Why 64th National Film Awards 2017 aren't populist: Rustom, Neerja, Pink are stellar films

Gautam Chintamani

Apr,07 2017 16:06 06 IST

When it comes to the National Film Awards in India, everything invariably ends up being about Bollywood even when it is not about Bollywood.

Although this year’s list of winners is not Bollywood heavy yet the announcement of one of the top acting honors, the Best Actor, being conferred upon Akshay Kumar for Rustom is bound to create a ruckus.

The trouble with any jury awarding popular Hindi films is in the belief that Bollywood should not hijack platforms such as the National Film Awards.

Unlike commercial Hindi films whose fortunes hardly change post a National Award, many regional films look at them as a lifeline that changes everything. The films that otherwise would have struggled for a release enjoy a renewed interest in them if they win a National Award.

But this should not be used against popular films and especially Bollywood, the common symbol of hate for all things artistic.

Untitled collage (1)

Amitabh BAchchan in Pink, Sonam Kapoor in Neerja, Akshay Kumar in Rustom.

There is no denying that the content of the other films that compete for the National Film Awards is much higher than a typical Hindi film, but there's also no denying this year’s winners are all justifiably good choices.

The manner in which both Pink and Dangal have captured the imagination of the masses does not undermine their strong social message. In the past, any debate about a woman’s consent in Bollywood was largely perfunctory and even limited, but this has changed since the release of Pink.

In many ways, Bollywood and its depiction of the hero ‘wooing’ the woman has been one of the biggest contributors to the mindset prevailing among young males and if a ‘film’ can initiate a questioning of the same then it more than deserves all laurels.

Similarly, Dangal, too, has somewhere made people try and change the way they look at the girl child and while there is no denying that a real change would take much more, a spark such as a popular film can at times make a significant difference.

Most people would be on the same page when it comes to the honors for Dangal (Best Supporting Actress for Zaira Wasim) and Pink (Best Film On Social Issues). Even Sonam Kapoor’s Special Mention for Neerja would be celebrated (things would have been different had she been given the Best Actress) but there would be questions about Kumar winning the Best Actor Award.

In a simplistic manner, Kumar’s win would be derided, as it would be argued that he is not as deserving as Neerja, Dangal, Pink and Dhanak, which was adjudged Best Children’s Film.

The reason for this would be that Kumar is not considered to be a good enough actor to be given the National Award. It is true that despite being a darling of the box office, Kumar has never been thought of as an ‘actor, actor’ and the reason for this is Kumar himself.

There is an urban legend about Kumar asking a gentleman at the Khar Gymkhana if he really thought he was an ‘actor’, when the said gentleman told him that actors couldn’t become members. This story created a myth that Kumar never took himself seriously and later, tales such as Shah Rukh Khan losing his top and calling Kumar a ‘waiter’ when not being allowed to enter a film launch with a firearm and Anil Kapoor calling him (and Suniel Shetty) half-heroes employed by Rajiv Rai in Mohra (1994) to make one full actor, only added to the thought.

The thing with film awards is that they are given for a particular performance, but for a long time now, big film awards, be it a National Award or an Oscar, have come to be seen as an acknowledgment of an entire body of work rather than a singular performance.

Take for instance when Ang Lee won the Best Director Academy Award for Brokeback Mountain (2006). It was not only considered to be a doff of the hat to his body of work up until then but also seen in a bigger context, with him being the first Asian to win a Best Director Oscar.

Similarly, many felt that Russell Crowe might not have won the Best Actor award for A Beautiful Mind(2001), which was an ‘Oscar worthy’ performance, as he had already been awarded for Gladiator (2000) the previous year.

When seen in this light, it won’t be surprising if insinuations, such as the presence of Priyadarshan (who Kumar has done many films with) as the jury, would tilt things in Kumar’s favor, or the actor’s recent ‘nationalistic’ stance clearing all hurdles, etc. would be implied.

In Kumar’s defense, one can say that anyone thinking on such lines wouldn’t have had any problem in deeming Rustom a worthy film had there been any other star instead of him.

Imagine Rustom with an Aamir Khan, who intriguingly enough was said to have been planning his own version of a film based on the landmark K.M. Nanavati v. State of Maharashtra case on which Rustom is based on.

When talking of favoritism and Bollywood at the National Awards, Kumar’s victory for Rustom or Sonam Kapoor’s Special Mention for Neerja pales when one recalls a Saif Ali Khan getting the National Award for Best Actor in Hum Tum (2004) or Arjun Rampal being awarded the Best Supporting Actor for Rock On!! (2008).

What’s more when Saif won the award over Shah Rukh Khan in Swades, it was being said that a fracas between Pritish Nandy and SRK was the reason, and incidentally the jury was chaired by Sudhir Mishra, whose Hazaaron Khwaishein Aisi (2003) was produced by Nandy.