In a country like India whose diversity is its beauty, its joy, there are forces out to wreck this variedness. Much like thrusting Hindi on a nation which has over 20 listed languages and innumerable dialects, and much like pushing a Hindutva agenda on a multi-religious community, 63rd National Film Awards have gone mostly to Bollywood fare, Hindi language cinema to be precise, or the big blockbusters. The other cinemas of India have been left holding regional recognition. The smaller pictures with modest budgets have gone unsung.
Baahubali in Telugu has walked away with the Best Film Award. But what a pick for the best feature! Made at a huge cost, this Hindu mythological epic was probably pushed into the top slot because of its content. For, there is no performance worth the name in the movie. The script is poor, there is lack of continuity, the plot is confusing and the style of story-telling archaic. Above, it is pretentious with a capital P. Yes, it has special effects, but compare them with an Avatar or even a Titanic, Baahubali will totter on the track.
A far better choice in the Best Film category could have been Vetrimaaran’s Visaaranai -- a brutally powerful look at police highhandedness that premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2015. The use of raw force on defenceless migrant labourers is a telling example of what power and uniform can do to soil humanness.
But Visaaranai had to settle as the Best Tamil Film, dumped into alleyway we in India call regional cinema -- much like how Satyajit Ray was once introduced at the International Film Festival of India in Calcutta as the “Bengali director”. Could anything have been more insulting to a man who literally put Indian cinema on the world map at Cannes in 1956 with his immortal classic called Pather Panchali? That Song of the Little Road led India to a mighty highway.
And Sanal Sasidharan’s An Off-Day Game is pure cinema, unpredictable and unpretentious.
We also had Gurvinder Singh’s Chauthi Koot (which played at Cannes) -- a story of fear and uncertainty set in the times of the Punjab insurgency and narrated in a gripping Hitchcockian style.
These are but just three examples of the kind of movies that could have been far worthy of the Best Film trophy. Did not the National Awards jury, headed by the Bollywood mandarin, Ramesh Sippy, and handpicked by the Directorate of Film Festivals (a wing of the Union Information and Broadcasting Ministry) find these films worthy of an honour?
Among performers, Amitabh Bachchan got to wear the Best Actor hat for his portrayal of a grumpy old constipated man who is so mulish that he forces his daughter to take him from Delhi to Kolkata in a taxi. There was nothing extraordinary in Big B’s acting, but then Big B being Big had to be among the winners. So what if there were far better artists than him!
Two names come to one’s mind so easily, so effortlessly. Kamal Haasan’s cable television operator in Papanasam who foxes the cops with such amazing cunning is a performance that will remain etched in one’s memory. Haasan reinvented himself -- after a long time -- as Haasan the actor, totally convincing in a part that gave him an excellent opportunity to sink into the character. And he did this so superbly -- brushing aside all the trappings of a superstar that he is.
And what about Nawazuddin Siddiqui as and in Manjhi -- The Mountain Man, directed by Ketan Mehta. Siddiqui was brilliant as a poor farmer who loses his wife because a mountain stands between his village and the nearest hospital, fatally prolonging the journey.
There is more to come. Sanjay Leela Bhansali was the Best Director for Bajirao Mastani, a look at Maratha valour, a subject that probably endeared him to the jury, which is facing its share of controversies. One of them relates to music director Ilaiyaraja’s brother, Gangai Amaran. He was part of the panel that honoured Ilaiyaraja for the background score in the Tamil work, Thaarai Thappattai. However, Amaran has been contending that he did not take part in the deliberations on music.
Obviously, such unilateral celebration of the biggies and Bollywood has caused a storm in the social media. Ananth Mahadevan, producer, director and actor, said that the awards were as bad as sending Jeans for the Oscars! Gurvinder Singh, despite winning a trophy for the Best Punjabi Film (Chauthi Koot), felt that the prizes were a “complete farce”. Veena Bakshi whose The Coffin Maker was a riveting look at death, quipped, “what a sad and shameful turn of events”.
One would like to end this piece with an observation that French-Polish film director Roman Polanski once made: “The awards are as good as the jury”. There you go.
Views expressed are the author’s own