My Oscar Experience
Posted On Monday, June 1, 2009
Soon after the Oscar ceremony, I contributed the following piece to India Perspectives on my Oscar experience: The limo arrived at the hotel at exactly three o’clock to take me to the Kodak Theatre where the 81st Academy Awards were to be held. The road leading to the Oscar venue had been closed to traffic since the morning and as my white Audi turned into the gaudy artery ofHollywood Boulevard, I found myself in a sea of limousines. Sleek, shiny, black vehicles with tinted windows lined the boulevard from end to end. Hundreds of people stood at the curb, holding either cameras or placards. As we neared Kodak Theatre, security officials asked us to roll down the windows. They checked the boot and waved us through. I alighted on a red carpet right in front of the entrance to Kodak Theatre. The bleachers were teeming with photographers trying to catch celebrity arrivals. Tall fibreglass Oscar statuettes gazed down at me like brooding sentinels. Television crews had flooded the area with artificial light, adding to the surreal atmosphere of the event. My ticket was scrutinized and I was allowed to pass through to another area which looked like a makeshift tent. Inside was a further check of the ticket and a metal detector scan. “Do you have a camera, Sir?” a policeman asked me. “No,” I replied, aware of the strict admonition that any kind of recording equipment would be confiscated. All I had in my hands was a copy of my book Q&A (now re-issued as Slumdog Millionaire). The tent was crowded and noisy. Someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was Francois Ivernel of Pathe, one of the co-producers of Slumdog Millionaire. “Thank you for the book,” he said, even though I had not met him before. Tessa Ross of Film 4, who had first optioned the book, was also there and greeted me warmly. There was a brief wait and then I stepped onto the ‘real’ red carpet, where jewelry-bedecked celebrities in designer dresses were sashaying their way through a gauntlet of paparazzi, amidst popping flashbulbs and screaming fans. The first celebrity I spotted was Sarah Jessica Parker, wearing a glittering, mint fairy-tale gown which made me feel positively underdressed in my black bandgala. However, a little way down was Mickey Rourke in dark sunglasses and a cream outfit, without even a tie! I caught Robert Downey Jr being interviewed and Anne Hathaway twirling on the red carpet in a buff-colored sequined column dress. I was so distracted by Amanda Siegfried and Amy Adams in their bright red numbers that I almost bumped into James Bond, sorry, Daniel Craig. Dev Patel, wearing a black tuxedo, and Freida Pinto in a one-shouldered blue gown, came over to say hello. Next I saw Sean Penn, Robin Wright and Philip Seymour Hoffman. The brilliant child actors of Slumdog – Ayush, Azhar, Rubina, Tanvi, Tanay and Ashutosh - drew a lot of attention on the red carpet and appeared to be enjoying themselves. Tanay was busy getting autographs from all the Hollywoodstars he could find. He went up to Meryl Streep and held out his autograph book. “I should be asking for your autograph!” the legendary actress responded, before obliging. The red carpet ended in a foyer which led to the main building of the Kodak Theatre. There was yet another ticket check here before I was allowed to climb up the stairs. The hallway was packed with guests but the hors d’oeuvres had ended and the bar had been cordoned off by a posse of waiters. “Sorry, Sir, the service has now closed,” I was informed. A big, sweating man pushed through. “I’m an ex-Governor, c’mon open it up for me,” he said. The waiter allowed him to pass, reminding me thatLos Angeleswas not that different fromNew Delhi. In that crowd of women in sequined gowns and men in tuxedos it was difficult to make out who was a movie star and who was not. The PA system would crackle once in a while, advising guests that the show was about to start and they should take their seats but no one seemed to be taking these announcements seriously. People were milling around, chatting, joking, texting. I spotted designer Valentino standing in front of the theatre door. “Are you checking out the competition?” I enquired. He smiled enigmatically. At 5.15 p.m. I decided it was time to go in. With a seating capacity of 3,400, the Kodak Theatre has an impressive stage with a silver ‘tiara’ structure overhead and three levels of balcony seating. I had an excellent aisle seat in the parterre with Irrfan Khan and Anil Kapoor for company, both dressed in smart tuxedos. The hall filled up quickly. Yet another buzzer sounded. The show was about to start. This year’s Oscar ceremony had been revamped to make it feel stylistically new and invigorated. Hugh Jackman, the host, was energetic and funny in the opening act and set the tone for the rest of the evening. Even though Slumdog was nominated for 10 Oscars, we were a bit apprehensive. There was a lingering doubt that the Academy may decide to go against the grain. The first Oscar that the film was up for was adapted screenplay. As Tina Fey and Steve Martin appeared on stage with the envelope, my heartbeat quickened. Even the montage which showed my name on the big screen did not settle my nerves. The tension dissipated only when Simon Beaufoy’s name was announced as the winner. “Yes!”Anil Kapoor exulted and all three of us stood up and cheered. Simon gave a brief and witty speech and was gracious enough to thank me personally. The next award Slumdog was up for was cinematography