Of awards and rewards

Print edition : April 14, 2001

Viewed in the context of a general atmosphere of cultural policing prevailing in the country, the developments relating to the 48th National Film Awards manifest a disturbing trend.

ON March 25, filmmaker Pradip Krishen and cinematographer Sashi Anand resigned from the jury of the 48th National Film Awards, accusing the body of not having followed the procedures and of having predetermined the results. Joined by Odissi dancer Madhumita Raut, they also accused some of the remaining members of the jury of having formed "a cartel of eight" and implemented a "Hindutva" agenda. Another jury member, noted film actor Dhritiman Chatterjee, put in a letter of protest supporting the dissenters.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj.-M. LAKSHMANAN

The jury members who were criticised, dismissed the allegations as "half-baked lies". Producers involved in the Mumbai film industry confused the issue further by insisting that the real tussle was between commercial cinema and parallel cinema and threw their weight behind the majority section of the jury.

The revelations that followed the resignations deserve careful scrutiny. The 16-member jury, it seems, had been divided into four sub-groups and each sub-group was to watch 32 films each. The films that were rejected by all four members were struck off the list while the remaining ones were shortlisted for being considered for the awards. All four members had rejected both Daman (for which Raveena Tandon got the Best Actress award) and Pukar (for which Anil Kapoor got the Best Actor award) The chairperson, the veteran actress and danseuse Vyjayantimala Bali, asked for the recall of the films. Two other films were similarly brought back into the reckoning.

According to Krishen, Pandavas, an animation film of questionable standard, was recommended for an award because the chairperson thought it would help in "spreading Hindu culture". Worse, jury member Macmohan, an actor best known for his cameo as Samba in Sholay, turned out to be the uncle of Raveena Tandon. According to the rules set down by the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF), all jury members have to sign an affidavit declaring that they are not related to any of the nominees by blood or marriage.

Vyjayantimala Bali.-S. MAHINSHA

In protest, filmmaker Gautam Ghosh and Bengali actor Soumitra Chatterjee declined their awards - for the best Bengali film and the Special Jury Award for Acting respectively. Soumitra Chatterjee has worked with almost all the distinguished filmmakers of Bengal; he has acted in 14 Satyajit Ray films. Although felicitated internationally, Chatterjee had never won a national award. A Lifetime Achievement Award would have been a more fitting tribute for him this time.

It is no secret that the status of the DFF is largely determined by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. It is also common knowledge that many of the nominations to the Jury are made on political considerations and have little to do with the credentials of the nominees. Many people have sought to defuse the present controversy by stating that the national film awards have always been plagued by coterie politics. This argument misses the point. The jury constituted by the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government is not only loaded in favour of the BJP but comprises many individuals whose credentials for the job are dubious. The controversy has to be seen in the context of the systematic cultural interventions being made by the Sangh Parivar.

Apparently the DFF had sent a list of about 100 names to the Ministry out of which some were chosen as jury members; and some names were added. If the DFF is indeed an autonomous body, why does the list have to be prepared by the Ministry in the first place? The final list betrays a tilt in favour of the interests represented by the BJP. Vyjayanthimala Bali, who is associated with the BJP after quitting the Congress(I), headed the jury. Tarun Vijay is the editor of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh mouthpiece Panchjanya. Shashi Ranjan, a product of the Film and Television Institute of India, was the producer of ''Shotgun Show'', a television programme by Shatrughan Sinha, a BJP supporter. Pawan Kumar, a BJP heavyweight, was formerly Shatrughan Sinha's secretary. And then there is Niveditha Pradhan, who was the campaign manager of Information and Broadcasting Minister Sushma Swaraj in the Bellary parliamentary constituency. Sushma Swaraj defended Niveditha's inclusion by stating that she was chosen to "represent housewives".

Anil Kapoor, winner of the award for Best Actor.-S. MAHINSHA

Denying that the jury had a "saffron" agenda, Tarun Vijay, in an article in The Indian Express, described the dissenters as "intolerant, iconoclastic secular Talibanis" who, with "hate in their eyes and acid in their tongue", quit when their own agenda was not followed. In a particularly revelatory passage, he wrote: "They were advocating Split Wide Open for its bold theme and characterisation. Others rejected it for what they considered its perverted portrayal of human relations. If a film (that) shows sexual relations between son-in-law and his old mother-in-law, between father and daughter, a husband having homosexual relations with his servant and the wife joining in too, is considered the best film to be given the national award at the hands of the President, then why not invite better porno films from Playboy?" Whether the film deserves the highest award or not may be a matter of debate, but the reasons that Tarun Vijay has chosen to attribute for its rejection have nothing to do with its cinematic merits. His objections are that of the moral police and not a cinephile. This is like stating that Satyajit Ray's Charulata deserves no awards because it depicts a woman falling in love with her brother-in-law, or that Ghare-Baire promotes adultery and hence does not deserve praise.

