On January 22, John Friedken came all prepared to have a great evening at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Samuel Goldwyn Theatre in Beverly Hills, CA. It was the official screening of Devdas, India's entry in the 2002 Oscar race for Best Foreign Film. Having championed India's 2001 entry Lagaan, Friedken had much to look forward to.
"There is a friend of mine who loves Indian films with music and the whole week he was looking forward to it. 'Oh boy, Wednesday we've got the Indian film,' he kept saying," Friedken said from his home in Los Angeles. He and his unnamed friend are members of the Academy's publicist branch. A few years ago, Friedken had unofficially promoted Deepa Mehta's Earth for the Best Foreign Film Academy Award nomination.
Usually, the Academy would screen two films each evening, Friedken said. Due to the length of Devdas, only one screening was scheduled on January 22 evening with a 25 minute intermission.
After the intermission Friedken and his other friends at the screening decided to head home.
"To tell you the truth, a lot of people walked out," Friedken said before the Academy's February 11 announcement of the final nominees for the Oscar race. "I was among those who walked out."
"We just didn't like it," he said, referring to Devdas. "The girls were beautiful but the story was out of whack. At least last year's one (Lagaan) had great humour. This year, enough people walked out so that score will not get it into the finals. This film has no chance. You want to bet on it? I can make a big bet."
There were at least 250 to 300 people at the screening, the only official screening of Devdas, according to Jerry Pam, another Los Angeles-based publicist and member of the Academy. "I can say half of them walked out," Pam added. He also spoke before the February 11 announcement of the nominees.
"The film got too much for too many people," Pam said. "The dancing was very good. I liked the actress [Aishwarya Rai] the guy [Devdas] can't marry. She is beautiful. She looks like a young Hedy Lamarr. But everybody was shouting and screaming in the film. They weren't pleasant people. The storyline is interesting, but I just think the characters were not very interesting. When we saw Lagaan last year, you could get into it. It was a good story."
Last year, Pam was a major force in getting Lagaan nominated for the Oscar. In January 2002, British filmmaker Roland Joffe [City of Joy and The Killing Fields] called Pam to say he had seen Lagaan and recommended the film. "Roland called me from India and said, 'I saw Lagaan. See it and tell me what you think should be done,' " Pam said. Originally from Britain, Pam has also done publicity work on some of the early Beatles movies.
After receiving the call from Joffe, Pam arranged for Lagaan's first publicist Richard Lewis to campaign for the film before the final nomination process. But this year Pam has no idea who worked on the Devdas promotion. "There was no buzz about the movie."
To be fair to Friedken and Pam, the Academy maintains very stringent rules for the foreign language Oscar category. Members of the committee -- all volunteers -- are broken into three groups, identified by the colours red, white and blue.
This year, each group was assigned 18 films. After each screening, committee members were to vote on the film on a scale of six to ten -- six being the minimum score any film can get. Each committee member had to see at least 80 per cent of the films in his/her group. The top five selections of the entire committee are then labelled the Academy-nominated foreign language films.
Pam did not want to discuss how he voted for Devdas. "I never disclose what I vote, but I think you can read between the lines," he said with a laugh. He added that watching the first half of Devdas qualified him to vote on the film.
Friedken confessed he and several of his colleagues walked out of quite a few other films too. "I don't know how they pick the films," Friedken said. "We saw the French film 8 Women. It was garbage. There has to have been better French films. The Spanish entry should have been Talk To Her. That is a great film. But it was not entered. The Academy can't say anything about it. Good cinema doesn't get promoted. And we have to waste our time seeing so much garbage."
Friedken and Pam were ecstatic about at least two films they saw during the nomination process -- the German entry Nowhere In Africa and China's Hero. On February 11, both films made it to the final five.