Film Awards

Questionable choices

Print edition : May 12, 2017

Akshay Kumar arrives for a screening of his film ‘Rustom’ in Mumbai. Photo: AFP

Akshay Kumar at the Valour Day celebrations of the CRPF with Home Minister Rajnath Singh and Director General CRPF Sudeep Lakhtia, in New Delhi on April 9. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

Aamir Khan at the poster launch for 'Dangal' in Mumbai. Photo: Rajneesh Londhe

Priyanka Chopra. Her Marathi production, 'Ventilator', won three national awards. Photo: Ritu Raj Konwar

The Best Actor award to Akshay Kumar and three awards for Priyanka Chopra’s Marathi production get mired in controversy over allegations of political favouritism.

MORE than two decades ago when Akshay Kumar started his film career with Saugandh in 1991, followed soon after by Khilari, the favourite line of critics to describe his acting ability was “tree trunk expression”. He was considered good looking, and the more charitable ones believed he could carry off action sequences with ease. Nobody, though, accused him of possessing extraordinary acting ability. On a good day, he was a glam boy. On a bad day, he was, well, bad. Over the years, he honed his limited skills and became better. No longer was he just an “action king”; he displayed a zest for comedy, too.

When the noted director Priyadarshan, never short of ways to make viewers laugh, teamed up with Akshay Kumar, the star could get the initial crowd and the director could get a repeat audience with his skill. They made for a fine combo in films such as Hera Pheri, Bhool Bhulaiyaa, Garam Masala and Bhagam Bhaag, all largely over-the-top masala fare in which the laughs were cheap and aplenty.

Then came films like Dhadkan (2000), Welcome (2007), then Special 26 (2013) and Baby (2015). Yet nobody in the world of cinema believed that Akshay Kumar, a hugely successful commercial star who was maybe just a notch below the Khans but very popular all the same, had the potential to win a national award. It turns out that he did have the potential for not one but a couple of awards. For his performance as Rustom Zaveri in Rustom, and before that with Airlift, Akshay Kumar managed to get the coveted national award for Best Actor. It seemed a bit like a combined silver jubilee award. In the days gone by, when a film failed to get the expected bumper opening, the distributors ran the film at many B and C grade halls simultaneously. And, soon, adding the combined weeks, they would announce that the film had notched up a silver jubilee. That the silver jubilee was achieved in, say, eight weeks instead of the usual run of 25 uninterrupted weeks did not seem to matter to many. Akshay Kumar won the award, and he was greeted with the mandatory “congrats, well deserved” routine by the likes of Sonu Nigam and Sonali Bendre.

Priyadarshan, as the head of the national awards jury, had this to say: “Akshay has won the best actor award for both Airlift and Rustom. For technical reasons, only Rustom is mentioned in the list of awardees. But he has given contrasting and extremely sensitive performances in both Airlift and Rustom, and we thought it was only fair to honour him for both.”

‘Anti-national’ Aamir and ‘patriotic’ Akshay

“Sensitive”? Debatable. But a national award for Best Actor for two films? Unprecedented. Or, maybe it needed two Akshay Kumars to tilt the balance in his favour, for the other contestants were Aamir Khan and Mohanlal. That Aamir Khan makes it a point to avoid private award functions is a non-starter for an excuse. His performance in Dangal was one for the masses as well as the classes. Probably the best of his career, one that has made a non-fashionable sport like women’s wrestling the talk of the town.

Many wondered aloud if Kiran Rao’s fears—remember how Aamir talked of his wife, Kiran, fearing for their children in an increasingly intolerant India—had cost him the award. There will never be a final word on this, but considering how a section of the ruling dispensation, including Union Ministers, have been critical of the star sharing his wife’s fears on a public platform. Many right-wing followers dubbed him anti-national, while others lampooned him.

His fellow stars, like Akshay Kumar, while not being directly confrontational, lost no opportunity to reiterate which side of the fence they stood on the issue. Though Aamir has since clarified, apparently the rogues have a longer memory than people give them credit for.

