The world loves a winner, but the response to the National Film Awards, 2016, for the best films of 2015, seems to indicate a bucking of that trend. The Bollywood-sweep in the 63rd National Film Awards (14 awards in major categories) has raised old and valid questions about the quid pro quo between politics, profit and cinema, but with a new twist.
At no time, say cineastes, has a national film-awards jury just smelt the money.
The honour roll of 2015 – the big-budget Baahubali (Rs 250 crore) wins best feature, Bajirao Mastani (Rs 120 crore) wins best director and Bajrangi Bhaijaan (Rs 90 crore) for best popular film — in a year that saw the release of good mainstream cinema such as Detective Byomkesh Bakshy!, NH 10 and Talvar, is now being seen as an award-fest for multi-crore films.
Ramesh Sippy, chairman of the jury, defended the awards as the “collective decision of 11 people. After the decision is made didn’t analyse whether there were too many winners that were Bengali films, or films from the south or Bollywood films. That’s not the way to do it. But people have a right to criticize.”
““I personally believe when a jury is appointed and that jury decides the awards, I see no point in questioning that. But the appointment of the jury as such is a political act. This time, as with other times, what is glaring is the uneven competition. It’s almost as if a Dalit was pitted in a fight with the richest Brahmin of the village….”, says veteran film critic, curator and historian Amrit Gangar. “Who will remember popular or populist blockbusters such as Bahubaali or Bajirao Mastani? We still remember Pather Panchali after 60 years whose budget must be equal to the money spent on water for producing these award-winners!”
FTII chairman Gajendra Chauhan also gets a cameo in this post-awards backlash. Filmmaker Gurvinder Singh who has won a National award for the Punjabi film, Chauthi Koot, has decided to refuse his award to protest against, what some say, is the Gajendra Chauhan-effect on the awards. Singh’s Facebook post: “Baahubali = Gajendra Chauhan” has been widely shared. And so has been his interview to IANS, where he said: “All the main awards have gone to commercial films... I think it is a BJP award and not National Award.”
Director Shyam Benegal, whose films have won more than 20 National Awards, says, “The awards are as good as its jury.”
Gangar also raises a point about why cinema should, in the first place, be under the information and broadcasting ministry, cinema being neither ‘information’ nor ‘broadcasting.’
Moifightclub.com, a website dedicated to films, claimed to have the “inside dope” on the selection process, from a jury member.
“Voting happened in only two categories,” the site claims. “A film which got unanimous rave reviews (nationally and internationally), when it was released, had got strong recommendation in 4 categories (debut, screenplay, best supporting and special jury). But none of them were considered. There was an unwritten rule that nothing will go to this film as one of the producers of the film had made headlines when he returned his previous National Award. Another film which had a great production design (for its period setting) and was close contender for best production design as it was strongly recommended by the first panel, it was also dismissed because of same reason – the director was part of awardwapsi gang.”
The problem is not per se about Bombay films getting awards. ‘Bollywood’ is a generic term for mass entertainment; there’s a Bollywood in Madras as well as the Bengali film industry. “In the recent past, many Bengali films that I consider mediocre have won national awards,” says Moinak Biswas, professor of Film Studies, Jadavpur University and a filmmaker himself. The objection “is about which segment of Bombay is monopolising state encouragement. The results this year are, indeed, a little alarming from that perspective”.
A common thread does tie Baahubali, Bajrangi and Bajirao. All are strongmen, masculinity-centric films that foreground the idea of an emotionally charged-nationalism. Bajrangi, which appears to do the opposite, gives the game away by making Salman Khan’s character, the Indian ‘big brother’, too good to be true.
“The rewarding/awarding of Bollywood cinema feels like a natural continuation of the jingoism that’s eating at the social fabric,” says Huma Dar, who teaches Indian cinema at the University of California, Berkeley. “Regional cinema, middle-brow cinema, art, or independent cinema with its emphasis on local, particular, or even wider/abstract questions, does not seem to appeal in the present scheme of things.”
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