Once upon a time the most glamorous, eagerly-awaited and coveted movie award was Filmfare. It was the oldest, truly defined hi-glitz, gloss and the seductive magic of star-power. This was a time before Facebook, Twitter and the-who’s-sleeping-with-who brand of journalism invaded our lives. Stars were elusive, which lent them a mystique and aura that was impossible to imitate or replicate. This, of course, like most things, came from their baap Hollywood, where studios identified, created and carefully managed stars and their image. Anyone daring to step out of line, no matter how big a star, did so at their own peril. The studios believed (with some truth) that distance lends enchantment and creates a climate of curiosity that can be converted with smart publicity into footfalls. The National Film Awards, instituted in 1954, by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry name with a different agenda. The vision and values were — and remain — exemplary: to identify, recognize, promote, publicize and celebrate the best of Indian Cinema across all regions and states. The focus would be strictly on creativity and quality, impervious to such distractions as glamor, stars, exotic locales, bloated budgets, dazzling hi-tech, drooling item-numbers, and whatever mainstream cinema specializes in their $20 million-a-week number. As Film Critic Saibal Chatterjee says, “It’s a simple case of the muse and mammon offering their respective wares to the public.”
Since the battle-lines were drawn and clearly demarcated there was no confusion. Also, Bollywood of the 1950s and 1960s fielded such luminaries as Raj Kapoor, Bimal Roy, Mehboob Khan and Guru Dutt, who created materiasl that straddled art-house and commercial fare fusing the class-mass divide in a memorable way. At the other end of the spectrum the towering shadow of India’s most respected film director Satyajit Ray had entered the arena followed by Mrinal Sen, Ritwik Ghatak and others who led the distinctive parallel cinema wave. Those were early, exciting days in the journey, exploration and discovery of Indian Cinema, an experience that no true movie buff can forget. It opened up a whole new world for interesting filmmakers across the region, who boldly threw their hats into the ring.
Apart from the great trio of Ray- Sen- Ghatak from Bengal, there were Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Aravindan, Shaj N. Karun, and Girish Kasaravalli in Kerala. The Tamil and Telugu industries were represented by the likes of K. Balachander, P Bharatiraja, Balu Mahendru, Mullapudi Venkata Ramana and Mani Ratnam. In the 1970s entered Shyam Benegal, Govind Nihalani, M.S. Sathyu preceded by Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani. For all these filmmakers the National Awards were a real boon for recognition and publicity of their non-commercial, low- budget works, focusing on subjects and themes, located in environments and starring gifted actors who were a planet away from the populist Bollywood product. Both cinemas had their own space and constituency and the National Awards played no small part in celebrating cinema that entertained, enriched, enlightened and empowered.
Critics point to the slow fade-out of art-house cinema in the 1980s and the rise of Khan-istan (Salman, Aamir and Shahrukh) as the first signs of a movement that would be all-consuming in its unstoppable rampage into the public space. An entire new generation bred on new-age slogans —Humko Binnies Mangta; Yehi Hai Right Choice, Baby and Fida over Maine Pyar Kiya, Qayamat Se Qayamat Tak and Kabhie Haan, Kabhie Na — defined this new crop of movies celebrating youth power. This, in its own way, impacted the over-all line of control between the two cinemas with mainstream sweeping the stakes. The National Awards, despite its agenda and dedication, began losing ground. The honor and prestige remained, but the clout and drawing power, which once embraced the industry, media and general public, started to erode. It was reduced to an annual one-off-event, which came and went without much fanfare.
In recent years, the alarming boom of awards aired every other week on popular TV Channels, sponsored by media houses seemed to have killed the aura and attraction of the National Awards, because of its anti-glamor character. Says one critic: “Who the hell today wants to hear some sarkari bozos go on and on about cinema followed by awards to vague regional films and unknown directors, actors, technicians? Compare them to the dazzling shows, across all popular TV channels, put up by to-die-for stars in a solid, killer entertainment package.”
Film critics and historians however disagree. “It’s wrong to compare the two. Everything considered, the National Awards still remains the one award which genuinely tried to celebrate good — not most popular or successful — cinema unlike the predictable, media-house-tamashas with quid-pro-quo calling the shots,” says Rauf Ahmed, former editor of Filmfare.
Veteran screen and TV writer Kamtesh Pandey agrees: “The National Awards, sadly, are no longer what they used to be, with the favoritism, regionalism, politics and quid-pro-quo rampant. However, compared to the scores of others they are still streets ahead. There is a definite vision and desire to reach out and recognize real talent. Sure there have been hysterical bloomers — Dabaang picking up a National Award for wholesome entertainment, for example — but overall, the heart seems to be in the right place and the intent is on the right track. The others are not really awards that recognize real excellence, but Bharpoor, masaledar star-filled entertainment packages that boosts the image of B-towns most popular stars along with the brand equity of media-houses, channels and advertisers translating into big bucks and bigger bang for all.” Filmmaker Leena Yadav argues that “Awards will always be a tricky business because juries will have preferences that may conflict with the right and wrong. It comes with the territory.” However, Yadav believes that if the National Awards are indeed losing their “sex appeal” to more seductive awards, then they need to get into hyping and glamourizing the show for media attention and to cultivate public interest. Given Bollywood’s appeal, she thinks it is counterproductive and unfair to trash Bollywood films. Films like Kahaani and Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara are interesting quality films, she asserts.
Ultimately, it boils down to what is your idea of good cinema. This year’s National Awards for example were a sweep for regional cinema, with Vidya Balan’s best actress award the lone representation from Bollywood, a sign that that its attempt to move away from glamor into real cinema continues. In terms of eyeballs, attention coverage, excitement, anticipation and mass appeal, veteran director Shyam Benegal cuts to the bone: “The National Awards were not created to celebrate glamor but true-blue cinema. Such awards will also remain niche events focusing more on artistic worth than mass-connect. Everything on earth is not, and should not, be targeted for public consumption, at any cost. Its prestige and honor can never ever be matched in material terms. They were, are and will always remain matchless.”