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National Film Awards controversy: For better or the worse?

August 6, 2010 05:56:14 PM IST
Shoma A. Chatterji, TWF, Bollywood Trade News Network
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The Directorate of Film Festivals has recently announced a change in the rules for the National Film Awards reviving a practice abandoned in the mid 70s. But is it such a good idea? We explore...

The Directorate of Film Festivals under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has recently decided to change the rules for the National Film Awards to be effective from 2010-2011. This follows suggestions from an expert panel set up to revamp the National Film Awards which means a decentralization of the judging process by re-introducing the two-tier system which was abandoned in the 70s. According to the new rule the judging will first take place at the regional level and then move on to the national level. The expert committee is chaired by filmmaker Shyam Benegal. The other members are: Sai Paranjpye, Ashok Vishwanathan, Rajiv Mehrotra, Sharmila Tagore, Vishal Bhardwaj, Nagesh Kukunoor, Mohan Agashe, Waheeda Rehman, Jahnu Barua and Shaji Karun.

But not all in the fraternity are happy with this new turn. Noted filmmaker Adoor Gopalakrishnan thinks this move unwise. "They are going to repeat a big mistake. All they think about is the number of days the jury will normally have to spend in Delhi to watch the 100-and-odd films. My film SWAYAMVARAM was not recommended by the regional committee for any award. Ramesh Thapar, the jury chairman that year, strongly recommended the disbanding of the regional selection committee because local politics invariably came into play. The idea was to have all the films to be seen and judged nationally," he reminds. The regional committee was dispensed with afterwards.

Gopalakrishnan is against the decentralization because, he foresees, "The reintroduction of the system would invite old problems again and defeat the very purpose of the national awards. Even within the national jury system, wrong juries who have never seen a good film bring their prejudices and inadequacies in their selection of films. A wrong film getting a national award is as bad as promoting bad cinema and bad craft nationally. We need better methods of selecting the right kind of films, both for national awards and for the Indian panorama."

Girish Kasaravally, one of the most renowned filmmakers with a string of National Awards, gives three examples to show how the earlier two-tier system was discarded because it was found faulty. "Earlier, the regional committee drew people from the regional film industries. All regional petty quarrels and prejudices came to the fore during the selection. See what happened to Ray's APARAJITO! The regional committee didn't recommend the film. They felt that a son not caring for the ailing mother was against Indian (read Bengali) ethos. Later, the film went on to win international accolades and is still considered the best Indian film one has seen after PATHER PANCHALI," he reiterates.

The second case Kasaravally quotes relates to a 1967 Kannada film made by N. Laxminarayana. Shot on actual locations, NAANDI narrated the story of a deaf-mute girl but treated without any melodrama. "During this time, all films made in the South were selected by a few people in Madras (now Chennai). They felt the film was very unfilmy." He reveals how an extremely melodramatic film was recommended and won the National Award, thus depriving a young talent his first award for his first film. But by then, he had won British Film Institute grant for a short film called BLISS. "Laxminarayan carried this grievance till his last day. Another version says that the film was deliberately sidelined because some people from the regional industry wanted the award to go to another film, made in a conventional way. They feared that if NAANDI was chosen it would walk away with the award."

Kasaravally adds one more case to illustrate his argument against the two-tier system. "KANCHEEVARAM was adjudged the best Indian film in the National Awards in 2007 which constituted jury members from across the country. It fetched Prakash Raj, the lead actor, the best actor award. Yet, the film failed to get any award at the Tamil Nadu State Awards. The jury members drawn from the Tamil film industry have different aesthetic standards," he sums up.

Shyam Benegal, chairman of the advisory committee which formulated and recommended these new regulations was in Bangalore recently. A group of film makers from Bangalore brought this to his notice. He said that these damages are done when jury members are from one regional industry. He suggested that in the new regulations the regional panel will have five members. This means that while selecting a South Indian film, two members, including the chairman, would be from the north and the remaining three would be from the south and this would work in reverse for films in other regions.

"Creativity should be the bottom line for choice of films for the National Film Awards," says journalist-filmmaker Altaf Majid of Assam. "If this be true, I don't see the role of a regional jury. Our country might be diverse, with many languages, dialects, cultures and sub-cultures. As Indians, we can understand each other. So a central jury is enough to judge any film of the land - be it Manipuri, Konkani or Malayalam," he says.

Saibal Mitra, noted filmmaker from Bengali cinema, strikes a different note, "I firmly believe that the award has lost its credibility. Most of us have heard of and experienced so much of underhand deals that the entire system of giving away the National Award makes me feel that it's not prudent even to talk about it. Regional selection before the national selection is not really an option."

He feels that the reintroduction of the two-tier system will only intensify the regional conflict of the lobbies that already exists. "It will just help the national selectors to pass the buck to the regional selectors. The more powerful lobbies like West and South will definitely grab more prominence than the East, North-East and the North can manage. I fail to understand how one single film can get the "Best Indian Film"? He suggests that the National Award committee should try to correct this by giving awards in various languages/regions. "All the best regional films should be treated as a group of 'Best National Films' of India for a particular year. The diversity and the pluralism will prove the spirit of this country," he feels.

Mitra adds that a festival of all the new regional films of the year can help find the audiences before regional selectors come into play. "The closed-door selection process should be scrapped," he says.

Clearly, the attempt to revamp the National Film Awards is already raising a storm - and not in a tea cup, either.

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