Opinion: The National Film Awards Need Reform

As has become almost a tradition, the announcement of the National Film Awards was met with sharp criticism soon after the winners were announced on August 24. The Kashmir Files, winner of the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, was at the centre of the controversy. Opposition politicians called the film's victory a "mockery of film awards". A section of filmmakers from the Southern part of the country felt Dalit-themed films were neglected as some of the most potent and popular films, such as Jai Bhim, Sarpatta Parambarai and Karnan, failed to make the cut.

The 2017 win of Akshay Kumar for his performance in Rustom had raised eyebrows, especially when the contenders included Aamir Khan for Dangal. The jury president, Priyadarshan, who often collaborated with Kumar, defended his choice, saying, "Why should we have given the Best Actor award to Aamir Khan when he has made it very clear that he doesn't attend awards functions? … Nowadays, we have seen people returning their awards. We didn't want to take that risk." A couple of years later, Akshay Kumar hosted the famous interview with Prime Minister Modi in which, among other things, the national fruit was discussed.

Akshay Kumar in Rustom

In 2004, Saif Ali Khan's win for Best Actor came under criticism as his mother, Sharmila Tagore, headed the Central Board of Film Certification, which works under the same ministry that gives away the awards. In 2002, Ajay Devgn's award for Best Actor created a controversy as the jury was headed by Prakash Jha who was directing Devgn in his film Gangaajal the year the awards were announced.

The jury chair of the 67th National Awards, Vipul Amrutlal Shah, went on to produce The Kerala Story, which, going by the example of The Kashmir Files, could be a contender for the Nargis Dutt Award for National Integration next year.    

Saif Ali Khan and Rani Mukerji in Hum Tum

Why are our National Awards susceptible to serving the government's ideology? While the jury selects the winners, who chooses the jury members? The answer is the Information and Broadcasting Ministry through the Directorate of Film Festivals. By exercising complete control over the choice of jury members, the government holds undue and unilateral power over the awards.

While any award in the field of arts can't claim to be completely objective, a certain extent of transparency is expected from the National Awards, which is perhaps the only film award in the world given by a head of a state. The world has seen the recent example of the Golden Globes, the second-biggest film award in the US, which fell from grace because it failed to keep up with the time and refused to be inclusive and representative of diverse voices.  

Looking at the trajectory that the National Film Awards has taken, one might ask, should the government be even giving national awards? Doesn't the idea of government-sponsored awards feel like an instrument to patronise filmmakers? What entitles the state to become the arbitrator of arts? And, if the state is to decide the best film of the year, can one expect a movie to win the honour if it critiques the state? Isn't art supposed to favour truth rather than power? And isn't the autonomy of the artists a prerequisite to independent art?

The National Film Awards were instituted on the recommendation of the Film Enquiry Committee constituted in 1949. It was headed by a Mumbai Congress leader and had prominent filmmakers V Shantaram and B. N Sircar among its members.

The committee considered various questions, such as whether the film industry should be nationalised. The committee vehemently rejected the idea of nationalisation, "The regimentation of ideas and art would make beauty subservient to the rule of thumb, culture submissive to the will of authority and entertainment subordinate to the philosophy of the state."

While the committee rejected the idea of nationalisation of the film industry, it also rejected the idea of giving it complete freedom without explaining any reason, "We would reject this method of approach without further argument and content ourselves with saying that virtue lies in owning rather than concealing one's own faults and shortcomings."

The government chose to regulate cinema with a stick and a carrot. The stick is the censor board, which can deny certification to a film, making it unfit for theatrical release or punish it by giving an "A" certificate, trimming its business potential significantly. It's worth a note that a filmmaker can't apply for the national awards without a censor certificate. The carrot is the award it can bestow upon films that align with its ideology by fixing a compliant jury.

Why does the government get so much power over the film business? Why doesn't the industry have a say in the affairs of censors or awards? Why aren't films treated at par with literature or fine arts and are left for the professionals or practitioners to decide the awards? Why the government directly appoints jury members through its ministry to choose the winners?

While the government listened to the committee's recommendation by setting up the awards, it ignored the part that asked for a representative mechanism to regulate the film industry. The committee gave its recommendations in 1951, which called for establishing a Film Council comprising film producers, directors, artists, technicians, distributors, exhibitors, educationists, and workers. Council wasn't to be headed by a bureaucrat but "a person of high judicial status and commanding an eminent public position and possessing a depth of cultural background."

Instead of setting up the recommended council to oversee the award, among other things, the government set up the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF) in 1973, a body comprising of government servants working under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The idea of government directly regulating the industry was not only not recommended by the committee, but it was recommended against, "…we feel that it is through such an institution [Film Council] rather than through its own agency or intervention that the Central and State Governments can succeed in making films the real and effective instruments of arts, culture and healthy entertainment."

Interestingly, the government listened to the committee's many suggestions and set up film schools, film festivals and national awards, but it selectively ignored the part of giving a fair representation to filmmakers in the process. Instead, the government chose to exercise uninhibited control over the awards. The system worked well until the government and the prominent filmmakers were ideologically aligned. Our cinema celebrated Nehruvian socialism and ideals of nation-building, and in turn, the government celebrated films that didn't challenge its ideology. Nevertheless, the government always had the upper hand.

The same system of patronage no longer works anymore as the present day's government wants to propagate a different ideology. It creates an avenue for a new set of filmmakers ready to offer their craft for the cause and receive rewards and awards.

Ridiculing the winners, calling out the jury's incompetence, or even terming them sell-outs might generate noise on social media, but until the systemic flaws of the National Film Awards are addressed, these awards are designed to reward those who align with the government's ideology, or at least, not challenge it. Hence, it's time to return to the recommendations and make the awards more representative, transparent, and inclusive.  

Since the function of any award is to accord credibility to the work, the National Film Awards are bound to fail in the endeavour if they lack credibility themselves. The questionable choice of awards calls for reform and offers an opportunity to start a discussion on the autonomy of the film industry.

(Bikas Mishra is an award-winning writer-director based in Mumbai)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.