Most kids, at some point of their childhood or adolescence, have enacted winning an Oscar. They have either delivered the victory speech with a comb in their hands, or pretended that their shampoo bottle was the coveted trophy, and that’s how the ‘dream’ of an Oscar had been a part of many people’s childhood.
However, for adults, especially those in the film businesses across the world, winning an Oscar is more than just a dream. It is the ultimate validation of an individual’s talent, a stamp of approval from the film fraternity and an honour that few in their lifetime receives, irrespective of how many popular and ‘good’ films they do. In the past, the Oscars award was also clique-y which means only a certain kind of people won it, and mostly white priviledged men got to decide who these people were.
Needless to say that the Academy Awards were also strictly Hollywood-centric until South Korean film, ‘Parasite’ lifted the trophy for being the Best Picture in 2020. The award show was (and continues to be) very white, where people from other ethnicities seldom got recognition. However, every now-and-then an Indian of exceptional talent and genius had made his/her way, through the coterie of few priviledged white men, and won the prestigious trophy and made India proud at the global stage.
Bhanu Athaiya (1983)
The first person to forge her way through and win this prestigious award was Bhanu Athaiya. A Kolhapuri girl, and the daughter of an artist and photographer who worked in film production, Athaiya began her career in Mumbai as a fashion illustrator for a women’s magazine, while getting her degree at an art school. From there, she moved on designing costumes for Bollywood films in the 1950s. While Athaiya worked for many well-known film-makers in her five decade long career and also won several national awards, international acclaim for the costume designer came when she brought home an Oscar for best costume design for the film, ‘Gandhi’, a biopic on Mahatma Gandhi directed by the famous film-maker, Richard Attenborough.
Athaiya shared the trophy for Best Costume Design with acclaimed British designer John Mollo. She accepted the award in a sea-blue saree, and in her winning speech, the designer said, “ It’s too good to believe. Thank you to the Academy, and thank you to sir Attenborough for focusing world attention on India.”
Satyajit Ray (1992)
Satyajit Ray, the Indian film-maker with avant-garde cinematic language, had in his lifetime been the recipient of several awards. Ray changed Indian film-making forever with his debut movie, ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955)which he shot with an inexperience crew and on a shoestring budget. The film also catapulted Ray to International fame, as it won an award at Cannes.’Pather Panchali’ was the first installment of the trilogy which was completed by ‘Aparajito’ (1956) and ‘Apur Sansar’ (1956).
The film-maker won several accolades for these three film, including international awards at Berlin. Other popular and critically acclaimed works by Ray include ‘Mahanagar’ (1963), ‘Charulata’ (1964), ‘Nayak’ (1966) and ‘Ashani Sanket’ (1973).
In 1992, the Academy Awards decided to celebrate Ray’s cinematic genius by awarding him an honorary Oscar for his prolific film portfolio with a humane outlook, that had garnered love and respect across the world. The award was presented by actress Audrey Hepburn, and in his acceptance speech, Ray said, “Well, it’s an extraordinary experience for me to be here tonight to receive this magnificent award; certainly the best achievement of my movie-making career. When I was a small, small school boy, I was terribly interested in the cinema. Became a film fan, wrote to Deanna Durbin. Got a reply, was delighted. Wrote to Ginger Rogers, didn’t get a reply. Then of course, I got interested in the cinema as an art form, and I wrote a twelve-page letter to Billy Wilder after seeing “Double Indemnity.” He didn’t reply either. Well, there you are. I have learned everything I’ve learned about the craft of cinema from the making of American films.”
The film-maker further added, “I’ve been watching American films very carefully over the years and I loved them for what they entertain, and then later loved them for what they taught. So, I express my gratitude to the American cinema, to the motion picture association who have given me this award and who have made me feel so proud. Thank you very, very much.”
AR Rahman (2009)
AR Rahman created history in 2009 by becoming the first ever Indian to win two Academy Awards in a single night. The composer bagged the awards for the original score for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and for the hugely popular global hit ‘Jai Ho.’ in 2009. Rahman, by then, was an already accomplished composer and had worked with all the big directors of Bollywood.
However, the Oscars win pushed Rahman towards global stardom. After being a part of Danny Bolye’s ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ Rahman went on to get two more Oscar nominations in 2011 for his original score and song for Boyle’s ‘127 Hours’.
In his acceptance speech at the 2009 Oscars ceremony, Rahman said, “Before coming, I was excited and terrified. The last time I felt like that was during my marriage. There’s a dialogue from a Hindi film, called “Mere paas ma hai,” which means, “I have nothing but I have a mother.” So mother’s here, her blessings are there with me. I am grateful for her to have come all the way. And I want to thank the Academy for being so kind, all the jury members. I want to thank Sam Schwartz, I/D PR, all the crew of ‘Slumdog,’ Mr. Gulzar, Raqueeb Alam, Blaaze, my musicians in Chennai and Mumbai.”
He ended the speech by saying, Ella puhazhum iraivanukke which means ‘God is great’.
Gulzar, AR Rahman and Resul Pookutty won awards for their works in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’
Resul Pookutty (2009)
Pookutty brought home the Academy Award for Best Sound Mixing in 2009 for his work in Danny Boyle’s film, for which Rahman won the Best Original Score and Best Original Song.
Pookutty, also known as the sound wizard, has a rags-to-riches story and had risen up the ladder of filmmaking on the power of his sheer talent. He belonged to Vilakkupara, a small village in Kerala’s Kollam district, and had to walk 6 km to the nearest school and study under the light of a kerosene lamp as there was no electricity in the village. From there to the Oscars stage, his journey has been inspirational to say the least.
During his acceptance speech, Pookutty said, “This is an incredible moment. My life will never be the same again!…Not even in dreams did I imagine that I would get such a big honour. I am particularly happy that I got an award for a film that was shot in my favourite city, Mumbai.”
He dedicated his win to his country, India and the film industry in which he has worked and made a name for himself. ”I am really proud that I could do this for my country. I’m thrilled that I am winning this award for India,” he said at the award ceremony.
2009 was the year of India’s domination at the Oscars stage as not two but three individuals won the trophy for their work in ‘Slumdog Millionaire’. The third person to get the coveted award that year was the talented lyricist, poet and writer, Gulzar.
The lyricist shared the trophy of the Best Original Song with Rahman for ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and although he wasn’t present at the ceremony he later said in interviews that he was astonished to receive the honour and obviously elated that his song resonated with people across the world.