The writer is a National-Award winning filmmaker who directed films such as Ezhavathu Manithan and Ghasiram Kotwal.
We are in the month of August; the elections have become a thing of the past; the long awaited triple talaq bill has been passed and the Sabarimala temple has become quiet again. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has only now announced the awards which have all been presumably decided and sealed in March earlier this year. They had informed that the results would be announced soon after the general elections in the name of'not violating' some electoral codes. Mr Modi and his colleagues have now firmly occupied the parliament and yet, the website for the Directorate of Film Festivals still says they are waiting for applicants to send their applications in before 22nd January 2019.
The ninth SAARC competitive film festival has been held in the meanwhile and a Bengali film called Nagarkirtan bagged several of the awards which were announced on the 10th of July 2019. How come, were these awards not a breach of protocol? In these hallowed corridors of the Directorate at Siri Fort, New Delhi, where hundreds of aspiring young Indian filmmakers walked, perhaps to get a little spotlight on their films and themselves, has now become eerily silent and ghostly dark.
I tried my best to get the names of the jury members who were part of the decision-making process for the awards that were supposed to be declared earlier this year. But nobody knew who they were. Have they been 'unpersoned', a la Orwell's 1984, by the I&B Ministry? I tried asking the heads of film schools who would be most interested in the declaration of these awards. And they had no clue too. When I spoke to several Tamil filmmakers about this impasse, they had no idea either. But in retrospect, I think our Tamil 'filim' guys had given up this dream 'awards' space long ago for they know that the national film awards have been discreetly reserved for Bengalis and Malayalis.
I tried to inquire into what could be the reason for such a 'national silence' over the need to know who the award winners are for the year 2018. Why was it hushed up so unceremoniously? When few film magazines or news channels are concerned, including our own Film Companion (which I consider as the most progressive space for young Indian filmmakers) then I must believe that there is something seriously faulty in the veracity of our awards and its system. Way back in the 80s and 90s when I won the national award for the best Tamil film, we saw it as a sure way of getting back a hard-earned-spent Rs Five Lakhs, by way of one screening on a Doordarshan Sunday slot. Today that practise has been abandoned partially because that money would just about cover the cost of breakfast served on location. A national award in those days meant that the filmmaker and crew members would be interviewed on DD; quoted in all national newspapers and it would even open the gates to screenings at some international film festival. Today, a short trailer on Youtube does the same job. A national award in those days meant that you were sure to meet and get photographed alongside annual fixtures such Satyajit Ray, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Shyam Benegal and even shake hands with the President of India. Today, such celebrities either do not exist or have retired from making films and the President is not interested in such an 'insignificant' ceremony and which also celebrates films which are severely critical about the way the nation is being governed. There is an old Hindi saying 'Meri Billi, Mujhse Miao?' or how can my cat meow back at me?
On further inquiry one will notice that our Indian cinema, however crudely done, was the sole critical 'post-colonial' voice, representing a kind of collective imaginary/consciousness. The critical portrayals of corrupt politicians, dishonest lawyers and lecherous cops reminded the people that the systems of governance inherited from the old colonial rule were not going to do justice to a nation claiming to have fought for social freedom and political independence. In our films, angry young men emerged from 'betrayed' trade unions and fiery women broke the shackles of their feudal inheritances to declare India's capability to take on modernity and its complexities. Today, in the 21st century, we are on a precarious post-modern cliff with every multinational corporation nestled in our midst, driving glaring inequality as a given norm of economic 'balance'. Those who loved the angry young 'Indian' men and women of the 20th century have their desires now carved out to suit the requirements of international corporate houses while Chris Gayle and Shane Watson represent Punjab and Chennai respectively. So much for 'nationalism'!
Inquire further and we see that our films are still playing the 'post-colonial' theme and belch about corrupt cops, politicians and lawyers when the nation and her people have moved far beyond these 'outdated' concerns. The people have grown up to accept and normalise corruption and anti-nationality as a standard by brazenly embracing all that used to represent the 'vulgar' west and happy to have multiple national identities. Our people have grown to accept right wing philosophies and their consequent moral positions as a norm. They do not need the BJP to tell them that we are a modern westernised/secularised Hindu nation. Just look at the massive crowds lining up for a 'darshan' of a deity called Atthi Varadar at Kanchipuram. More than 50 lakh devotees have thronged this tiny town willing to pay Rs. 10,000 for an overnight accommodation, just to have one fleeting sight of a wooden idol. Just look at the crowds assembled to walk towards the Amarnath Shrine while tourists are being asked to evacuate nearby Srinagar, anticipating attacks by militants. Even our so-called secular opposition leaders vie with each other to be photographed, offering prayers at various temples. How does one call oneself right or left wing today?
Inquire further and I see another cause in the way our most prestigious National Film Development Corporation has betrayed the dreams of thousands of potential filmmakers in India. Until the late 90s, NFDC was at least, associated with the larger notions of 'good/ progressive' cinema. Little has this organisation introspected to ask whether they are in touch with the realities of our times. NFDC used to be associated with stalwarts like B.K. Karanjia, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, NVK Murthy and DVS Raju. Though they came from varied professional backgrounds, they were all concerned in different ways with the health of Indian cinema. Today the health of good Indian Cinema, as far as NFDC is concerned, is measured by the footfalls in the tent that they rustle up annually at the Cannes Film Festival. Yes, I might sound very harsh but could not the Indian citizen, especially our aspiring filmmakers, be better informed about what the visionaries at this hallowed center, have in mind about the direction, the future of our cinema could be headed to?
Inquire and look around further East and you will hear fascinating stories of enterprise from the national film corporations of Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and even Sri Lanka. We seem to be very content in setting up our measuring rod closer and simply believe that we are better than Pakistani cinema. We should be looking at Cinemalaya, the amazing organisation that navigates young Filipino cinema through the choppiest of their political waters and to learn how just simple love and determination can allow some amazing filmmakers to blossom. The East Asian developmental model of South Korea and Taiwan has adopted cinema as their cultural responsibility to generate innovative ideas for economic growth and intellectual progress. Why is this Mumbai-based NFDC so sick? Why are their branches in the regional capitals so bereft of imagination?
My final inquiry would be to ask: Is there something seriously wrong with the 'awards-giving' process that goes to sift films which are worth getting their medals? For the past 25 years I have been shouting my voice hoarse condemning the very process of asking producers to 'apply' for their national award. This process simply does not happen among the allied creative enterprises such as the Sahitya Akademi or the Lalit Kala. Artists are not demeaned there by asking them to pay an application fee and fill up forms to be recognised for awards. As it happens with the Oscar awards, almost all awards are given by their peer groups and not a bunch of random jury members who are available for the month of February each year to be in New Delhi. Just imagine we make about 1400 feature films a year and only a tenth of them land up in the awards screening room. Sadly, it is mandated that only producers who are the 'sole' owners of the final film can apply. Nobody else in the crew can seek recognition for their contribution on their own. Is this a democratic way of functioning? And we all know the intelligence and mindsets of our typical film 'producers' who actually are mere financiers with no clue about the ultimate result. Why does NFDC not take the responsibility of having every film in India be considered in separate regional forums comprising of peer filmmakers? Should not every creative contributor to the film be eligible for recognition? I would honestly like to know the opinions of Mr Ramesh Sippy who has been the chairman of NFDC since 2012 and the directors who are in charge.
So, when this is the status, why should filmmakers care for this ridiculous medal and certificate called the national film award? And if the real filmmakers are not the concern of the directorate of film festivals, the NFDC and the various State Film Development Corporations why should the citizens of India care for the national film awards?