Oscars? So me!

Fayes T Kantawala waited years to see himself on that stage at the Academy Awards

Oscars? So me!
The Oscars used to be a big deal to me. Even on the day when they were just announcing the nominees, I would wake up before dawn to catch the short telecast. Then came the endless rotation of interviews, Vanity Fair portraits, and TV specials. By the time the actual awards ceremony rolled around, I was up at 4 am again to catch the live broadcast on television and secure informational bragging rights to use later in the morning at school (“Oh, you didn’t hear Judi Dench won for 8 minutes on screens? That was so, like, four hours ago…”). For the fetuses among my readers, this was before Google was on your phone and having information like this was actually legitimate currency among the people who didn’t play football. Chances are that by Oscar Night I had seen most of the films, could tell you the nominees by heart (including sound mixing), rattle off the number of nominations each person had had before this and how likely they were to win depending on whether they had been nominated for a SAG award the week before.

But then something changed. I can’t remember why or when exactly, but I missed a telecast one year. Maybe I slept through it and didn’t have time to catch the repeat. But I missed it, and subsequently the ensuing discussions and debates became less fiery, less relevant, less important. And I was OK with that. Not going through the ritual reminded me that bad things didn’t happen if you didn’t know all five nominees for Best Animated Short. Once the switch was turned off, it didn’t turn back on again and so it was for many years that I went from Oscar fanatic to someone who reads with detached interest who won Best Picture in the papers. The Oscars had also become frankly boring.
I don't mean that I resented not being on stage myself, although you know I know you clutched that shampoo bottle yourself, too. I mean that it felt wrong that only white men and women from America could claim sole ownership over an event that they pretended was the global standard for entertainment

But then Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy won her Oscar (the first one) and my interest, long since dormant, flickered back to life hesitantly. Someone who lives in Karachi, wearing Bunto Kazmi, up on stage, holding a statue. Damn. I didn’t see the ceremony that year either, but I did seek out her speech on Youtube, and eventually went through the other acceptances speeches for the first time in years. Suddenly visions back to me, me staring at my reflection in my bathroom mirror; me clutching a bottle of Head and Shoulders and shouting “and a special thanks to my Mom and Dad!”; me insisting that the conductor stop playing his exit music because I was just that kind of winner.

It occurred to me that one of the reason I stopped being interested in the Oscars was because the older I got, the less acceptable I found it that I couldn’t see myself in them. I don’t mean that I resented not being on stage myself, although you know I know you clutched that shampoo bottle yourself, too. I mean that it felt wrong that only white men and women from America could claim sole ownership over an event that they pretended was the global standard for entertainment. It was OK for them to brag about global viewership, sure, but that was never reflected on stage for a second. It was a dissatisfaction that I felt on a wider level than just with the Oscars. I felt it while reading literature, seeing movies, watching TV or consuming any of the cultural output that posits straight, white people as the sun around which all orbits spin.

Monsoon Wedding, Mira Nair’s excellent movie, was the first thing that made me articulate this feeling to myself because it was the first time I saw something intimately familiar on screen. I had never seen anything like it, from Bollywood or Hollywood or anywhere. It was so real, so relatable, so perfect. And that feeling of seeing yourself was one that I never forgot. I got the same feeling when I read Daniyal Moeenuddin or Mohsin Hamid, or saw Imran Qureshi at the Met or Shahzia Sikander’s name on the Tate Modern’s wall of Art History.

Lupita Nyong'o and Kumail Nanjiani at the 2018 Oscars

Living for part of the year in New York, I find myself particularly aware of representation, mainly because it was always tough to find it. But things have gotten better. Not hugely better, but better. The public acclaim of people like Kumail Nanjiani or even Priyanka Chopra’s rise into Hollywood’s golden circle cools my heart because through them, I too feel seen. I think that’s the flip side of cultural production, and the feeling we – all of us – crave at some level: to be seen. I can tell you that I feel visceral relief when I am back in Lahore after months in NYC and the people on the television look like me.

And so I saw the Oscars this year, not simply because Kumail Nanjiani was nominated, but because that big giant conservative behemoth of an institution seems to have begun to catch on to the fact that you cannot simply broadcast a small group of white people’s insights to the world and expect to be lauded. You have to listen, too. Not because it’s just the most PC thing to do, but because it produces better art (and makes money too).

I was watching an interview of Kumail Nanjiani in conversation with Israeli Wonder Woman Gal Godot a few weeks ago. In it, she remarked that he must be the most famous Pakistani in the world (which was a vacuous, slightly derogatory statement, to be honest). But with charm, he replied that when he first started getting attention, someone said that to him. It occurred to him that not only was he not the most famous Pakistani abroad, he wasn’t even the most famous Pakistani from his high school graduating class – because he was in the same year as Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and she has two Oscars already. (Well played, KGS. Well played.)

I am actually hopeful now that we may be headed to a world where that is true of many, many more people.

Write to thekantawala@gmail.com