Do our film awards guarantee rewards?

Indian film awards don’t bestow any real commercial legitimacy or credentials for the recipients in terms of a brighter future? Monojit Lahiri seeks the answer

Indian Film Awards
Indian Film Awards

Monojit Lahiri

I remember a very interesting meeting I once had with the warm, friendly and articulate Yash Chopra at his suite at Delhi’s plush Maurya Sheraton in the early eighties. It was post the hugely ambitious and much-hyped Silsila screening and I was invited for lunch and a chat. After the initial pleasantries were dusted off, we got down to discuss the business of acting.

In a flash, the man behind blockbusters like Daag, Deewar, Trishul and Kaala Patthar was off and running in his praise for Naseeruddin Shah. Apparently, Chopra had seen a play of the NSD star the previous week and was totally blown away! “My God, every molecule of the man was expressive! What presence! What acting! Kamaal ka performer...” he gushed.

I quietly asked him, if he was so taken up by him, shouldn’t he – as a Bollywood hot-shot – immediately sign him up for a future project? You could cut the silence that followed with a knife! However, the Movie Moghul came back swiftly with a self-conscious and apologetic reply. “Zaroor karta but I am already committed to two big projects. One is headlined by Amitabh, the other Rekha. Lekin jab bhi sahi script milen...”

That sahi script (alas) never arrived and they went their separate ways...Yash Chopra, to the glossy, glitzy, box office, romantic stuff, sometimes referred to as the Chiffon-Champagne movies, and Naseer to a template more rooted and reflective that insisted that influence and mass-appeal need not have a single zip code; a model that had the in-built power to reject stereotypes and fake jabberwocky too often dressed up as (filmy) wisdom; a main frame that celebrated the linear truth in parallel cinema.

The point is that if someone as clear-eyed as Yash Chopra, who had no hesitation showering fulsome praise on an actor but never confusing it with box office conversion, makes this statement, doesn’t that really define the award agenda...An unstinted, genuine recognition and appreciation of histrionic skill, craft and excellence but with no guarantee of commercial translation? So what’s with the awards? Who selects them? What are the criteria? Most importantly, does this so-called honour, saluting the achiever, carry to the movers and shakers who call the shots – or the movie junkies? Are they ever influenced enough to make a beeline for films starring these awardees?

One of Bollywood’s pioneers of Steady-Cam, Deep Pal, opens the batting and immediately gets into Viv Richards mode! “To begin with, what can you expect from a banner and platform (Filmfare) that is sponsored by Vimal Elaichi, for chrissake? Moving on, today’s awards are nothing more than superb exercises in PR, chamchagiri, manipulating and networking with quid pro quo stamped on it! Channels, publications, stars and advertisers are all big-time players in this tamasha. Bollywood is a huge hit with the diaspora. So, to the star-crazed fans, it’s whoopee time. Does the recognition and rewarding talent lead to positive results for the awardees? Not a hope in hell and if it does, it’s more by accident than design! It’s show time folks and these awards spell E for entertainment, G for glamour and S for superstars doing their corny nautankibaazi. It’s a well-packaged business model.

Veteran filmmaker Shyam Benegal is up next. He candidly confesses that “unlike the West, where an Oscar can transform an actor’s and film’s journey, here it’s more of an event. It appears to be positioned as a gala, fun, star-splashed programme designed to please the insatiable Bollywood fan, with made-to-order entertainment items.”

Acclaimed and respected Kolkata-based film-maker Aparna Sen offers her own take. “Actually, it depends on the way you perceive awards. If you look at it as a green card to mass audiences and big banners, that is one thing. For me, awards are a recognition of one’s skill, craft and talent which may or may not connect with box office. I personally don’t place too much importance on them. I admire actors, directors and technicians who create and control their narratives, on and off the screen with dignity, grace and self-respect. Critical acclaim is much more seductive than popular response. Cannes, Venice and Berlin, in my book, score much higher than the much-hyped Oscar, because after all, it’s an American-specific and Hollywood-centric award.”

Who better to wrap up this debate than poet, journalist, editor, politician, head of a production house and most importantly, ex-publishing director of the TOI group which continues to present this grand, glamorous, much-awaited, star-studded annual event for the last 64 years, Pritish Nandy? “I was and remain very clear about this issue. For me, these are two entirely different spaces. One [awards] celebrates excellence. The other [rewards] is directly connected to marketability and seldom does the twain meet. That is the nature of the beast. During my tenure, I did make an effort to champion the cause of talents like Mahesh Bhatt and Anupam Kher and other marginalised but gifted artistes, but couldn’t sustain it due to the compulsions of market forces. Soon, it fell back to its old ways with gloss and glamour coming centre stage.”

Everything considered, in today’s consumerist world, it’s a tricky deal. It is clear that emotional realism has few takers and art house directors are convinced that they have been forced to abandon their Jehovas, Buddhas and holy scriptures at the altar of the box office. However, as this year’s IIFA Awards indicated, all is not lost and the selection of major awards do reflect sanity. But if you think they will inspire big banners to hire them because of their critical acclaim, this is the way to the asylum, dude!

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