FOR the common lover of Hindi cinema, the year 1975 brings back memories of Deewar and Sholay ; some sing praises of Jai Santoshi Maa too. Only a discerning few identify the year with Shyam Benegal’s Nishant , a film as unsettling as it was provocative. Benegal had previously handled the caste issue in Ankur . In Nishant he focussed on a social order where villagers were all poor and dark-skinned and the women were uneducated and meant for the pleasure of the feudal lord. In a telling piece of dialogue, written by Satyadev Dubey, women were compared to cows. Only Benegal had the finesse to handle such a comparison with dignity. In the hands of a lesser man, it would have been reduced to sheer ridicule. In his hands, it became a scathing indictment of gender discrimination.
However, when it was released the only cinema hall in New Delhi to show it was Regal. In contrast, Jai Santoshi Maa , as mediocre and amateurish as they come, was shown at practically every cinema by turn. Even theatres reserved exclusively for Hollywood fare made an exception for it. Deewar , with its famous “Mere paas maa hai” dialogue, completed a silver jubilee at the popular Majestic theatre, while Sholay picked up after a lukewarm beginning in a stupendous manner. The audience for Nishant began in a trickle but gradually became a gentle stream. It ran for seven consecutive weeks, a reasonable achievement but one clearly dwarfed by the 25-week run of Deewar , the 50-week run of Jai Santoshi Maa and the endless shows of Sholay . Yet, Nishant , and not any of the others, won the National Award for Best Feature Film in Hindi. Fortunately, the National Film Awards jury was alive to the moment, able to discern between the popular and the socially responsible, between a box office hit and a film that deserved to be seen.
Hence, while Deewar cornered glory at the popular Filmfare awards and Sholay too got one, they both lost out to the sensitive Nishant at the National Awards. Yash Chopra and Ramesh Sippy’s films whipped up magic at the box office, but Benegal’s merely appealed to the audience by depicting socio-economic inequalities in Indian villages.
Set in 1945, before the founding fathers of our Constitution coined the term “India that is Bharat”, it resonated with discerning lovers of serious cinema in 1975. A year later, Manthan , based on Gujarat’s dairy cooperatives, won the same national award. The grapevine those days was that if a film won a National Award, it was difficult to find it showing at a cinema hall near you. These films, some rather uncharitably said, were only meant for the film festival circuit.
If Nishant were to be made today, it would have stood no chance in front of the competition offered by films like Baahubali , Bajrangi Bhaijaan , Piku and Tanu Weds Manu Returns . In 1975, Ramesh Sippy was the man who gave us the biggest commercial hit, Sholay , and this year he headed the jury. And it showed in the jury’s choices. Baahubali , replete with mythical symbolism and smart special effects, garnered a whopping Rs.600 crore within a few months of its release. It clearly left the jury impressed. It won the National Award for Best Feature Film, technical wizardry rather than a plausible storyline tilting the scales in its favour at the awards just as it had done at the box office.
In the 1970s and 1980s, cinema to be lauded was cinema with a purpose; now it seems the cinema to be applauded is the cinema that is accompanied by the sweet sound of cash registers ringing and mass whistling inside the theatre. Baahubali , for all its faults, was, however, a rare non-Hindi film to win the distinction in the general category. All the other winners were Hindi films, rather mainstream commercial ventures that made all the compromises with the narrative and content to cater to the masses.
Take, for instance, the Salman Khan-starrer Bajrangi Bhaijaan , which was released at the same time as Baahubali in more than 5,000 screens. In many ways an appeal for peace at a human level between India and Pakistan, it went on to be the second-highest grosser in the history of Indian cinema. Despite its simplistic treatment of the subject, it got the National Award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, leaving some wondering if flying kites with the Prime Minister helps.
Sanjay Leela Bhansali won the Best Director award for Bajirao Mastani , a popular take on a medieval saga. Interestingly, in many ways Bajirao Mastani , Bajrangi Bhaijaan and Baahubali were competing for the same slot, the same award, just as they had competed for the same audience at the time of their release. The jury kept all of them happy, giving an award in at least one category to each contestant, almost like a father distributing cookies at home to squabbling children.
Then there were awards for rank commercial entertainers like Tanu Weds Manu Returns and Piku, with Kangana Ranaut and Amitabh Bachchan winning the Best Actress and the Best Actor awards, respectively. (Interestingly, Bachchan won the Best Actor award for 2009 for his performance in Paa at the 57th National Awards, and that jury was also headed by Ramesh Sippy.) Not arguing with the performance of either Kangana Ranaut or Bachchan, but it did seem to many that you only had to get the cash registers jingling at the box office for a national award to fall into your kitty. And if you did so in Hindi, it almost guaranteed an award. Continuing the march of mainstream commercial entertainers at the National Awards were people like Juhi Chaturvedi and Himanshu Sharma, who won the awards for the Best Original Screenplay and Dialogue in Piku and Tanu Weds Manu Returns , respectively. Some might argue that the films were not merely entertainers, but nobody can deny that they catered to the multiplex crowd, a tacit admission that the films had a flavour with which a man or a woman from the hinterland could not identify, never mind the over-the-top Hindi laced with choice words by Kangana Ranaut or Bachchan’s toilet humour.
If in the 1970s cynics wondered whether the awarded films ever permitted themselves a moment of good cheer, today the jury has gone to the other extreme. Only cinema that asks no uneasy questions is feted. And feel-good cinema is lauded in times when achche din have proved to be elusive, even illusory. It may not quite be the jury’s version of “have no bread, let them eat cake”, but by largely rewarding box office success stories, the awards have lost some of their lustre. The line between the popular and the classy has blurred.
The jury is guilty of forgetting that films, however light they may be, cannot and should not dispense with the dark side of life. Even a heart unaccustomed to sorrow is incapable of realising the profundity of love and joy. Films like Baahubali and Bajrangi Bhaijaan are all about living in the moment, in some ways escapist, in others quick-fix fantasies, certainly not the kind of films you would watch a few years down the line. There have been some saving graces, though, almost like a spell of rain after a long drought. Neeraj Ghaywan’s Masaan , which wooed audiences at film festivals across the world, got him the Best Debut Film award. Masaan is a dark, gently moving love story set against the burning ghats of Varanasi. It created only a few ripples in the commercial cinema circuit but managed to impress critics. With its realistic take, far removed from the hype of mass entertainers, it told us that there was more to cinema, even Hindi cinema, than mass entertainers.
That was but a small concession. Otherwise, the National Awards seem barely discernible from the other popular awards going around by the name of Filmfare, Screen and what have you. The National Awards somehow managed to apply the principles of reduction: leave out Marathi films, leave out Bengali offerings, leave out Tamil and Malayalam cinema too. At best, give them awards for films in their language, thereby reinforcing the oft-contested stereotype of regional versus national cinema, vernacular versus Hindi cinema. The jury did not bother to cast the net far and wide, it just stuck to Hindi and preferred to celebrate the official language by awarding mass entertainers made in it. It effectively ended the prospects of Gurvinder Singh’s Punjabi film, Chauthi Koot , and Raam Reddy’s Kannada film, Thithi . Despite being lapped up beyond the boundaries of India and feted at film festivals far and wide, the films had to be content with awards in the regional category at the National Awards.
Today, in 2016, why does one talk of Nishant ? It is because of a Baahubali , a Bajrangi Bhaijaan . The memories of the past stay warm. It is the present that leaves our discerning cinegoers cold.