Short on quality

Print edition : August 29, 2003

While the 50th National Film Awards produce no controversy, the jury is appalled at the general decline in the quality of films.

THE 50th National Film Awards, announced on July 26, had its share of winners and losers, and sensations and disappointments. The awards, for 2002, were announced at a press meet by feature film jury chairman Prakash Jha, non-feature film chairman Rajiv Mehrotra, Book jury chairperson Udaya Tara Nayar, and Director of Film Festivals Neelam Kapur.

Konkona Sen Sharma and mother Aparna Sen, who won the National Awards for Best Actress and Best Director respectively for the film Mr and Mrs Iyer.-

Mr and Mrs Iyer was clearly the big hit with the jury. It won the Best Director award for Aparna Sen, Best Actress award for her daughter Konkona Sen Sharma, the Nargis Dutt Award for National Integration and the Best Screenplay award. The film won across-the-board acclaim for its restrained and compassionate account of ordinary individuals caught in senseless conflict. Konkona Sen Sharma's "strong and effective portrayal of a Tamil Brahmin woman caught between an orthodox mindset and human compassion" was applauded.

Ajay Devgan was adjudged Best Actor for "living up to the challenge of history" and "entering into the spirit" of Shaheed Bhagat Singh in the Legend of Bhagat Singh. This is Devgan's second National Award; he won his first for the sensitive performance in Zakhm four years ago.

Buddhadeb Dasgupta's whimsical Mondo Meyer Upakhyan (Tale of a Naughty Girl) won the Best Feature Film award for its "poetic exploration of human and social realities concerning people on the fringes of society". The award for the best film on social issues went to Anwar Jamal's debut film , Swaraaj, while the best children's film award went to A.K. Bir's Baaja.

Kannathil Mutthamittal, Mani Rathnam's heart-wrenching film about a child in search of her mother against the backdrop of the raging ethnic conflict in Sri Lanka, was adjudged the Best Film in the Tamil language category. The film also won the Best Music Director award for A.R. Rehman and the Best Lyricist award for Vairamuthu. It also won the Best Editing award (Sreekar Prasad) and the Special Jury award for acting (Prakash Raj). The gifted Keerthana, who plays the main character in the film, won the Best Child Artist award, which she shared with Shweta Prasad (Makdee).

Instituted in 1954, the National Film Awards are meant to "provide special impetus to regional cinema and encourage the production of films of aesthetic excellence and social relevance". Commenting on the general decline in the standard of films in various languages, Prakash Jha suggested that the government think of a national film policy to arrest the trend. Specifically referring to the Kannada, Malayalam and Telugu film industries, he said that while many films were produced every year in these languages, not many entries passed muster.

Ajay Devgan, who won the Best Actor award for his portrayal of Bhagat Singh.-

He commended the quality of children's films that had entered the competition this year. Critics noted that the presence of Malayalam cinema could be hardly felt. Canonised director Adoor Gopalakrishnan's Nizhalkuthu, widely expected to sweep the awards, only managed to make the Best Malayalam Film category. The other Malayalam entries that were surprisingly passed over were Navya Nair for Best Actress (Nandanam) and actor Mohanlal's son Pranav for Best Child Artist (Punarjani).

Among the big awards, the Best Supporting Actor went to Chandrasekhar for his performance in Nanba Nanba (Tamil) and the Best Supporting Actress to Rakhi for her role in Rituparno Ghose's Shubho Muhurat (Bengali). The Best Non-Feature Film award went to Arun Khopkar's Narayan Gangaram Surve (Marathi).

The award for the Best Popular Film providing wholesome entertainment went, predictably, to the biggest crowd-pleaser of the year, Devdas. Sanjay Leela Bhansali's super spectacular also won the Best Female Playback Singer (Shreya Ghosal for `Bairi Piya'), Best Art Director (Nitin Chandrakant Desai), Best Costume Designer (Neeta Lulla, Abu Jani and Sandeep Khosla) and Best Choreography (Saroj Khan for `Dola Re Dola') awards.

EVERY year, the National Awards announcement is followed by accusations of favouritism, as several films go scandalously neglected while others are rewarded far beyond all merit. In fact, things came to a head in 2001, when at least four of the 129 films, which were rejected in the first round, went on to win major awards. These included Daman, for which Raveena Tandon got the Best Actress Award, and Pukar, for which Anil Kapoor was adjudged the Best Actor. Three members of the jury, Pradip Krishen, Shashi Anand and Madhumita Raut, had walked out, alleging "saffronisation and nepotism" of the panel. The panel included Tarun Vijay, Editor of Panchajanya, Nivedita Pradhan, a Bharatiya Janata Party MLA from Orissa, and Parvati Indusekhar, a supporter of Sushma Swaraj. The jury was chaired by Vyjayanthimala Bali, who was with the BJP. "A cynical political cartel in the jury bulldozed its way as it had pre-decided many of the awards," Krishen said when he quit the panel.

Acclaimed director Goutam Ghosh and actor Soumitra Chatterjee had rejected their awards for the film Dekha, calling the selection process a "farcical" exercise and refusing to be "clubbed with an award tainted with controversies". This incident led to the Standing Committee on Communications, headed by Somnath Chatterjee, suggesting a set of guidelines for choosing the jury.

Keerthana and Simran in the Tamil film Kannathil Muthamittal.-

Kannathil Muthamittal

Actor Dhritiman Chatterjee (who was part of the 2001 jury) argued for "a system in which the central jury watches only 20-25 films and gets to judge the cream", instead of having to watch, individually or collectively, "almost 25 per cent of the total number of films produced in India". He also suggested that the panel system be scrapped and the regional committees be brought back, "so that everybody watches the films together, discusses them and the problems of distortion are cut out".

Rajiv Mehrotra, who headed this year's non-feature film panel, also commented on the glitches in the process. "We had to watch about a hundred films in 10 days," he said, and added that the categories were far too limiting and rigid. While the winning entries were exceptional, he felt that the "average standard of films was appalling" and "completely unworthy of the National Awards".

Most important, the National Awards ignore the entire spectrum of films being produced in digital and video formats, Mehrotra observed. Most of the films that were considered came either from the Films Division or from the film institutes, in the expensive 35 mm or 16 mm format and often lacked the edgy driving impulse of the newer formats, he said. The other potentially troubling factor, he pointed out, was the recent move to censor documentaries before screening, as proposed at the Mumbai International Film Festival. He underscored the point that in this age of globalised television, documentaries, which are essentially a reality genre, cannot be censored for public viewing, especially in a liberal democracy like ours.

Mehrotra seconded Prakash Jha's recommendation on the jury, calling for "a true cross-section which should better represent the different kinds of skills that a film awards jury requires".

Perhaps the Directorate of Film Festivals would do well to listen, for the jury and the selection process are fundamental factors that preserve the merit and dignity of the National Awards.

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