On Akshay Kumar making clear his fascination for the Narendra Modi-led government—the recently launched app on Bharat ke Veer was apparently his idea—many believe he has tweeted his way to glory. His tweets have never been short on support for the Prime Minister, and the star has taken any criticism of the government to be synonymous with criticism of the nation. With a section of the audience, and a significant part of the powers that be, he seems to have ticked all the right boxes. The award is hard earned.

Keyboard warriors need to be feted too. More so, when they seem to wear their patriotism and political predilection on their sleeves. It is not easily forgotten how after the release of his film Baby he had come out in support of Modi. He stated: “With my hand on my heart, I believe 100 per cent that we are not only in safe hands, but being led by a man with a conscience as well as necessary fighting spirit.” Also, the photograph in which the Prime Minister is seen pulling the ear of Akshay Kumar’s son Aarav, taken at the International Fleet Review in Visakhapatnam, went viral. It left the father feeling “proud”. Soon after, Akshay Kumar tweeted: “Proud moment in a father’s life when the Prime Minister pulls your son’s ear in jest, and calls him a good boy.”

Akshay is not the first or the only one who has been accused of winning the national award for reasons other than acting craft. A few years ago Ajay Devgn got the award when Prakash Jha headed the jury. That Jha was working with Devgn in a film around the same time mattered little. The conflict of interest angle was but little explored. Much like this time when Priyadarshan is said to be working with Akshay Kumar yet again. That he found no contradiction in sitting on judgement on Akshay’s acting abilities after having directed him in more than half a dozen films says it all.

Incidentally, Devgn too has been vocal in his support for the Prime Minister and also got due reward. His film Shivaay, otherwise criticised for lacklustre fare, got an award for Best Visual Effects. When Shivaay released in October last year, at the same time as Karan Johar’s Ae Dil Hai Mushkil, which featured Pakistani actor Fawad Khan in a small role, more than one leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) came out in support of the film. Congratulating Naveen Paul, the man behind the award-winning special effects, Devgn said, in a statement, “Many congratulations to Naveen and the entire team, I am thankful to the honourable jury, but I have to say that I am not at all surprised by their decision. This indeed is a well-deserved win.” Devgn produced and directed the film. Like Akshay, he has stood rock solid behind the Prime Minister.

Following the November 8 demonetisation of Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 notes, he called the move “historical” and dubbed the common man’s daily struggle to put bread on the table as “trivial”. Incidentally, on social media he had taken on film-maker Anurag Kashyap, who had supported Karan Johar’s film, and talked of the duplicity of right-wing leaders seeking a ban on Johar’s film for using a Pakistani artiste while the Prime Minister had gone on an unscheduled visit to Lahore to meet Nawaz Sharif. “We should be responsible about what we are saying. These are people who spoil things,” Devgn had said.

Also winning, even if indirectly, was Priyanka Chopra. Her Marathi production Ventilator found favour three times over, for Best Director and for editing and re-recording. Needless to reiterate, Priyanka, too, has stood on the right side of the fence over the past few years. Maybe incidental, but she too had been a cheerleader for the Prime Minister during the Swachh Bharat Abhiyaan and then demonetisation. She had been nominated by the Prime Minister to participate in the Swachh Bharat campaign.

While rumblings of discontent are almost an annual feature with the national awards—when Raveena Tandon got the Best Actor (Female) in 2002 for Daman, and Anil Kapoor got Best Actor (Male) for Pukar in 2001 even some jury members quit to register their protest—this time, the approach appears less nuanced when it comes to popular stars and directors. No such hiccups seem to have come the way of other, less “starry” winners, notably Rajesh Mapuskar for Best Director or Surabhi C.M. for Best Actor (Female). Or even the best supporting actor and actress awards for Manoj Joshi and Zaira Wasim. Even the special jury award for Mohanlal has not raised eyebrows, despite the star having worked closely with Priyadarshan in the past. In fact, many have greeted the special mentions for Sonam and Adul Hussain for Neerja and Mukti Bhawan respectively. Not so with Akshay Kumar, Ajay Devgn and Priyanka Chopra. Are they being singled out because of their support for the political dispensation ruling at the Centre? Or are they the beneficiaries of the support?

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