The Film Federation of India has unanimously picked Gujarati film Chhello Show, or Last Film Show as the country's entry to next year's Oscars. It will compete in the Best International Feature category. Directed by Pan Nalin, the coming-of-age drama tells the story of a movie-mad boy who bribes his way into a decrepit theatre in a nearby village to watch films from the projection booth.
"What a night this is going to be," Nalin said, making the announcement on social media on Tuesday.
"Gratitude to Film Federation of India and thank you FFI jury members. Thank you for believing in Chhello Show.
"Now I can breathe again and believe in cinema that entertains, inspires and enlightens."
Nalin's film was picked from 13 titles in various languages from across India. It beat the highly favoured RRR, the blockbuster Telugu film that has shattered box office records this year, and is currently the third-highest-grossing Indian film in history.
Controversial Hindi feature The Kashmir Files, which has been criticised for advocating violence against Muslims, was also in the running. The drama, based on the exodus of Kashmiri Hindus in the 1990s, is one of the most successful films of the year, largely benefiting from the support of India's ruling Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.
Bollywood superhero film Brahmastra: Part One — Shiva, starring real-life couple Ranbir Kapoor and Alia Bhatt, was also among films being considered.
"The 17-member jury unanimously chose Chhello Show," FFI president TP Aggarwal told Indian news agency PTI.
Chhello Show had its world premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival in June. In its description, the festival called it "a feel-good not-to-be-missed return to the big screen experience that we’ve all been craving".
"With vivid cinematography that captures the charm of the Gujarat region of India, the film is an homage to the cinema of the past, and a jubilant reminder of the universal magic of movies," it said.
Director Nalin is already a respected filmmaker, known for critically acclaimed films such as Samsara (2001) and Valley of Flowers (2006). His 2015 film, Angry Indian Goddesses, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, was widely praised for its feminist theme.
Chhello Show took more than three years to make, with production delayed by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Following the Oscars announcements, Nalin is hoping Indian audiences will embrace the film when it is finally released in cinemas next month.
"It was really hard to get theatres to release Chhello Show in India. Many big movies have been releasing since the past few weeks. So we said, 'Let's go abroad and create awareness'," he told Times of India. "But I am sure that it will touch the people who see it. It is refreshing and not dark; it is just what the people want to see after the pandemic."
At this year's Oscars, 93 countries submitted their entries for the Best International Feature category. This was whittled down to 15 with the final five nominated films invited to the ceremony in Los Angeles in March.
Tamil film Koozhangal (Pebbles), by first-time director Vinothraj PS, was India's official entry, although it didn't get chosen. The drama follows an abusive husband whose wife leaves him and he sets out with his young son to convince her to return home.
Japanese feature, Drive My Car, by director Ryusuke Hamaguchi, won the award.
The 95th Academy Awards will be held on March 12 at the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood and broadcast live around the world.