National Awards: Hera Pheri pe Hungama!

Idly scrolling through the Times of India online edition, as I do frequently through the day, my eye was caught by the following caption: National Awards: Akshay Kumar wins Best Actor for…I was so convinced I’d died and gone to a particular hell reserved for film critics that I didn’t even bother to read for which movie! Akshay Kumar? Him of the goofy grin, wooden expression and monotone dialogue delivery?

Barely recovering from this, I read a statement by director Priyadarshan (who was head of the 64th National Awards jury committee) the next day where he’s mentioned that he had no agenda in giving AK the award as they worked together years ago and there’s no other film happening now or in the near future. Hmm. The cynic in me thinks PD doth protest too much, having effectively forestalled questions regarding the present and the future. Aiyyo saar, but what about the past, where this same AK delivered hits for you in the form of ‘Hera Pheri’ ‘Bhagam Bhag’ ‘Bhol Bhulaiyya’ ‘Garam Masala’…maybe it is a reverse form of guru dakshina? Hell, stranger things have happened. Like Akshay Kumar getting a National Award for acting! PD went on to bleat plaintively that nobody said anything when Ramesh Sippy chaired the jury and his best buddy Amitabh Bachchan won, or when Prakash Jha was in the hot seat and Ajay Devgan, with whom he was then working, won. And somebody made this poor whiner the jury head!

Shahrukh Khan once (in) famously claimed that awards are bought and he would buy the next ‘Best Actor’ award if he wasn’t nominated for it. Another Khan (Aamir) famously does not attend award ceremonies. And yet, strangely enough, it’s a Khan who isn’t even fit enough to be in the reckoning who waltzed away with the National Award one year when Saif Ali Khan won it for ‘Hum Tum’ in 2005. Industry as well as public scorn was heaped high on this, especially when Sudhir Mishra as jury head explained lamely that: “Saif has improved a lot” sounding more like a public boys’ school headmaster than an experienced film director! Indeed, many people contended that the jury was either coerced or influenced by the fact that Saif’s mother Sharmila Tagore was the chairperson of the Censor Board of Film Certification (CBFC.)

It seems to me, sitting on the sidelines, that all awards are basically engineered and manipulated. Priyanka Chopra was candid enough to let slip on a ‘Koffee with Karan’ episode that she’d gathered she wasn’t getting the ‘Best Actress’ award for ‘Barfi’ and Vidya Balan was receiving it for ‘Kahaani’ instead. These people must be better actors off-screen than we give them credit for, because when their names are actually announced, they make these round “O’s” of astonishment, air kiss those seated beside them and then go on to thank their family, the cast and their pet pooch! It seems pure coincidence then that they also have the perfect acceptance speech ready on cue!

I love – okay, I absolutely adore – Shashi Kapoor! But even me, his staunchest admirer, would draw the line at handing the little lambkin a National Award! And yet, win it he did, for ‘New Delhi Times’ in 1985, for a role that he had trouble rehearsing for on set! What’s the criteria for rejecting a ‘Barfi’ that even made it to the Oscars? Anil Kapoor is a very good actor and has proven that time and time again, but – ‘Pukar?’ Seriously? I like Kangana Ranut’s work and freely agree that she deserved the award for ‘Queen’ but why for commercial fare like ‘Tanu Weds Manu Returns?’ That year (2016) the award should have rightfully gone to Deepika Padukone for ‘Bajirao Mastani.’ Similarly, why did Amitabh Bachchan get the award for ‘Piku’ when Randeep Hooda put in so much effort and realism into ‘Sarbjit?’

Given that the National Awards are always mired in controversies, shouldn’t the judging process be more transparent – to the jury members, at least?! Shouldn’t the most prestigious Indian film awards be governed by a modicum of ethics? Shouldn’t family members of the nominees be banned from the jury panel? So what was Raveena Tandon’s uncle Mac Mohan doing as a jury member in 2001 when she won the Best Actress award for ‘Daman?’ In point of fact, some of the more honourable members of the jury – including the chairperson, director Pradeep Krishen! – resigned from their posts alleging wrong-doing. Way back in 1997 too, with T. Subbirami Reddy as the jury head, Kamal Hassan won the Best Actor award for ‘Nayakan’ even though his brother Charu Hassan was on the jury panel.

Similarly, directors who are working with or contemplating working with the nominees, should not be on the panel. This was respected director Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s point when Ajay Devgan won the Best Actor award for ‘The Legend of Bhagat Singh’ in 2003 when he was currently shooting for ‘Gangajal’ whose director Prakash Jha, was jury head at the time.

