67th National Film Awards & political propriety: The good, the bad and the ugly

Kangana Ranaut wields much more influence and clout in the corridors of power in the Capital these days than any other BJP sympathizer in Bollywood can dream of

67th National Film Awards & political propriety: The good, the bad and the ugly

Namrata Joshi

The trailer of Thalaivi, Kangana Ranaut’s upcoming biographical film on actor-politician and former Tamil Nadu chief minister J. Jayalalithaa, opens rather tellingly with this dialogue: “Wo film wali humein batayegi ki rajneeti kaise ki jaati hai (Will that actress teach us how to play politics)?”

Jayalalithaa’s success in politics is the stuff of legends, but it appears that Ranaut, who plays her on screen, is also negotiating her own political moves rather well. Love her, hate her, outrage over her or ignore her, one thing is a given—that Ranaut wields much more influence and clout in the corridors of power in the Capital these days than any other BJP sympathizer in Bollywood can dream of. No wonder then that many on social media had jokingly declared her the winner in the best actress category long before the 67th national film awards were announced on Monday evening. Those jokes, however, did turn real eventually, with Ranaut awarded for two of her films—Panga and Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi.

To be fair I would, perhaps, have not raised the eyebrow too high had Ranaut been awarded only for Panga. In the role of a former kabaddi champion turned homemaker, who wants to return to the game and chase her dream beyond the claptrap of domesticity, she and the film, spoke to me and reached out to a bunch of other women as well.

It’s the accompanying honour for her screechy, over the top turn in the lead role in Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi that not only felt grossly undeserving but also seemed to make the otherwise regular acting award feel like some sort of an endorsement for a jingoistic, saffronised, patriotic cinematic narrative.

There was more that raised the hackles when it came to the 67th national awards for the films of 2019. The two prizes for Vivek Agnihotri’s The Tashkent Files for instance. On the death of the former prime minister, Lal Bahadur Shastri, the film had been roundly dismissed by critics and dubbed “politically motivated”, though it went on to become the sleeper hit of the year.

The winners of the best film—Priyadarshan’s Marakkar: Lion of the Arabian Sea (Malayalam)—and best director—Sanjay Puran Singh Chauhan’s Bahattar Hoorein—haven’t released yet though they got the censor certificate in 2019. This, incidentally, is the precondition for any film to be in contention for national awards—it should have got certified in the stipulated year of the award, irrespective of when it gets released or seen. While it would be unfair to comment on the films without having seen them, the themes are a giveaway—Bahattar Hoorein is about Islamic terrorism and Marakkar... deals with naval defence built by Kunjali Marakkar IV in 16th century Kozhikode against the Portuguese invasion along the Malabar coast.

As it happens every year, some debateable choices aside, there was also stuff worth celebrating and cheering for. Like the joint winners of the best actor award—Manoj Bajpayee, both measured and forceful, as the retired cop in Bhonsle and Dhanush’s bristling act in the Tamil actioner on caste violence, Asuran. Just as heartening was the best supporting actor award for the leading star of Tamil cinema, Vijay Sethupathi, for his sensitive, heart-tugging performance as a transwoman in Super Deluxe. In fact, more than Bollywood, this year Tamil and Malayalam films ruled the roast.

There are some wonderful independent gems which walked away with a clutch of awards this year. The fascinating Khasi film Iewduh set in the equally fascinating Bara Bazaar of Shillong and Marathi film Trijya, about a young man trying to reconnect with himself while negotiating the pressures of big city life, were awarded for audiography and Kastoori, on the issue of caste-based discrimination, bagged the best children’s film award.

According to film critic and filmmaker Utpal Borpurai, Benjamin Daimary, who got a special mention from the jury for his performance in the Assamese film Jonaki Parua, could possibly be the first actor from the LGBTQIA+ community to have been recognised at the national awards. He identifies himself as gay. Sajin Babu’s fiery take on gender inequities and a woman’s rebellion against religion and society in Biriyani also found a special mention. I wish it had also won the best actress award for the powerhouse performance by Kani Kusruti.

The annual round of controversies surrounding it aside, the biggest significance of the national film awards, established back in 1954, is that they continue to bring lesser-known films, young filmmakers and cinema from across the various languages and regions of India into focus. I would have never known of Kokborok lingo, till I watched the 2008 national award-winning film Yarwng. This year there was recognition for films in Paniya, Mishing, Khasi, Tulu languages, among others. It is this larger commitment to diversity that matters; it is this sanctity that needs to be preserved eventually.

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