A history of Indians at the Oscars, from Bhanu Athaiya to A R Rahman and M M Keeravani

A handful of Indian films have been nominated for the Oscars, with only a few winners so far

Indian Oscar winners Bhanu Athaiya in 1983 and A R Rahman in 2009. Photo: Wikimedia Commons and Wireimage
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

Nearly a century since they were first handed out, no Indian film has won an Oscar award. But many Indian filmmakers, actors and talents have made their presence felt at one of cinema's biggest nights over the years.

At the 95th Oscar Awards on Sunday, Indians will once again be represented by RRR, the record-breaking Telugu-language epic that's nominated for Best Original Song — the first time an Indian-made film has received the recognition.

Also nominated is Kartiki Gonsalves's The Elephant Whisperers, a heartwarming story about a couple's bond with an orphaned elephant, in the Best Documentary (Short) category. Meanwhile, Shaunak Sen's touching All That Breathes, about two brothers who rescue and treat injured birds, is competing in the Best Documentary (Feature) section.

Bollywood will also make a mark on the Oscars stage this year in the form of Deepika Padukone, who was recently named one of the presenters of the night.

How many Indians have won Oscars?

Only a handful of Indians have won the coveted statuette, the first being Bhanu Athaiya, who bagged Best Costume Design in 1983 for the film Gandhi. The Richard Attenborough biographical swept the awards that year, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor for Ben Kingsley, for his portrayal of Mahatma Gandhi.

Nearly a decade later, in 1992, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which organises the Oscars, gave Indian director Satyajit Ray an honorary Oscar "in recognition of his rare mastery of the art of motion pictures, and of his profound humanitarian outlook, which has had an indelible influence on filmmakers and audiences throughout the world".

Ray, considered one of the greatest auteurs of filmmaking, accepted the award from his hospital bed via video one month before his death. He called it "the best achievement of my moviemaking career".

Director Satyajit Ray received an honorary Oscar in 1992

It would be another 17 years before an Indian won another Oscar at the 81st Academy Awards in 2009. Both music composer A R Rahman and sound engineer Resul Pookutty walked home with trophies for their work on the record-breaking Danny Boyle film Slumdog Millionaire. Rahman won two awards that night — Best Original Song for Jai Ho, which he shared with lyricist Gulzar, and Best Original Score, while Pookutty won for Best Sound Mixing.

A worldwide hit, Slumdog Millionaire also turned its stars Dev Patel and Freida Pinto into global stars and boosted the international careers of fellow cast members and Bollywood actors Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan.

How many Indian films have been nominated at the Oscars?

NO ONLINE USE: No Merchandising. Editorial Use Only. No Book Cover Usage
Mandatory Credit: Photo by Everett Collection/REX (410404e)
Aamir Khan - 2001

 *** Local Caption ***  al18mr-aamir-lagaan.jpg

Indian films have been nominated only three times in the Best International Feature Film category, previously known as Best Foreign Language Film.

Mehboob Khan's epic Mother India was the first Indian movie to be nominated in 1958. The film, starring Nargis, Sunil Dutt, Rajendra Kumar and Raaj Kumar, was a massive hit in India and is still considered one of the greatest Indian films ever made.

In 1989, Mira Nair's feature debut Salaam Bombay! was nominated, also for Best Foreign Language Film. Based on the life of Mumbai's (then called Bombay) street children, the drama won a number of international awards, including the Camera d'Or and Audience award at the Cannes Film Festival, but eluded the Oscar voters.

Lagaan, the Bollywood musical set in colonial India, was the last film to earn an Oscar nomination in the Best Foreign Language Film category in 2002. Starring Aamir Khan in the lead, the Ashutosh Gowariker-directed drama told the story of Indian farmers who challenge their British colonisers in a game of cricket in exchange for a tax break. The magical formula of cricket and Bollywood proved a massive success in India and abroad, turning Lagaan into an international blockbuster.

Late Indian producer Ismail Merchant, in partnership with American director James Ivory, also earned three Best Picture Oscar nominations for their Hollywood productions — A Room With a View (1985), Howards End (1992) and The Remains of the Day (1993).

The documentary field has featured the most number of Indian nominees, starting with The House That Ananda Built in 1968 in the Best Documentary (Short) category. The film by Fali Bilimoria traced the life of a businessman in Nagpur, both before and after India's independence.

Acclaimed Bollywood director and producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra also earned an Oscar nomination for one of his first films, An Encounter with Faces. The documentary, which focused on the life of children in an orphanage, was nominated in the Best Documentary (Short) category in 1979.

In 2022, Writing with Fire made history by becoming the first ever Indian film to be nominated for Best Documentary (Feature). Directed by Sushmit Ghosh and Rintu Thomas, the film followed a group of women in the marginalised Dalit community in their attempt to transition their newspaper from print to the digital world.

Rahman followed his 2009 win with two more nominations in 2011, Best Original Song and Best Original Score, for the film 127 Hours, his second partnership with Boyle.

Singer Bombay Jayashri earned another nomination for music in 2013, for her work in the acclaimed Ang Lee film Life of Pi. Jayashri, who wrote and performed the song Pi's Lullaby, was nominated for Best Original Song.

All eyes are now on music composer M M Keeravani and lyricist Chandrabose to bring home another Oscar. The duo are nominated in the Best Original Song for Naatu Naatu from the film RRR, having already swept all the major awards this season, including the Golden Globes.

A historical action drama, RRR is one of the highest grossers of last year in India and looks set to make history at one of the biggest nights for movies.

— The 95th Academy Awards will be held on March 12 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood

Updated: March 10, 2023, 6:17 AM