There should be a whole new manual written around the criteria for the National Awards! If ‘Barfi’ never made it to the final selection on the grounds that it was copied, or plagiarised, then how did ‘Nayakan’ loosely based on the ‘Godfather’ make it? Sanjay Leela Bhansali’s ‘Black’ faced flak (sic!) after jury member Shyamli Banerjee Dev alleged it was an adaptation of ‘The Miracle Worker’ and yet, the courts cleared it and it went on to receive the award, including Best Actor for Amitabh Bachchan. How did ‘Rustom’ make it, considering it is based on the real-life story of naval officer KM Nanavati, which also has ‘Achanak’ and ‘Yeh Raaste Hain Pyaar Ke’ centred around it?

In 1982, Rekha won the Best Actress award for ‘Umrao Jaan;’ undoubtedly her finest performance till date and a very well deserved win. However, this movie was pitted against Aparna Sen’s directorial debut ’36 Chowringhee Lane’ and the verdict was pretty unanimous in favour of Jennifer Kendall for the Best Actress award. The reason she didn’t get the award though, is because the jury came up with the lame excuse that the movie was in English – how then, did Aparna Sen get the award for Best Director, as also Ashok Mehta for Best Cinematography?? ’36…’ also won Best English Feature Film, which somewhat boggles the mind – so, you can’t give awards to an actor speaking in English, but you CAN have a category for films in that language! (The jury chairperson was actor Ashok Kumar, who had previously worked with Rekha in ‘Khoobsoorat’…ahh, let me rein in my cynicism!) The rule states that a movie must be made in India and by an Indian director, with no foreign collaboration, in order to be eligible for the National Awards. As mentioned – rewrite the ruddy manual!

Priyadarshan has come up with some classic signs of foot-in-the-mouth disease. First, he says: “While watching films, we realised that a lot of Bollywood movies were themed around homosexuality.” Umm. You caught me napping there, PD. Which movies, apart from the sensitively rendered ‘Aligarh’ talked about homosexuality? And so what if they did – ain’t that topical enough for you? So you overlooked a spellbinding performance by Manoj Bajpai because of “a lot of films” and handed the award to a block of wood (AK) for wait for this – a performance in a movie that already had TWO takes on the same (Nanavati) theme? Gazdooks!

I like how Hansal Mehta, director of ‘Aligarh’ took Priyadarshan up on his irresponsible statement by asking in a very dignified manner: “Is the jury head saying that homosexuality does not qualify as a social issue? The only reason I am asking this question is because he has been appointed by the government to chair the jury.” Director AR Murugadoss tweeted: “Can clearly witness the influence and partiality of people in jury, it’s biased.” In response to Mehta, Priyadarshan stated: “A film like ‘Pink’ won because it addressed the women’s safety issue very well. It compelled the father in me to show it to my daughter because it had a strong message for girls.” Erm. Mayhap he should have shown ‘Aligarh’ to his son!

Not content with this, ole PD goes on: “They (Bollywood films) are not really highlighting social problems, whereas regional films were themed around fantastic social issues. They try to tell different stories. Even ‘Dangal’ doesn’t talk about social issues. It was a life story.” Oh, ah. And of course life stories don’t count for nothing. Which is how ‘Paan Singh Tomar’ won Best Feature Film AND Best Actor in 2012, huh. Which is how your pal AK won for ‘Rustom’ huh. Which just happens to be based on a true story. And ‘Dangal’ doesn’t talk about social issues, huh. So correct me if I’m wrong but didn’t the dude Phogat prove in real time to India and the world at large that his daughters are just as good, if not better than, the boys?!

Oh, PD, PD. Sigh. Your bias shows through so clearly. You also said jury member N. Chandra recalled ‘Dangal’ in the selection and you supported him, but: “We didn’t consider Aamir for any award because he doesn’t believe in them and he didn’t even collect his National Award for ‘Taare Zameen Par’. So, why would we give him an award now?” Well – maybe this AK doesn’t ‘believe’ in awards for precisely the reason I’m writing this article now! Maybe if you thought he was worthy of the award you could have called him and said, ‘hey boyo, you gonna show us up in front of the Prez of I or you gonna wear your best bib and tucker and show up for the hoopla?’

Okay, let’s be nice. Akshay Kumar does work out and has a chiselled bod even at this age and does all those stunts too. Yes, sure, he’s a bankable actor, as his films over the years have proved. But … the country’s highest award for acting? So what if he has muscles? So does Suniel Shetty. Egad – wait! Let me bite my tongue before fresh horrors unfold!

*Written exclusively for The Film Writers Association of India

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