The Sangh Parivar has been on a mission to redefine India's history and socio-cultural experience. To this end, it has deployed both legal and extra-legal measures; state and street censorship. The disruption of the shooting of Deepa Mehta's Water is a case in point. Arun Jaitley, the then Minister for Information and Broadcasting, gave Deepa Mehta permission to shoot the film in Banaras. But activists of the Parivar destroyed the sets, intimidated the film crew and stopped the shooting. The government did nothing to ensure that the permission granted by it was honoured. Nor did it seem to feel that it had any duty to safeguard the filmmaker's constitutional right to freedom of speech and expression. On the contrary, Jana Krishnamurthy, vice-president of the BJP (now its president), said: "Physical vandalism cannot be tolerated (but) if something goes against the moral fabric of the society, its long-established tradition and sentiment, it could be described as moral vandalism." If these words create a sense of deja vu, it is because BJP leaders have used similar language against M.F. Husain's paintings, Deepa Mehta's Fire, The Miss World Pageant, satellite television and just about anything that does not conform to the Hindutva forces' understanding of Indian culture.

Raveena Tandon, winner of the award for Best Actress.-S. MAHINSHA

The policing of public morality finds its most strident advocate in Sushma Swaraj herself. In 1996, when she held the same portfolio during the BJP-led government's brief tenure, she banned a TV commercial showing a woman with a billowing skirt because it was "against Indian culture"; she upbraided Doordarshan newsreaders for wearing "semi-transparent" clothing. She also banned a programme called "Kaam ki Baatein" on FM radio because, according to her, sex education and awareness about the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome amounted to promoting "adultery". Soon after taking over as the Minister for Information and Broadcasting Minister this time, she wanted to ban Fashion TV as it "promotes obscenity and vulgarity". Recently, at the Digital Talkies Festival in New Delhi (the first of its kind in India) two films which the Central Board of Film Certification had refused to clear - Pankaj Advani's Urf Professor and Siddhartha Srinivasan's Drivya Drishti - won top awards. Thankfully, the Ministry had nothing to do with the jury selection there. The sparklingly witty and stylish Urf Professor introduces an entirely new cinematic idiom to Indian cinema. It is unlikely that the moral police will ever certify this unique film for public viewing.

Filmmaker Gautam Ghosh.-JAYANTA SHAW/REUTERS

MEDIA watchers and the public at large should feel concerned at the innumerable restrictions being imposed on the right to information and freedom of speech and expression. In this regard, the Information Technology Act, 2000 and the Cable TV (Regulation) Amendment Act, 2000 deserve close attention. Under the Information Technology Act, "publishing of information which is obscene in electronic form" is a punishable offence. It says that "whoever publishes or transmits or causes to be published in electronic form, any material which is lascivious or appeals to the prurient interest" in a manner that tends to "deprave or/and corrupt" people can be punished with imprisonment up to five years and a fine up to Rs.1 lakh. The question is: Who decides what is obscene or lascivious or what constitutes "prurient interest"? Also, under this Act, downloading material on HIV/AIDS, child sexual abuse or even the script of Split Wide Open could well attract punishment. Under the present climate of moral policing, very little is required to provoke an outcry about obscenity and vulgarity. The Act allows a "police officer and other officers" to enter and search "any public place and arrest without warrant any person found therein who is reasonably suspected of having committed or of committing or being about to commit any offence under this act."

Actor Soumitra Chatterjee.-

Similar restrictions have been brought in by the amendments to the Cable Act of 1995. The amendments not only impose a highly problematic Programme and Advertising Code but also bring television under the Cinematograph Act of 1952. This means that the rules applicable to feature films would apply to television as well. As is commonly known now, the Advertising Code prohibits the telecast of advertisements on cigarettes, liquor and other intoxicants as also infant milk substitutes, feeding bottles and infant food. In order to ensure that these censorship provisions are followed, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry requisitioned the services of the Central Monitoring Cell on Gurgaon-Mehrauli Road, in Delhi. Here, 120 members of the cell sit and watch TV all day, looking out for "anti-Indian propaganda" among other things. When the Cable TV Act was being enforced, this cell was used to monitor liquor and tobacco advertisements. Set up originally by the Army and the Intelligence apparatus, the cell now serves as a mammoth panoptican for the BJP-led government.

In this situation, it would be both naive and delusory to imagine that the controversy surrounding the 48th National Film Awards is a case of coterie politics as usual. Secular personalities like Mahesh Bhatt and Javed Akhtar have missed the point in their rush to defend commercial cinema. The paranoia is particularly misplaced in today's context where the dichotomy between commercial and parallel cinema has been blurred conclusively by films like Mrityudand, Takshak, Zubeidaa, and Astitva. There are now innumerable privately instituted awards - such as Filmfare, Lux-Zee and Videocon - that cater almost exclusively to popular cinema. Commercial cinema is no longer neglected.

Mumbai film industry producers and the saffron members of the jury have been asking how the BJP benefits from awards being given to Raveena Tandon and Anil Kapoor. Perhaps the benefits are mutual. The BJP gets to reward the faithful (Raveena Tandon had campaigned for a BJP MLA, and Anil Kapoor had added new scenes to Pukar with a view to cashing in on patriotic feelings generated during the Kargil war) and the Mumbai film industry gets (seemingly serious) recognition and tax-free status for its films!

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