and once Anthony Dodd Mantle also picked up the Oscar I knew it would be our night. It actually turned out to be India’s night because the Oscar for Best Short Documentary went to Smile Pinki, set in a village in Uttar Pradesh. Megan Mylan, the director, had introduced me to little Pinki in one of the breaks, but Pinki was not smiling. She was missing her father and fell asleep before the award was announced. Will Smith presented the awards for sound editing and sound mixing. Though Slumdog lost out to Dark Knight in sound editing, Resul Pookutty was on stage to receive the Oscar for sound mixing and gave an inspired speech. Resul is a humble, unassuming man who wears his genius lightly. I had met him at the Mumbai premiere at IMAX Wadala where he himself had rigged the sound and had told him then that an Oscar was certain for him. Alicia Keys and Zac Efron presented the awards for best original score and best original song. “These are definitely ours,” I whispered to Irrfan and sure enough both were won by A.R. Rahman. The maestro also performed that night, singing O Saya and Jai Ho. As I watched Rahman sing and dancers in pink costumes do a Hindi number, and then Freida Pinto present the award for best foreign language film, it felt as if Bollywood had finally arrived on the world’s biggest entertainment stage. In the commercial break I spotted the singer formerly known as Prince sitting one row behind me. I felt like asking him what he thought of Rahman’s music but hesitated because I had heard he had changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol and I was not sure how to address a glyph. Soon thereafter he was upgraded and moved to the VIP rows in the front. Slumdog’s Oscar count kept increasing through the evening and every time we won, Anil Kapoor would make us all stand up and cheer loudly. Chris Dickens picked up his Oscar for editing, and Danny Boyle was duly crowned best director. Finally the moment that we had all been waiting for, arrived. Steven Spielberg came on stage to present the award for best film. “And the Oscar goes to…Slumdog-” Even before he had said “Millionaire”, Anil was out of his seat. Irrfan and I followed him and we found ourselves on the big stage where Christian Colson, the producer, was giving his acceptance speech. I saw all the other nominees applauding in front of me, but the enduring memory of that evening was the sight of Azhar and Rubina sharing the stage with Steven Spielberg. It told me that where you came from was not important; it was where you were headed to. Goldie Hawn came on to the stage and hugged me. “You know how much I loveIndia,” she told me. The same sentiment was echoed by the other stars I spoke to that evening, from Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie to Will Smith. I met Jennifer Aniston and John Mayer back-stage and we began chatting. She asked me to follow her down to the VIP parking area. Her limo duly came to pick her up but I was told curtly to go up and get my limo from the general parking. By the time I stepped out of the Kodak Theatre, it had become quite dark and the place resembled the detritus of a successful party. The hordes of fashion and TV reporters had gone, the red carpet looked a bit sullied and the guests were tired. Out in front, announcers were bawling out limo numbers. “217,” was called out after a fifteen minute wait and I got back into my white Audi. From there it was to the After Party at One Sunset, a trendy restaurant on Sunset Boulevard. Fox Searchlight had arranged a combined party for Slumdog and The Wrestler, which soon turned into a boisterous celebration. Most of the Indian media channels were waiting here, having failed to register in time for the Oscar red carpet. I spoke to Peter Rice, the Head of Fox Searchlight, and Peter Chernin, the head of News Corp. Marisa Tomei, Danny Glover and tennis star Serena Williams were some of the other celebrities who graced the party. I caught up with Dev Patel who told me he was leaving forCanadathe next day to begin shooting for a M. Night Shyamalan film. Freida was also in high spirits, having landed a Woody Allen film. I thought it was amazing that Slumdog Millionaire had transformed so many lives. At 1.30 am. I decided to leave. Irrfan, Loveleen and the others were preparing to go to the Vanity Fair party but I was too tired, having flown in just a day earlier and still caught in the twilight world between time zones. The next day I was having lunch at Spago, a top eating joint run by celebrity chef Wolfgang Puck who also provided the eats at the Governor’s Ball. A meeting with director Rob Reiner confirmed the tremendous respect Slumdog Millionaire had engendered inHollywood. Another highlight was a chance encounter with Sidney Poitier who told me he had retired from acting and was now writing books. I was also able to spend some time with the child actors. They were all going toDisneyland. “Why don’t you also come with us?” implored Ashutosh, but I was heading home toPretoriaand my day job. As I was flying toSouth Africathat night, I reflected on my brief brush withHollywoodglamour. My mind drifted back to the images and sounds of that magical evening. If Mumbai is the dream factory of the world, then a million new dreamers were born on Oscar night. The success of Slumdog Millionaire on the world stage will inspire them to strive for the same glory. And they are the ones who will be adding to the awards won by Rahman and Resul. I will not be returning to the Oscar stage, but India certainly will.