The 63rd National Film Awards, announced on Monday, March 28, are considered prestigious, because unlike the U.S., India doesn’t have a culture of film awards handed by writers or directors’ guild or critics’ circle; even the country’s popular film awards are of doubtful credibility and merely an excuse to make a mélange of stars dance on stage. Also, given that Indian cinema comprises of films from various states and languages, and is not just limited to Hindi films (Bollywood), a fact that’s often overlooked, National Awards cast light on achievements that may have gone unnoticed.
Nearly every year, films from regional languages feature prominently in National Awards, pointing cinephiles towards newer stories, newer voices, which didn’t find enough—or, at times, any—exhibition in their local multiplexes.
This year, however, has been different, as the major winners are a big part of mainstream cinema — Hindi cinema in particular — something that doesn’t happen often.
The Best Film (Bahubali), Best Director (Sanjay Leela Bhansali for Bajirao Mastani), Best Actor (Amitabh Bachchan for Piku), and Best Actress (Kangana Ranaut for Tanu Weds Manu Returns) awards have been won by people and films that are known to a large number of movie-watching audiences. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in itself. Awards are, after all, an exercise in recognising the most meritorious, and the participants should be judged irrespective of their backgrounds and privileges.
One might also argue that both Bahubali and Bajirao Mastani – not the greatest of movies even among their Hindi peers during the year – are fictional valorisations of a certain kind of Indian cultural imagery and mythology. Is this some kind of signal?
No shortlist available
Having said that, a list of any awards is bound to invite agreements and disagreements; that’s the nature of this beast. But since — as opposed to most awards — National Awards don’t give out a shortlist of competing films or nominees in different categories, merely disagreeing with the final decision is not very instructive.
For instance, for the latest National Awards, we just know that 308 “Feature Films” and “168 Non-Feature Films” were in competition. (A pet peeve: Instead of “Feature” and “Non-Feature” films, it would be more accurate to call them “fictional” films and “documentaries”, as “feature” is indicative of a film’s length, not form.) So if one says, for example, Bahubali didn’t deserve to win the Best Film, that statement’s rather incomplete, because it doesn’t say what should have won instead, and it cannot, because there’s not enough information on what else the movie was up against. And an informed opinion on what should have won can come only come from watching nearly every film in contention, including many regional films, which usually don’t find release in many cities of the country with subtitles.
But, just for argument’s sake, I will turn the questions about the awards inwards, and ask myself, to begin with, did Baahubali deserve to win the Best Film? Not really. I don’t think it was the best film of the film year even if was quite audacious and ambitious, and was bolstered by a unique visual language that’s slowly deserting our cinema. But just among Hindi films this last year, Masaan, Titli, and NH10 were considerably better.
Amitabh Bachchan, winner of the best actor award was the weakest link of an otherwise fine film, Piku. Playing the role of Bhashkor, a crabby old man, beset with sluggish bowel movements, Bachchan, I thought, struggled to completely adopt the mannerisms and accent of his character, and couldn’t step out of his mould, one he’s perfected over the years. Similarly, Bajirao Mastani saw Sanjay Leela Bhansali make an impressive come back, but it wasn’t even close to being the directorial performance of the year. Kangana Ranaut turned in a fine performance in an uneven film, Tanu Weds Manu Returns, but Deepika Padukone (Bajirao Mastani), Anushka Sharma (NH10) and Kalki Koechlin (Margarita With a Straw), winner of the Special Jury Award, had much more to offer.
On the other hand, few will find faults with Thithi, Chauthi Koot, andVisaaranai bagging awards for Best Kannada, Punjabi, and Tamil Film.
This year also saw a new category: the curiously titled Most Film Friendly State Award. The award, instituted for the first time to “promote the Indian film industry and India’s soft power”, went to the state of Gujarat. One has to wonder why.
Because, when it comes to films, let’s see what’s happened in Gujarat just in the last few months: in December 2015, following protests in Ahmedabad, Surat and Mehsana, nearly a dozen theatre owners in the state had to stop the screening of the Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Dilwale, fearing damage to their properties. In February 2016, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) members staged protest against the shooting of Khan’s Raees, after his “intolerance” comment made nearly three months before that. In December 2014, violent protests were held in Ahmedabad against Aamir Khan’s P. K., and the film’s screening had to be stopped in at least two theatres of the city.
Sure, a argument can be made that Gujarat was adjudged 2015’s most-friendly film state (so the protests against P.K. and Raees don’t technically count), but, even then, it’s difficult to reconcile that award with three protests in the last 14 months, against something as innocuous as a film screening. Besides, the yardstick on which the award was given remains murky. “We chose Gujarat primarily because of the efforts in the direction of ease of doing business and facilitation of films and towards the promotion of Indian cinema,” C. Senthil Rajan, the director of Directorate of Film Festival, a government body that organises the National Awards, said at the press conference today. But then a natural question does come to one’s mind: Shouldn’t an award like this be democratic—asking nominations from directors, actors, and technicians who’ve actually shot films in different states of the country—as opposed to it being adjudged by a jury, comprising only a select few members such as Sudhir Mishra, Bharat Bala and Pravesh Sahani? We can only hope to know the answer.