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India finally picks the right movie as its Oscar contender

The country with the world’s most prolific film industry has never won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film.

But many feel India has a chance to reverse a six-decade curse with “Court,” a quietly searing portrayal of the country’s justice system, which critics and film festivals have adored.

The independent Marathi-language feature, with no stars and a production budget of less than $600,000, is a far cry from the lavish Bollywood musicals for which India is better known. Chaitanya Tamhane, 28, wrote and directed the story of a folk singer who is accused of causing a sewage worker to commit suicide with his music.

The film raises thorny issues of caste, class, injustice and political corruption — aspects of everyday life that mainstream Indian cinema almost never touches. After winning top honors at the Venice Film Festival a year ago, “Court” has racked up awards and secured limited screenings around the world, including in the U.S.

Vivek Gomber, a theater actor from Mumbai who co-stars in the film and put up most of the production money himself, said he was gratified by the praise but understood why India is frustrated about its Oscar history. Only three Indian films have been nominated as one of the final five in the foreign-language film category, the most recent being “Lagaan” in 2001. (“Slumdog Millionaire,” though set in India and co-directed with Danny Boyle by India’s Loveleen Tandan, was a British production.)

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“We all feel we’re such a big country, we have been around a long time and have such a great history of film — and there’s also a sense of why aren’t we up there yet” at the Oscars, Gomber said. “I don’t know why that is.”

The motion pictury academy allows countries to select their nominees in the category, and like many, India’s selection process has been described as highly politicized. The Film Federation of India, the 16-member jury that decides India’s official entry each year, works in secret and has made what some consider questionable choices.

In 2013, movie fans were left scratching their heads after the federation selected a little-known regional film over the widely acclaimed “The Lunchbox.”

“We will never know what their internal working process was, but they were certainly not working in the interest of an Indian film winning an Oscar,” longtime film writer Aseem Chhabra lamented at the time.

Chhabra reported Thursday on the Rediff.com website that “Court” won a slim majority of votes among the jury. But the selection won praise from many in the film industry. Powerhouse Bollywood producer Karan Johar called it “undeniably a great decision.”

Gomber, who was with Tamhane in Japan, where the film was screening at a festival in Fukuoka, said the acclaim for “Court” was a positive sign for India’s independent cinema, which has struggled to win even a small audience in a Bollywood-obsessed country.

This year, another Marathi film from India, “Masaan,” won two awards at the Cannes Film Festival and was well received by Indian audiences, while a smaller Kannada-language film, “Thithi,” recently bagged honors at a festival in Locarno, Italy.

“As we’ve been fortunate to go through these festivals, we see a lot of Indian films being showcased,” Gomber said. “Every year, we’re getting closer. There is change the industry is becoming more tolerant.”


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