Bollywood assumes the National Film Awards are like the Oscars. The Oscars are primarily awards for American films, with just the Best Foreign Language Film award going to a non-American film; it is relatively rare in Oscar history that non-American talent has won top categories like Best Director, Film, Actor, Actress, Cinematographer or Editor. Likewise, Bollywood feels the National Awards are its baap ka maal.
If a non-Bollywood mainstream film wins a top category, there are howls of rage. If it is a smallish Bengali or Marathi film, chalo, theek hai yaar — cheenti hai (it's an ant), it doesn't matter, is the attitude. True, Best Film went to superb arthouse films like Court and Ship of Theseus in previous years. But if Sanjay Leela Bhansali can win Best Director for Bajirao Mastani, and Amitabh Bachchan and Kangana Ranaut for Best Actor and Actress, why not Best Film for Baahubali producer Arka Mediaworks' Shobu Yarlagadda?
Deepika Padukone in a still from Bajirao Mastani
So first, I'd like to congratulate each of the winners for winning this prestigious award out of 308 entries — no mean feat! Many are outraged at the National Film Awards going to mainstream cinema. The National Film Awards are for good cinema, regardless of whether it is mainstream or arthouse, and regardless of language. In fact, as a member of the National Film Award Jury a number of times previously, I've read the criteria closely, which include awarding "films of aesthetic and technical excellence and social relevance, contributing to the understanding and appreciation of cultures of different regions of the country in cinematic form, and thereby, also promoting integration and unity of the nation." So, Baahubali is spot on. Frankly, Baahubali was a slap in the face of Bollywood, which didn't know what hit it, when it first arrived.
Quotas in art are inherently not a sound idea, so why should there be award quotas for arthouse films? I admit Baahubali was rather long and the story somewhat tangled. But its sheer craftsmanship was amazing, especially how director SS Rajamouli coherently combined in the same film, epic, biblical images — that woman's hand emerging from a flood, carrying a baby aloft — mythological elements, and a futuristic, video game feel. The cinematography and special effects were world class (and great to see a gorgeous woman warrior, along with Mastani).
Bajirao Mastani won a slew of awards, including Best Director for Sanjay Leela Bhansali. I'm delighted — again, his craftsmanship is exquisite and outstanding. It is remarkable how Bhansali, that most mainstream of directors, and a Gujarati director at that, dares to make a political Bollywood story by celebrating a Hindu-Muslim period romance at a time of the ascendancy of Hindu fundamentalists. He brings exquisite classical raga-based music, classical dance (Birju Maharaj's kathak) and semi-classical art (Raja Ravi Varma's paintings, including Damayanti and the Swan) and regional elements like the gorgeous Pinga dance to a mainstream film that he himself has co-produced with Eros — he could easily have made a masala potboiler instead. Bajirao Mastani's wins include Best Director, Cinematographer, Sound Designer, Production Designer, Choreographer, Supporting Female Actress and Re-recordist.
Overall, it seems like a strange bargain — OK we'll give you Baahubali, and keep all the other top awards. Films that deserved much better include Nagraj Manjule's Sairat, Raam Reddy's Thithi, Navdeep Singh's NH10 and Bikas Mishra's Chauranga. And why do awards for the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment always go to Bollywood? I enjoyed Bajrangi Bhaijaan and greatly value its message, but Mani Ratnam's O Kadhal Kanmani, in Tamil, a delightful, a feisty film on what love means to two generations today, was a strong contender; too bad it is not Bollywood. Earlier, this award has gone to Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag and Vicky Donor (shared with Ustad Hotel, Malayalam). Except for Baahubali, regional cinema this year mainly got the 'other' categories — Best Supporting Actor, Music Director, Editor, Special Effects, Social Issues, Environment, Costumes, Make-up.
Meanwhile, at FICCI FRAMES, the KPMG entertainment report stated that regional films and Hollywood fared better than Bollywood in 2015. And that eight of the top 10 Hindi films, in terms of return on investment, were low budget films like Dum Laga Ke Haisha, Piku, NH10 and Badlapur. The fine print said by low budget they meant R50 crore — sigh!
Meenakshi Shedde is South Asia Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide and journalist. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org