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Should We Be Celebrating Mainstream Bollywood’s Domination Over The National Awards?

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By Rohini Banerjee:

kangana ranaut amitabh bachchan sanjay leela bhansaliIn 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.

What Went Wrong

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.

Baahubali
Baahubali

Bollywood Can Win, But When It Truly Deserves To

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.

What Really Is ‘Mainstream’?

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?

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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