Every year the announcement of the National Film Awards is a much awaited event in the country. The film fraternity, cutting across languages, looks at it as a great honour. After all, it's the only platform where every film, irrespective of language, gets an equal platform to gain national recognition. However, over the years, integrity of the awards has been questioned many times. It has not only been accused of being biased and feudalistic, but also held responsible for promoting favouritism. Not surprisingly, this year too when the results were announced, everyone was unanimously shocked at reading one name in that prestigious list—Akshay Kumar for Rustom (Best Actor).
Let me make this very clear—I absolutely adore Akshay Kumar. Not only because of his great acting skills but also because of how he is as an individual. From whatever little experience I've had with him in my professional life, I've always found him extremely punctual, committed to his craft and a thorough gentleman. He's amongst those rare actors who can delve into a character from any genre with great ease and perform each role with equal conviction. He's known for lacking any obsession with awards and his belief that audience appreciation and love at the box office reign supreme. Having said that, this year's National Award to him is the biggest insult to his talent and craft.
It is not only unfair to other actors but also to Akshay whose win is now seen from a prism of scepticism. Clearly, favouritism won over merit.
Let me explain why it is problematic at so many levels. Firstly, the film for which he was given the award. There is absolutely no doubt that Rustom was a tacky, sloppy and half-baked film that tried to capitalise on a controversial real-life case. It was not only loud but also lacked grossly in authenticity. Imagine Akshay being given an award for a film which didn't even get the uniform of the naval officer correct. There was a sea of inaccuracies in the uniform which he worse throughout the film. Sure, he was convincing in the role but it was in no way a stellar performance for an actor like him. There are many other films where he has delivered a far more powerful performance. The very fact that he has been given recognition for such a melodramatic film is in itself an insult to his craft.
Secondly, the reasons behind this arbitrary decision. The jury chairperson for Feature Films this year was well known filmmaker Priyadarshan who is also a National Award winner himself. It must be noted that two actors with whom he has collaborated the most for his films are Mohanlal and Akshay Kumar. While he worked on a staggering 40 films with the former, with Kumar he collaborated in six films. Interestingly, both the actors won at the National Awards this year. In a recent interview to a radio station in Dubai on his 60th birthday, he said:
"I have made many friends in my 33-year-long film career. But if you ask me to name two of my most trustful friends, then they are Mohanlal and Akshay Kumar. They don't even ask for my scripts whenever I approach them with my films. Once, Akshay said in an interview, I (Priyadarshan) don't know how to narrate a story. I know only to make films. Even Mohanlal agrees with what Akshay said about me. They trust me more than anyone."
Let me assure you that this is no conspiracy theory, nor a mere coincidence. After widespread criticism post the announcement, this is what the filmmaker said to a leading news agency:
"I have heard of all that and I will answer it in a simple way. When Ramesh Sippy was jury head Amitabh Bachchan won. When Prakash Jha was head of the jury, Ajay Devgn won. So no one questioned at that time. So why all these questions are cropping up today?"
This statement from him not only reaffirms what I said earlier but is also a sad commentary on the functioning of the country's top honour in cinema. It is not only unfair to other actors but also to Akshay whose win is now seen from a prism of scepticism. Clearly, favouritism won over merit.
Truth is that beside favouritism and lobbying, even political considerations play a big role. What else can be the reason behind 'Shivaay' winning an award for special effects?
The argument that Aamir Khan was not awarded for Dangal because he might not personally come and receive it is even more ridiculous. How can Mr. Priyadarshan assume such a thing? And even if that were the case, what does it have to do with performance on the screen, which is what the award is meant to judge? Truth is that beside favouritism and lobbying, even political considerations play a big role. What else can be the reason behind Shivaay winning an award for special effects? There was nothing so special or outstanding in that cringe-worthy film. But Ajay's proximity to the current ruling dispensation in not unknown. It's widely believed (including by herself) that last year Swara Bhaskar's name was dropped from the list of consideration because of her strong opinion against the functioning of the current government.
Even when you look at it objectively, an average cinegoer can also identify the other finer and superior performances in Bollywood and beyond. Manoj Bajpayee's heart-wrenching performance in Aligarh was beyond excellence, whereas Randeep Hooda's sheer dedication and insane physical transformation in Sarabjit is a lesson in sincerity. Shah Rukh delivered a performance of a lifetime in Fan. And no one can forget what Aamir Khan did in Dangal. The beauty and genius of that movie deserves another blog of its own. And despite all these stupendous performances, the jury identified Kumar as the Best Actor that too for a film like Rustom. Slow claps.
Another issue which I found deeply disturbing was the jury's definition of what makes for a film highlighting a social issue. Sample this. Fiction Feature Films jury chairperson, Priyadarshan was quoted saying, "While watching films we realised that a lot of Bollywood movies were themed around homosexuality. The movies are not highlighting social problems. Whereas regional [films] are themed around fantastic social issues." This statement is extremely insensitive. Especially at a time when the LGBTQ community is fighting so hard for their basic rights. Mr. Priyadarshan's views on homosexuality not being a "fantastic social issue" are extremely disturbing. It is only reflective of the current mindset of marginalising the LGBTQ community.
The National Awards exist to identify the best in cinema and its custodians need to protect its credibility before the institution crumbles.
It is also a reality that the same awards took justified note of many regional films and some other great performances. But just like two rights don't justify a wrong, awarding some talents while ignoring others doesn't raise the bar of the institution. What is the point of having an independent institution if favouritism and political compulsions are going to dictate the outcome? Before the rot sets deep and destroys the credibility of this prestigious recognition, there's a need to look within and introspect. The National Awards exist to identify the best in cinema and its custodians need to protect its credibility before the institution crumbles.