To avoid embarrassment, names of many awardees were not announced when over 50 (by some accounts 58) recipients of National Film Awards stayed away from the function in protest on Thursday.
Indeed, their seats were filled up by members of the event management team engaged by the Information & Broadcasting Ministry. In the end, the government brushed the controversy aside by asserting that all the ‘top’ awardees had turned up, implying that those who didn’t were of “little or no consequence.”
The awardees were protesting the last-minute announcement that most winners, over 90% of them, would receive their awards from the Union Minister of Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani and her junior colleague Rajyavardhan Rathore, instead of President Ram Nath Kovind.
It was explained that President’s packed schedule didn’t allow him to spend more than an hour at the event, two hours less than his predecessors had allowed in their schedule. It was also explained that President Kovind followed the protocol till July last year when he had been elected as President.
How many awards does the President of India give away? The question has assumed some importance in view of the Rashtrapati Bhavan’s terse statement that President Ram Nath Kovind follows the protocol of spending one hour, and not a minute more, at award functions. Many of these functions, explains the President’s Press Secretary, involves hundreds of awards and hence the President strictly follows the ‘one-hour-and-not-more’ rule.
Is it possible that the President of India is accepting too many of such invitations? One doesn’t know for sure how many award functions he has attended since he assumed office in July last year. But the protocol has quite unnecessarily dragged him into a controversy as he gave away just 11 of the 140 national film awards in New Delhi.
His predecessors, some older than him, did give away all the awards on earlier occasions. His predecessor Pranab Mukherjee, ten years senior to Kovind (72), did it every year since 2013, presumably because Mukherjee had a less ‘packed schedule’ than Kovind.
This is not to suggest that President Kovind cannot deviate from convention. It is entirely possible that for health or medical reasons he cannot stand or sit at a stretch for more than an hour. But in that case, a more acceptable and dignified deviation would have been for the President to entertain all awardees to tea, mingle with them and get photographed before leaving the venue. By agreeing to give away just 11 of the ‘top’ awards, he was not being fair to the 129 awardees.
It is also not quite clear why the President would give away the award to the best male playback singer but not the best female playback singer; why he would give away the award for best music direction but not for best cinematography and screenplay?
The controversy-prone Information & Broadcasting Minister Smirit Irani and her ministry have not come up with a reasonable explanation so far. There is no way the ministry could have been ignorant of the time allotted by the Rashtrapati Bhavan for the function, although that is precisely what she is said to have claimed.
When the awardees learnt of the two-stage function on Wednesday and protested, the I & B minister rushed to the Vigyan Bhavan to pacify them. There she is said to have expressed her helplessness since the President had changed the schedule at the last moment. One of the awardees confirmed the conversation.
“She in fact asked whether I was threatening her,” the awardee recalled. “ I was taken aback by her aggression and denied that I had any such thought in mind. To placate her I asked what she would have done if she found herself in our shoes,” he said. To which the I&B minister mockingly replied that she was just an ordinary actor and it would not have mattered.
But it clearly mattered to around 68 of the awardees who decided to stay away, refusing to accept the awards from the I & B minister and her deputy.
The idea of giving away National Film Awards was to recognise good films being made in various parts of the country. They may not achieve commercial success and they may not get a large audience till they receive the national awards.
“We struggle for years to make good films in regional languages and dialects. We give three to four years of our lives to make one good film, but the President of India cannot spare two hours to recognise our work?” asked another distraught awardee.
They stayed away to protest the blatant discrimination and humiliation meted out to filmmakers and the failure of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry to take them into confidence. There is no way that the ministry would have been kept in the dark about the schedule of the function. “Why couldn’t the ministry spell it out while sending out the invitation?” she asked.
Several awardees felt betrayed. Some said that, had they known about President’s schedule, they would not have spent their own money on travel and other expenses of family, friends and relatives.
At least one of them complained that nearly half of what they had earned was taken away by the government in taxes. The felicitated artist complained, “The least it can do is to treat us with some dignity and allow us to retain our self-respect.”