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Representation Does Not Necessarily Mean Inclusion, But I Enjoyed Watching the Diverse 95th Academy Awards

Representation Does Not Necessarily Mean Inclusion, But I Enjoyed Watching the Diverse 95th Academy Awards

  • The following is the opinion, not of a professional critic (whatever that means), but of a filmy-at-heart, 1st generation Indian American.

I was particularly excited to watch the Oscars this year because I’ve seen 5 of the 10 nominated films for Best Picture. Normally that would be 100%, but this year had an unusually high number of nominations. 

The 95th Annual Oscars! I didn’t even know we had movies in 1928, let alone enough movies to have an Awards show for them. 

Jimmy Kimmel opened with a parody video compilation of all the films nominated for best film. I enjoyed the simplicity of Kimmel’s style — there were no gags, musical numbers, extravagant costumes, and/or props. He threw in some political jokes, like making fun of Q-Anon, but mainly it was Hollywood making fun of itself. He also made it a point to mention, at every opportunity he got, that the show was going to go much longer than it was supposed to. I think it’s about time the Academy accepts that the show is four hours long and starts programming it correctly.  

The big news for the desi community this time was the hit Telugu song “Naatu Naatu,” being nominated for best original song, bringing along with it, a live performance featuring the singers and dancers. Having just won this year’s Golden Globe, it was very likely the song would win the Oscar too. I was pleasantly surprised to see Deepika Padukone presenting the song’s performance. She was very endearing, with her cute joke, “If you haven’t heard about Naatu, you’re about tu.” She looked as beautiful as ever, and her moments of giggling as the audience members cheered for her made me think that was a big, special moment in her life as well. It also made me wonder why the Academy chose to fly in Deepika from halfway around the world, and not have their own hometown girl Priyanka Chopra do the honors. I wonder if Priyanka felt slighted for this? Or maybe she wasn’t getting paid enough? Or she’s busy with her little one right now? It’s not something I will never know — so my curiosity is fleeting at best. 

I digress. 

Malala Yousafzai with her her husband Asser Malik at the 2023 Oscars. Top photo, Ram Charan and Deepika Padukone at the Oscars.

I really enjoyed the performance of the annoyingly catchy “Naatu Naatu.” Even as I type the words, the song is pulsating in my brain. I can see why it won — everyone was hypnotized by its tune. Seeing the singers perform was particularly delightful. Indian cinema doesn’t celebrate its singers the way it celebrates its actors. That is slowly, but surely changing, and performance opportunities like this are stepping stones to more equality in the celebration of talent. The dance was super high energy, as expected, and the signature dance move leaves you thinking about how talented these actors are. 

My favorite audience moment was seeing Malala. She was wearing a sparkly silver outfit, with a built-in hoodie to cover her head.

However, one could not help but notice, that all the background dancers were all white men. I’ve heard through the grapevine that a prominent Bollywood dancer and choreographer based in Los Angeles reached out to the Academy to participate in the ‘Naatu Naatu’ performance. She was declined, stating (and I paraphrase) “We prefer to work with people we are familiar with.”

Oh, Oscar. You try so hard every year to get it right. #oscarsowhite led you to gather all the colors you could find and highlight them all. We’ve easily seen more representation of non-white films in the last decade than all the previous Oscars combined. But they fail to see that “representation” is not the same as “inclusion.” This was an opportunity to bring all of India’s community — both in India and the diaspora — together in a celebration of what I believe is the greatest contribution of the Indus region to the world — its music. And, they failed to hit the mark. Ughhhhhh! SMH. Next time Oscar … you’ll get it next time. I still haven’t lost hope in you … despite the fact that I HATED some of the films you nominated for best picture.  

Ke Huy Quan’s emotional acceptance speech (Best Supporting Actor) was another stand-out moment. I didn’t know he was the small Asian kid in “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.” His journey as an immigrant who lived at a refugee camp for a year, all the way to winning this Oscar – what a journey that must be. And now a new phase of this incredible journey begins. As he said, elated and overwhelmed “This is the American dream!” 

On a side note: I remember what a big deal it was when us desis heard that Amrish Puri was going to be the villain in a major Hollywood movie. The legendary Mogambo and his crazy eyes — I swear, that guy could go minutes without blinking. We were just so excited to see our country’s name/actor/“culture” shown until we had to explain to people out here that we don’t eat monkey brains and baby snakes. 

“The Elephant Whisperers,” bagged the Best Documentary Short. Director Kartiki Gonsalves, wearing a very beautiful gown, used this prestigious platform to speak about unity and peaceful coexistence. When her producer Guneet approached the mic, the orchestra started playing, cutting off this poor woman who ultimately was unable to say anything. I cringed in my seat as I watched. 

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I missed watching the red carpet arrivals this year, but some of my faves were Salma Hayek, looking ravishing in an orange sparkly, fringe dress. I can’t believe she’s 56 years old. Halle Berry looked absolutely beautiful in an incredibly elegant, yet blingy, gown (she’s also 56!) My favorite audience moment, however, was seeing Malala. She was wearing a sparkly silver outfit, with a built-in hoodie to cover her head. Kimmel approached Malala with a prank question about Spitgate 2023 (did celebrity X spit on celebrity Y). She quipped back almost immediately, “I only talk about peace.” Go Malala. I actually felt irritated by the stupid question. I can imagine Malala pondering an age-old question for those four hours, “Why am I here?” 

And of course, the talk of the night was the clean sweep of “Everything Everywhere All At Once,” winning 7 awards. All the big ones too: best picture, director, editing, original screenplay, supporting actor and actress awards. Halfway through the show, my cinephile 11-year-old says, “Last year’s Oscars were so suspenseful because you didn’t know who was going to win. This year you knew they’re all going to Everything Everywhere All At Once.” I suppose we should have known it would win everything, everywhere, and all at once. 

For those of you who haven’t seen the film, I must warn you that it’s a very polarizing film. People either absolutely love it or totally hate it. I am of the latter — I just don’t get it. 

My favorite speech of the night was from Michelle Yeoh, winning the Best Actress award. She looked so elegant and dignified in a white gown and diamond studded hair band. Like Ke Huy Quan, she also called this moment “the American Dream” in her speech, while thanking and inspiring all the little boys and girls that look like her. She wasn’t bawling and emotionally overwhelmed, but poised as if letting us know that we finally saw in her what she knew she was worthy of all these years. I was most moved by her remark, “And ladies, don’t let anyone ever tell you you’re past your prime.” I was cheering and applauding loudly, with tears streaming down my cheeks. I cry an inordinate amount during the Oscars each year.  

I thoroughly enjoyed the Oscars this year, after a very long time. Good comedy, no sensationalized slaps, and perhaps Jimmy Kimmel’s constant reminder of timing actually helped keep it under 4 hours long. I encourage all my desi brethren to watch India’s very first Oscar-winning documentary short film “The Elephant Whisperers,” currently streaming on Netflix. That’s what’s next on my watchlist.

Antara Bhardwaj is a Kathak artist and filmmaker based in Mountain View, California, where she lives with her husband and son. She runs a dance company and school by the name of Antara Asthaayi Dance. You can follow her on Facebook and Instagram.

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  • I don’t really understand why some ethnic people think it is America’s job to “represent” their community. We have a nation for that – it’s called “India”!

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