Symphony out of monophonies

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An award that is supposed to be socialistic in nature — a recognition and reward for reformist, instructive, non-mainstream, regional cinema — seems in danger of becoming 'pop', 'commercial' — in short — 'Bollywoodised'.

As an urban, cinephilic child of Doordarshan, the first metaphor that strikes my mind when I think of National Film Awards is that of Mile Sur Mera Tumhara. A song focussed at creating a spirit of national integration among Indians, it captures India’s composite culture — its numerous languages, its diverse landscapes, its varied attires — in a capsule. Its lyrics translate to “when the my melody merges with your melody, it creates ‘our melody’, the melody of the collective”. The song exemplifies the possibility of creating a symphony out of diverse, contradictory monophonies.

One way to understand and appreciate India’s National Awards for cinema is by understanding and appreciating the Mile Sur melody in its entirety. Beginning with the rendering of the lyrics in the soulful voice of Bhimsen Joshi in Hindi, it traverses the length and breadth of the country — from Kashmir to Kanyakumari — and explores the ways in which the same set of lines can be seen and expressed through the eyes and voices of different cultures. To reduce it to its barebones, it tries to give representation to the cultures recognised uniquely as ‘Indian’ by our Constitution. That is what the National Awards came to represent — a capsule of the composite culture of India.

Another way I saw National Awards as a child was as a window to the culture of the peoples who may not have interaction with me. In the early decades of television, we could rest assured that if a film won a National Award, it would be shown, without fail, on Doordarshan with subtitles. Thus, we could have some glimpse into the culture of those with whom we had little interaction in our day-to-day lives. In a rather secular way, the languages of the films were arranged in alphabetical order. Thus, it would begin with Assamese, ending with Telugu and Urdu.

With each industry creating its own niche, this trend has changed. We don’t need to wait for Doordarshan to show a popular award-winning movie like Visaranai or Ennu Ninte Moideen in subtitled format. They will have their own releases. This is in addition to the numerous peer-to-peer sharing websites that have been a boon for cinephiles, allowing us to indulge in the guilty pleasure of unethically deepening our understanding of diverse cultures.

However, despite the creation of so many niches, the ability of the National Awards to surprise the audiences with innovative choices has not changed. Neither has the respect filmmakers throughout the country accord and the value they place on the awards, as can be glimpsed from the submission of entries from different regions, despite the difficulties involved. We are bound to be pleasantly surprised when a film like Byari or Wancho wins a National Award, something that creates a certain pride in the different cultures of our country.

Instituted seven years after Independence, the National Awards sought to reward films about issues facing the common man and thus contribute to nation-building

However, one trend that has been apparent — at least over the last few years — is the rising ‘Bollywoodisation’ of the awards. Therefore, it did not come as a surprise to see the tweet “Is it National Awards or Filmfare Awards?” when the list of winners was announced. ‘Bollywoodisation’ does not necessarily refer to movies from Bollywood winning more awards. It refers to movies of the popular variety — those that achieve great box-office dividends and have stars and other acclaimed names in them — moving to the top, precluding recognition to some of their more-needy cousins. This has not necessarily been an unhealthy trend, though the ascent of such movies to the top in the top categories — like Best Movie, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director — has crowded out those from the regional medium. Hence, the likelihood of a movie being honoured has increased with increased budget, star value, publicity and box office collections. The most glaring example of this is Baahubali winning the award this year ahead of a Masaan or a Talvaar.

Way back in 1954, when our nation was barely seven years old, the role of the National Awards were made clear, in the introduction to the commemoration, with a few lines from Bharata’s Natyashastra. It said that “the function of drama is to instruct the masses, educate the intellect, serve the cause of righteousness, besides imparting vitality to the nation, bringing it glory and furthering the welfare of the people.”

Creating categories for films in regional language — like Manipuri, Kashmiri, Tulu and Monpa — has not necessarily helped industries in the respective regions, nor created greater awareness of their cultures.

A cursory look at the winners for Best Film over the years suggests that these lines have acted as guidelines for successive award committees. They have given emphasis to “the welfare of the people”, implying the number of lives the movie is likely to touch. “Art For Art’s Sake” has not exactly been the criterion. Keeping that in mind, giving an award to a potboiler like Baahubali has deservedly raised a few eyebrows.

The awards were first given in 1954, for films made in 1953, at a time when our nation was barely seven years old. The films, just like the media, were seen as a medium for contributing to the nation-building project by highlighting the day-to-day issues facing the common man and his ability to overcome them. Many of them were also artful adaptation of famous works of literature. Hence, we had movies like Do Aankhen Barah Haath as well as Anuradha winning awards. We also had Satyajit Ray’s films from the Apu Trilogy and Kabuliwala. Overall, for the first ten years at least, the movies seemed to parallel the idealism and romanticism inherent in the nation-building project.

Over a period of time, the awards diversified while retaining their emphasis on rewarding movies and individuals making cinema on reformist themes. The other theme the winners shared was having their roots in quality literature of the particular region. Hence, we had a Samskara and a Samar awarded along with a Damul and an Akaler Shandhaney.

Another thing that makes the National Awards a torchbearer of the symphony of the nation is the number of languages that have been rewarded. Out of the 63 winners of Best Film award, 22 have been in Bengali and 11 in Malayalam, proving that, at least to some extent, the cinematic sophistication and the literacy of the masses in these regions have found recognition at the national level. Even among the Hindi movies rewarded, the Bollywood variety cinema has remained on the margins until recently, its art cinema cousins like Shehar aur Sapna, and Samar getting greater recognition.

However, the creeping Bollywoodisation — with the likelihood of getting an award becoming linked to the popularity and the mass appeal of a particular movie — does blur the boundaries between artistic, aesthetic, reformist merit on the one hand and, on the other, popularity. The National Awards of the noughties represented the spirit of Mile Sur Mera Tumhara 2.0 — more jazz, slightly less representation but increased preference for the popular, rather than the promising.

Film critic and national award-winning writer M.K. Raghavendra feels there is no pattern or consistency in the criteria for picking winners: "They pick a jury that comes out with its own view of what is the 'best'. This time Bollywood bigwigs were in charge and they picked Baahubali. Last time someone else picked Court. Is there any common ground between these two films? If they had picked Thithi this year, there might have been a discernible trend."

Morever, he said India had not evolved reliable standards for itself in cinema "This is true of virtually every department — cinematography, music, acting, scriptwriting."

Largely, the institution of categories for films made in languages like Manipuri, Kashmiri, Tulu and Monpa has not necessarily helped industries in the respective regions. Neither have they created greater awareness of the culture of the regions. Apart from the Assamese film industry, none of the other industries from the Seven Sister region have flourished. This despite the existence of more than 220 languages from different language families in the region. Factors like the political situation in the region and the avenues available for distribution, along with the willingness of filmmakers to experiment — do play a major role. So does the willingness of audiences from the other regions to accept their films.

These points do not take away the values the National Awards have come to uphold. The point is not that National Awards are the perfect means to reward the cinema of India. We are too diverse a nation — with 22 official languages and more than 1,600 regional dialects — for our culture to be encompassed by any one awarding committee. Albeit, it is important to note that the ability of the awards to represent our composite culture remains intact. The question is: at a time when the idea of the nation-state itself is in a state of flux, can the choice of awards represent the realities in the same way as they did in the early years? Can “imparting vitality to the nation” be replaced by “changing the definition of the nation”? Can movies that hurt the idea of a nation find as much emphasis as the movies that build the idea?

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