Nandi Awards row hits Tollywood: A lowdown on the allegations of political favours, casteism, negligence

Hemanth Kumar

Nov,17 2017 13:23 58 IST

The year 2017 has been a spectacular one for the Telugu film industry at the box-office. However, off-screen, there has been no dearth of drama and controversies. First, it was the drug racket that rocked Tollywood with several actors, directors and technicians coming under the scanner, and then, an ugly war between fan clubs over the credibility of box-office numbers of big-ticket films. And just when everyone thought that all is well, the industry has once again been hit by a new controversy, thanks to the Nandi Awards which were announced by the Andhra Pradesh government earlier this week.

For the first time since the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh was bifurcated into Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the latter government announced the Nandi Award winners for the years 2014, 2015, and 2016. While the Nandi Awards for 2015 and 2016 didn’t rock the boat as such, the list of winners for 2014 has turned into a major controversy and in less than 48 hours after the list was unveiled, allegations of political favours, casteism, and negligence are rife in the industry.

So, what happened in 2014 and why did the Nandi Awards issue spiral out of control? For the uninitiated, Race Gurram, Manam, Legend, Chandamama Kathalu, Oohalu Gusagusalaade, Drushyam, Run Raja Run, Geethanjali, Loukyam, Govindudu Andharivadele and Karthikeya were some of the noticeable releases of 2014. Among them, Manam, which had three generations from the Akkineni family including ANR, Nagarjuna, and Naga Chaitanya, along with Samantha and Shriya playing principal characters, went on to become a critical and commercial success. Race Gurram was the biggest hit of 2014, and Balakrishna-starrer Legend, which released just ahead of the 2014 general elections, too was a blockbuster.

(Clockwise from top left) Race Gurram, Manam and Legend are three of the 2014 films that are at the eye of the storm over the Nandi Awards, conferred by the Andhra Pradesh government

(Clockwise from top left) Race Gurram, Manam and Legend are three of the 2014 films that are at the eye of the storm over the Nandi Awards, conferred by the Andhra Pradesh government

The jury committee ended up choosing Legend for Best Feature Film over Manam (which was given second best feature film award), and also voted for Balakrishna as Best Actor, Boyapati Srinu as Best Director for Legend. On the whole, the film won eight awards, whereas Manam won four awards. Race Gurram, 2014’s biggest hit, won two awards — Best Comedian (Brahmanandam), Best Male Dubbing Artiste. This choice, so to speak, has turned into a major controversy with a big section of movie buffs questioning the logic behind choosing Legend over Manam. Directed by Vikram Kumar, Manam was ANR’s last film before he passed away and the film itself was praised for its story-telling, cinematography, music, direction among many other things upon its release.

A day after the awards were announced, when TV9 called two jury members — Prabhu and Prasanna Kumar — to take part in a televised debate over the awards controversy, their reasons behind why Legend was chosen over Manam left everyone baffled. “Legend had a good message for society and the film also ran for almost 1170 days in one theatre. Compared to that, Manam is a film about reincarnation which doesn’t meet certain criteria for the awards,” said one jury member. No wonder, the jury became a laughing stock on social media. For the record, Legend was a political drama that had become a springboard for Balakrishna to compete in the 2014 elections from Hindupur constituency on behalf of TDP. He won with a huge margin.

That’s not all. Some people even highlighted a clear conflict of interest behind all this since Balakrishna himself was a member of the jury committee. However, when the list of committee members was announced, it had become evident that Balakrishna was part of the jury committee for NTR National Film Awards, BN Reddy, Nagireddy and Chakrapani National Film awards, and Raghupathi Venkaiah Award, but not in the jury committee for the Nandi awards. Perhaps, it comes as no surprise that director Boyapati Srinu, who had worked with Balakrishna on Simha and Legend — both of which were massive hits in Balakrishna’s career — was bestowed with the prestigious BN Reddy Award 2016 for his contribution to cinema. He directed seven films in the past 12 years. He had also worked closely with the Andhra Pradesh government to organise the Godavari Pushkaralu in 2015.

