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Phalke on the rocks

He may be the Father of Indian Cinema, and no one has ever challenged that, but the way Dadasaheb Phalke has been treated, both recently and down the years, should make us do some serious introspection, says AMITA MALIK.


Prithviraj Kapoor ... among the first awardees after stellar performances.

TWO recent events have highlighted the sad neglect of Dadasaheb Phalke, the legendary pioneer of Indian cinema, who sold his wife's jewellery and persuaded the ladies of his family to act in his films to save money at a time when it was taboo for women from such families to appear in public performances. The recent disastrous fire at the Film and TV Institute in Pune and the destruction of precious, and irreplaceable, classic films from the National Film Archives have made the country lose such immortal gems as the original print of Phalke's pioneering Indian feature film "Raja Harishchandra". While the several neglectful, and obviously insensitive, officials concerned kept blaming each other and shirking responsibility, the fact remains that the prints had been stored in a godown obviously susceptible to fire. They should have been removed to safer fire-proof storage space (delayed in preparation but still usable) long ago, because nothing can replace the original prints for archive value, no matter how many copies are available.

Much more poignant on the human level was a recent news item on a private news channel which showed an elderly lady, obviously seriously ill, surrounded by anxious relatives. She was Dadasaheb's daughter, Vrinda Pusalkar, and her relatives said she did not have enough money for medical treatment. A shocking disclosure which was later softened by the news that after the media exposure the Maharashtra Government had looked into the matter and promised help with medical expenses. Her relatives also disclosed that not one member of Dadasaheb's family had ever been invited to the awards functions in his name, admittedly for the most coveted award for life-time services to Indian cinema. Even more surprising and sad was the disclosure that when Vrinda Pusalkar had sent a letter of congratulations to Lata Mangeshkar when she received the award in 1990, let alone a letter of thanks, it was not even acknowledged. Perhaps this is symbolic. The haphazard manner in which the awards have been selected recently, with the government of the moment, meaning politicians and bureaucrats, obviously involved in the choice have shown a distinct tilt towards popular Mumbai commercial cinema.

Yet the award, which was instituted in 1970, started off on the right note. The first five awardees were Devika Rani, actress and former owner of Bombay Talkies; B. N. Sarkar of New Theatres, Prithviraj Kapoor, Pankaj Mullick, the famous singer, and Sulochana, actress-singer. Then followed B.N. Reddy (a rare early winner from the South), Dhiren Ganguly, pioneer filmmaker, Kanan Debi, actress and singer, Nitin Bose, film maker, R.C. Boral, singer and music director, Sohrab Modi, actor-film maker, Jairaj, actor, Naushad Ali, music director, L.V. Prasad, film maker, Durgabai Khote, actress and film maker, Satyajit Ray, V. Shantaram, B. Nagi Reddy, film maker, Raj Kapoor, Ashok Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, A Nageshwara Rao, actor-film maker, Bhalji Pendharkar, film maker, Bhupen Hazarika, singer, music director, Dilip Kumar, Raj Kumar, Sivaji Ganesan, Pradeep, lyricist, and B.R. Chopra, film maker. This year the award goes to Yash Chopra.

It seems evident that while there seemed to be a tilt towards Bombay and Calcutta to begin with, at least the awardees were all-India figures. But for the Telugu and Tamil cinemas to be so noticeably under-represented and the Kannada and Malayalam cinemas almost totally absent, seemed strange. The mysterious grand moghuls, meaning netas and babus in the capital, where all such awards are chosen, seem to be strangely unfamiliar with our Deep South cinemas, while some of the award winners from the Hindi cinema, including one or two film-makers and lyricists, are hardly national celebrities. The frantic search for their bio-datas by film writers outside the Hindi circuit provided proof of their being unknown outside the Hindi belt.

It is also significant that not one musician, lyricist or music director from the South has been found worthy of the award, the one to Bhupen Hazarika of Assam being a belated recognition of the existence of the North-East. Had Hazarika not provided music for some Hindi films by Bombay directors, he might not have been noticed. Yet Assam and even little Manipur have produced film makers and film personalities who have won national and international fame far beyond those of some of the worthies from Bombay's popular cinema. Typical of the slapdash way in which these awards are chosen is the noted omission of Soumitra Chatterji, famous all over the world for his great performances in some of the classics of Satyajit Ray. Chatterji has been heaped with international honours, including the Legion of Honour from France, but I do not recall his getting any top award in India, let alone the Dadasaheb. Similarly, Aribam Shyam Sarma of Manipur has even been invited in his own right to the Cannes and other prestigious international festivals, but the Dadasaheb Phalke award has eluded him too. I apologise for my inability to name similar deserving people from the South Indian cinemas because except for having reviewed films with sub-titles and interviewed South Indian film celebrities at film festivals, I have to plead a lack of detailed knowledge of those cinemas in languages with which I am unfamiliar. At least one of them makes more films annually than Bombay and another has won more top international awards than the Hindi cinema.

Perhaps it should be made public who exactly are the people who choose film personalities for the Dadasaheb Phalke awards, which are for life-time achievement and, presumably, for quality cinema. Because, unless an equal number of selectors from outside the Hindi orbit are represented on selection committees with credibility for the all-India public, the awards will end up going the same controversial way as the State awards for films. Which would be the final blow to the Father of Indian Cinema.

Amita Malik is a noted columnist and film critic, broadcaster and non-political writer.

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