The 63rd National Film Awards have come as a rude shock for many. The domination of mainstream Bollywood over regional films is quite alarming and has once again raised serious questions regarding the credibility of these awards.
Take, for example, Kangana Ranaut's National Award win for Tanu Weds Manu Returns. Her role of a Haryanavi athlete has comic undertones with little relevance to life and Indian society at large. If anything, it ends up ridiculing the people of a particular state. Also, in terms of acting, it is a touch above average. The eminent jury presiding over the National Awards is expected to take different aspects of a performance into consideration while reaching their final verdict. Acting is just one of the many parameters. If acting alone had been the judging parameter then Amjad Khan and Ashutosh Rana would have won National Awards for Sholay and Sangharsh, respectively. Speaking of Tanu Weds Manu Returns, it is not farfetched to say that the film and Kangana's character are culprits of ridiculing not only the people of a state in particular but also femininity in its essence. For, the movie and the role ultimately end up advocating the outright rejection of a girl athlete simply based on her physical appearance. The movie does try to make us laugh but mostly by means of ridicule and cheap gimmicks. While we may choose to overlook it in the name of escapism, as a work of cinematic art, its treatment of women is quite disturbing.
Megastar Amitabh Bachchan's National Award win for Piku, wherein he plays an aging hypochondriac suffering from chronic constipation, has also raised a few eyebrows. If one examines the performance closely, one wouldn't find anything extraordinary in it. As a matter of fact, it wouldn't even feature among the 20 best performances of Bachchan's illustrious acting career. Even his turn in R. Balki's Shamitabh is cinematically superior at so many levels. Not to mention so many other worthy performances by other actors in regional and indie films. It is really unfortunate that the eminent jury gave more weightage to the box office success than merit.
But, it doesn't get any worse than Baahubali winning the National Award for the Best film and Sanjay Leela Bhansali winning the National Award for the Best Director (for Bajirao Mastani). It is interesting to note the National Award for Best popular film went to Bajrangi Bhaijaan while the National Award for Best film went to Baahubali. Now, it is difficult to understand how Bajrangi Bhaijaan can qualify as a popular film but not Baahubali? Clearly, both the films are out and out commercial. But, Bajrangi Bhaijaan undoubtedly has greater socio-cultural and political relevance. Baahubali, on the other hand, only has technical flair to show for. Is Baahubali a better film than Sankhachil or Cinemawallah? Cinematically speaking, no!
National Awards need to differentiate themselves from Filmfare and other popular awards. They need to have a more balanced criteria for selecting winners. What good is a film if it has little socio-cultural and cinematic relevance? The same is true for an acting performance. Kangana's performance doesn't end up elevating the people of Haryana. Does it? It is little more than tongue-in-cheek entertainment. In 2015, we had so many brilliant regional movies (and performances) that certainly deserved to get more recognition at the national level. Also, Bollywood's new age cinema too offered so many promising films. But, it is a great pity that the jury headed by Ramesh Sippy chose to shower all its praise on mainstream Bollywood.
The biggest concern is that if critically acclaimed, regionally made arthouse films fail to get the due recognition even at the National Awards then how will the regional Indian cinema survive?
A version of this article was first published in A Potpourri of Vestiges.
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