Meanwhile, the makers of Race Gurram were downright upset about their film being sidelined completely by the jury committee. Producer Nallamalupu Bujji went on record saying, “Race Gurram was the biggest hit of 2014, but it was completely ignored. Recently C Kalyan (producer) advised others to not make a huge issue out of these awards, and all I want to say is that he would know the pain of a filmmaker if he produces a hit film. I don’t know if they were really serious about giving awards or just distributing them to those who are in favour of the government. It feels like a clear case of Kamma lobbying. Why didn’t Prabhas win the Best actor award for Baahubali in 2015? Why was Allu Arjun given an award for Best Character Artiste? We look up to the Nandi Awards for recognition and it’s meant to encourage more filmmakers to make good films, but what has happened feels like an insult.”

Bunny Vas, a close associate of Allu Arjun and Allu Arvind, didn’t mince any words either. He alleged that the entire 'Mega family' (Megastar Chiranjeevi’s family) was given step-motherly treatment when it comes to the state awards. “Mega family’s movies contribute nearly 50 percent of the revenue in the Telugu film industry, but when it comes to support from the government, it’s always sidelined. Allu Arjun’s Race Gurram was a huge hit, but the film was neglected. In the past, Pawan Kalyan’s Gabbar Singh too had met a similar fate. Back then, the jury had stated that it was a commercial film and hence, it wasn’t considered for major awards; however, if we see the awards from 2014-16, nearly 75 percent of the awards were given to commercial films,” Bunny Vas said.

On the other hand, Ram Gopal Varma took on the jury committee’s decision to give eight awards to Legend saying, “The jury committee deserves an Oscar for their choice. In fact, if James Cameron hears about what Nandi Awards jury committee has done, he would give away all his 11 Oscars (which he won for Titanic) to Boyapati Srinu.”

Perhaps, the most emotional response came from filmmaker Gunasekhar, who was visibly heartbroken that his passion project Rudhramadevi was ignored by the state government. Back in 2015, when his film was up for release, the Telangana government announced a tax exemption for the film since it highlighted the life of Queen Rudhramadevi, who was one of the most prominent rulers of the Kakatiya kingdom. However, the Andhra Pradesh government didn’t announce any such tax exemption, although it changed its mind when Balakrishna-starrer Gautamiputra Satakarni, which was about the Satavahana Dynasty’s greatest emperor, released in early 2017.

In an open letter to the Andhra Pradesh government, Gunasekhar lambasted the jury’s decision saying, “I’m dismayed with the government’s choices for Nandi Awards and I’m told that whoever questions the decision will be ineligible for the awards for the next three years. Are we living in an autocratic country or independent India? Why wasn’t Rudhramadevi considered for one of the three Best Feature Film awards, despite its subject, which highlighted the achievements of a queen? Wasn’t it even good enough for a jury award? Or did you think that it was pointless to give recognition to a film which brought alive a chapter of our history which was long forgotten? Or did you believe that you’ll send a wrong signal to the society by giving an award to such a film? If that’s the case, then I sincerely apologise for making a film like Rudhramadevi.”

If this wasn’t embarrassing enough for the Andhra Pradesh government and the jury committees, producer Bandla Ganesh dubbed the awards as ‘Cycle Awards’ while others called it ‘Yellow Awards’, referring to the party symbol and the colour of Telugu Desam Party’s flag (Andhra Pradesh’s current chief minister is Chandrababu Naidu, who’s the head of TDP. And Balakrishna, actor and TDP MLA from Hindupur, is Chandrababu Naidu’s brother-in-law). Another filmmaker dissed the awards saying that the range of choices was quite ‘tasty’, which is a satire on the casteist subtext that several award winners belonged to the Kamma caste.

The controversy surrounding the awards will, perhaps, fade away in the next few days; however, the debate surrounding the Nandi awards, and almost every other award ceremony, sends a clear message that there’s a desperate need to overhaul the selection process. What’s the criteria to win a state award? Should blockbuster films be chosen over others? Or should the government recognise those which were critically acclaimed? And how does a state award differ from one of the million other award shows? The Andhra Pradesh government isn’t alone in facing this dilemma. Recently, the makers of Premam criticised the Kerala state government for ignoring their film. Similarly, the makers of Lunchbox were shocked when the Oscar committee chose to send The Good Road instead as India’s official entry to the Oscars a few years ago. It’s not often that everyone agrees with a jury’s decision; however, the controversy over the Nandi Awards brings up a far more important issue — Is it credible enough, anymore?

The day the government has answers for all these questions, then may not have to answer the burning question right now — Awards icchara, leka panchara? (Were the awards given or distributed among themselves?)