into a film that obstinately opts for a prose rendering?

I don't know why... "Life Of Pi" left me profoundly underwhelmed.

Katheryn Bigelow's tale of Osama's capture was so full of muted sound and unbridled fury, I felt as tortured as some of the bad guys who are graphically tortured by CIA heroes in the film. Bigelow's rendering of 'Pakistan' was far from satisfactory. That could be because she shot the film in Punjab pretending it was Osama-garh. We knew it.

While Bigelow is big on creating the turmoil of terror, I felt the film was trying much too hard to be a scrupulous take on the events that led to Osama's capture and death. It was like watching a political drama from the other end of "Argo", the dry, staccato, sterile and deliberately wry and sardonic end.

"Zero Dark 30" is a powerful film. But it is not a great film. It got its political point across correctly. But it missed that transcendental converging point where "High Art meets Great Cinema".

Luckily for us, Anupam Kher was more than a token Indian presence in "Silver Linings Playbook". But this was again a film that was much too verbose.

Why did we have so many Oscar nominated films this year where the characters spoke too much and too quickly? Is cinema now as afraid of silences as we are?

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