By Rohini Banerjee:
In case you missed it, the winners of the 63rd National Film Awards were announced on 28th March, 2016, yielding both surprising and not-so-surprising results. Among the not-so-surprising, were nods to critically-acclaimed films such as ‘Masaan’, ‘Margarita With A Straw’, and Malayalam film ‘Pathemari’, but what was truly surprising and nearly surreal, were the amount of winners that belonged to Bollywood. Kangana Ranaut walked away with ‘Best Actress’ for her performance in ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’, Amitabh Bachchan was awarded ‘Best Actor’ for ‘Piku’, ‘Bajrangi Bhaijaan’ was named ‘Best Popular Film’, Sanjay Leela Bhansali bagged ‘Best Director’ for ‘Bajirao Mastaani’, and countless other awards in the supporting actor, screenplay, choreography and cinematography categories went to big-ticket Bollywood films.
The National Awards have always encouraged independent cinema, regional cinema, and films which despite being critically-acclaimed lack in commercial or mainstream attention. Hence, it has always had a reputation to look beyond the popular, to recognize the unrecognized and to uphold quality and substance over a film’s mass appeal. In light of this, Bollywood’s (and here I mean big-budget, glitzy, superstar movies) big wins at this year’s National Awards should logically mean that our mainstream cinema is finally becoming substance-oriented, right? But that does not seem to be the case here.
That the usual Bollywood award ceremonies (Filmfare, Stardust and so on) thrive on lip service and populism is a sentiment that nearly all of us expressed only a month ago, when films like ‘Talvar’ and actors like Irrfan Khan, Vicky Kaushal and Richa Chaddha were universally snubbed. Last year, at the National Awards Chaitanya Tamhane’s haunting courtroom drama ‘Court’ bagged the ‘Best Film’ award, whilst this year, it’s ‘Baahubali’ that won the very same award—yes, ‘Baahubali’, with its disturbing celebration of machismo and horrifying near-rape scene. The contrast is too vast, too drastic, to wrap one’s head around. In a year which saw a rich bevy of brilliant Indian independent cinema such as ‘Killa’, ‘Titli’, ‘Asha Jaoar Majhe’, ‘Kaaka Muttaai’, it’s sad to see the favour of yet another award show shift towards populist lines, and ignoring these legitimately award-deserving films—that too, an award ceremony which has a history of honouring lesser-known yet critically acclaimed films.
Now, these big Bollywood films aren’t essentially bad films. I loved ‘Piku’, and even ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns’ to some extent (I feel ambivalent about the others), but were Amitabh Bachchan and Kangana Ranaut’s performances really the best that we saw across all the Indian films (remember the treasure trove that is regional cinema) which released last year? Was there really no film better than ‘Baahubali’ across the numerous regional film industries of our country last year? I find this hard to believe, with stunning (and much more powerful performances) we saw this year from Nawazuddin Siddiqui (in ‘Haaramkhor’), Irrfan Khan (in ‘Talvar’), Ranvir Shorey (in ‘Titli’), Shivani Raghuvanshi (in ‘Titli’), Basabdatta Chatterjee (in ‘Asha Jaoar Majhe’), Seema Biswas (in ‘Kothanodi’) and many others. These were performances, and films, which, though much more understated, were definitely a lot more profound.
Bollywood films sweeping National Awards isn’t a problem, as long as they are truly deserving. In fact, I cheered when Kangana won last year for ‘Queen’, when Vidya Balan won for ‘The Dirty Picture’, when Rani Mukherjee won for ‘Black’. These were all career-defining performances which deserved recognition, and really, if any of this year’s big-ticket winners had received their respective awards because of similar career-defining performances, I would have rejoiced again. But they didn’t.
Barring ‘Dum Laga Ke Haisha’, a brilliant reflection on how patriarchy functions in small-town India, which won the ‘Best Hindi Film’ award, and Juhi Chaturvedi’s screenplay for ‘Piku’ which finally gave us a well-rounded, stereotype-free Bollywood female protagonist; the other mainstream films which were recognized were not subversive or revolutionary or even as emotionally complex (maybe Bajirao, but even that seems overdone), and often pandering to certain harmful tropes that have been perpetuated in Indian cinema time and again.
It’s true that the categories are steadily blurring, and ‘Piku’ itself is a wonderful example of that happening—it being a brilliant film of a modest budget and popular appeal. Even films like ‘Badlapur’, ‘NH10’, and ‘Baby’ were gritty, no-holds-barred films with popular actors, and defied nearly every common Hindi film trope which exists, and surprisingly, they did well at the box office. It’s good to see that budget-backed films like these are thinking out of the box, exploring themes that are usually taboo in mainstream cinema, and still becoming successful (‘Kapoor And Sons‘ is another recent example).
The National Awards are free to award mainstream cinema, and in fact, when it recognizes mainstream cinema which is actually deserving, it becomes a testament to Bollywood’s maturity. But that’s not what happened this year, and that’s exactly what’s upsetting me. Yes, I want to see braver mainstream films (which could go on to win National Awards), but I also want to see independent cinema rewarded. Either, you blur the line between mainstream and indie or regional cinema completely, or you give equal recognition to both parties. Since we have a long way to go till the former happens, let’s at least make sure the latter does?