The Swarna Kamal may have lost its glitter but efforts are on to make the national film awards more relevant and inclusive.

The 59th national film awards have been announced and the question of its efficacy and objectivity remains as elusive as ever. Till about 15 years ago, it was the primary goal, especially for low-budget filmmakers to set about making an ‘award' film and the commercial films, by default, became ‘reward' films! The ‘award' films tended to look realistic, often shot in villages using non-actors and with no marketing funds. The larger purpose was to win some national award and then move onwards to internationals festivals. The mid-1990s saw the blurring of the divide with filmmakers like Mani Ratnam, Priyadarshan, Sudhir Mishra, Prakash Jha and Deepa Mehta emerging. Soon, the national award for “Kuch Kuch Hota Hai” as the best ‘entertainment' film in 1999 virtually opened the gates for Bollywood and other regional blockbusters to get reasonable chances on this ‘national' playing field.

While several cineastes condemn this ‘vulgar' shift, the divide continues in another way. The real problem lies in the fact that only 180 films enter the competition out of the 1,000-plus films censored each year. Rajeev Jain, the new Director at the Directorate of Film Festivals, says, “Our coverage is widest in terms of categories of awards. The number of entries each year is going up because of increased awareness, popularity of awards and also our outreach efforts”. Yet, less than 20 per cent of the films censored enter the fray! To make these ‘awards' more accessible and democratic we need to probe a little further.

The main criteria for the national awards are: (a) It has to be a film censored within the calendar year and not necessarily released commercially; (b) One has to apply for the these awards and only the producer is empowered to send in the application; (c) Considering the linguistic diversity of the films and the jury members, English sub-titled prints are made mandatory.

Obvious obstacles

Obviously, with these criteria, roadblocks are bound to come up: (a) Not all film producers are aware of the application process and its complexities; (b) Depending on the decision of the producer, who in most cases, is the least creative unit member, the film gets entered or ignored; (c) Sub-titling in English, besides being expensive, is an art which has been seriously ignored over the years and therefore hampers effective communication, especially of regional nuances for the jury members.

These problems have been discussed over the last 58 years and there are no realistic ways of addressing the multifaceted nature of awarding the ‘cinemas of India'. Adding to this complexity is the fact that every state gives away its own regional film awards; most state capitals now have an international film festival in which Indian films also compete; and then there are several private players like film magazines and TV channels hosting their own awards with far greater pomp and media reach.

Despite the slow marginalisation of the national awards, it is undoubtedly conducted in a manner which attempts to be fair and objective. Awards are also given here to short films, animation works, documentaries and even to film critics and authors. All these categories are headed by different juries. “The jury comprises eminent filmmakers and other distinguished persons in the fields of art and culture. Many a times, the schedules of active filmmakers clash with our screening dates which lasts a month. Confirming the availability of jury members at one point of time is a challenging task,” says Rajeev Jain.

So, what does one do when 180 films from all over India land up in the New Delhi office of the Directorate and a disparate group of over 30 film jurors are made to watch 4 to 5 films a day and declare over 50 results within four weeks?

Coping with the numbers

“It may be very difficult for the national jury to choose the best films with due diligence because of increasing number of entries every year. So, an Expert Committee headed by Shyam Benegal recommended a two tier jury screening process to bring down the load on central jury,” says Jain. The first tier consists of five different panels watching the 180 films entered and recommend around 50 films to the central panel. Next year the number of entries is expected to go up and the required period of jury screenings could go up to even two months.

But, with the rapid shift taking place in the world of digital projections, there will virtually be no celluloid film prints for circulation in the next two years, maximum. The DFF has to come up with high definition 4K projection systems and also accommodate the variety of formats in the international market today. And while DFF is deliberating, there is news that Christopher Nolan is shooting 6K resolution at 60 frames a second and James Cameron plans to shoot his next 3D film at 120 fps. Director Rajeev Jain assures us, “We are planning to be on par with the best theatre systems in terms of technology by next year. This may include popular digital formats also.”

Vinay Shukla, a panel member, thinks that the only way to handle this situation is by decentralising this process out of Delhi and making the selection process an ongoing year-long affair. Chairperson of this year's jury Rohini Hattangady says, “Like we do in the world of theatre, films may have to be seen by eminent jurors in regular theatres all over India throughout the year and on a variety of release formats.” Deliberations could be done over Skype or whatever to make the whole process more democratic and all-inclusive. The important thing is to give the most deserving filmmakers, artists and technicians their due recognition irrespective of the fact whether the producers apply for an award or not.