Canada has set a record for foreign Oscar submissions by nominating a Hindi-language film, the Deepa Mehta-directed Water.
It could do so only because, three months ago, Oscar rules were changed to allow a country to nominate a film that isn't in its indigenous language as long as English is not the dominant language in the film.
The Oscar nomination has, for several years, been the subject of bitter controversies over the language issue. A milestone was the rejection in 2003 of The Warrior.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences took the unusual step of rejecting the movie because 'Hindi was not a language indigenous to the UK.' It overlooked the fact that the film had a British-born director, Asif Kapadia, and was co-produced by three British companies. In an ironic twist, The Warrior, (right) set in feudal India and starring Irrfan Khan, won Best British Film at the British Academy Awards the following year.
Language was also the problem last year, when Austria's entry, Michael Haneke's French-language thriller Cache -- for which he won Best Director at Cannes -- was rejected. So was Italy's political drama Private, featuring Arabic and Hebrew.
In a previous interview, Mehta had said that completing Water, which inaugurated last year's Toronto International Film Festival, was by itself hugely fulfilling, especially in the light of the project being shut down by religious fundamentalists in Varanasi over four years ago. The film exposes the sexual and other kinds of oppression in a widow's ashram in the 1930s where the most beautiful of the widows (Lisa Ray) has to prostitute herself to support fellow widows. John Abraham plays a Gandhian idealist and Seema Biswas, the silently rebellious older widow.
"It has been going to many festivals," Mehta said of the film, which went to become the most successful Hindi film in North America, grossing $5.4 million. "And if it gets an Oscar nomination, it will be a very big boost for a small film." Made for about $3 million, the film has grossed about $8 million worldwide.
Delhi-raised Mehta has made Toronto her home for over two decades and Water is the most successful of the seven films she has made in 15 years. The films include Camilla, with Jessica Tandy and Bridget Fonda. Her newest film, which received some of the best reviews of the year -- 'luminous' (Chicago Sun Times) and 'a work of gorgeous fury' (Village Voice) -- is also doing well on video, having grossed about $2 million in DVD rentals in the US in just about 10 days. The DVD includes Mehta's commentary on the film, two behind-the-scenes featurettes that give an inside look into the struggles to make the film, and how she finally resurrected the project in Sri Lanka two years ago.
Hindi is also heard for more than 15 minutes in the Danish foreign Oscar entry, the Susanne Bier-directed After the Wedding. It revolves around a Danish social worker in Mumbai who has to make a sudden trip to Copenhagen, assuring his little friends at the orphanage that he will return. But when he does, he is not the same person. Will Pramod, his buddy at the orphanage, accept a tempting offer from the Danish social worker?
Among other notable nominees so far is another Toronto International Film Festival triumph, the grippingly disturbing drama from Germany, The Lives of Others, about East Germany's Stasi secret service and its system of domestic spying. Finland has nominated Aki Kaurismaki's Lights in the Dusk, a story about a lonely night watchman trapped in a series of misadventures.
If Water gets a nomination, it could be re-released in select American and Canadian cities. The film was released in America by Fox Searchlight, which will release Mira Nair's The Namesake in March.
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences will announce the five international nominees on January 23. The 79th Annual Academy Awards will take place on February 25.