64th National Film Awards 2017: Why Akshay Kumar's win is a fiasco for once prestigious honour
Akshay Kumar's Best Actor win has proven yet again that the National Film Awards are no different from popular awards. Talent takes a backseat over favouritism, lobbying and political pressure
Another year. Another controversy surrounding the National Film Awards.
On Friday, 7 April 2017, was initially announced that Akshay Kumar’s outing as naval officer Rustom Pavri in last year’s Rustom has won the A-lister his first Best Actor mention at the 64th National Film Awards. The actor even took to Twitter to thank the jury for the honour and to dedicate the win to his wife.
A few hours later, the 64th National Film Awards 2017 jury head, director Priyadarshan, said, “Akshay has won the Best Actor award for both Airlift and Rustom. For technical reasons, only Rustom is mentioned in the list of awardees. But he has given contrasting and extremely sensitive performances in both Airlift and Rustom, and we thought it was only fair to honour him for both.” Interestingly, Priyadarshan has helmed four Akshay starrers, including Hera Pheri.
How does an actor win an award for two performances? And, if the criterion was an actor’s range over multiple films in one year, did the jury also take into account Housefull 3? These are questions only Priyadarshan and his jury can answer. But what this fiasco has proven yet again is that the National Film Awards are no different from popular awards. Talent takes a backseat over favouritism, lobbying and political pressure.
The National Film Awards isn't a reliable yardstick for excellence. And, they haven’t been since Bollywood muscled its way in. In the '70s and '80s, the National Awards were only given to films that the mainstream dismissed as art films. Commercial actors and directors believed the ‘arty’ National Awards to carry the curse of the box-office drought. Even the mainstream film media paid no attention to these awards. For art filmmakers struggling to tell their stories, the National Award recognition along with its tiny cash prize and an entertainment tax exemption meant a lot.
Industry old-timers pick 1981 as the year when Bollywood decided that it wanted another shiny trophy for itself. Jennifer Kendall’s performance as Miss Violet Stoneham, the solitary schoolteacher in Aparna Sen’s 36 Chowringhee Lane, was nothing short of masterful. The industry, both art and commercial, was stunned when Rekha was adjudged winner of the Best Actress Award for Umrao Jaan.
In the '90s, Amitabh Bachchan won the Best Actor award for Agneepath. Sunny Deol took home two trophies for Ghayal and Damini, Dimple Kapadia for Rudaali and Aamir Khan for Raja Hindustani. The floodgates had opened and the National Film Awards never looked back. Agni Sakshi, a copy of Julia Roberts’ Sleeping with the Enemy, got Nana Patekar a Best Supporting Actor nod. Films like Ghayal and Darr won for ‘providing wholesome entertainment’. The National Awards were the new shiny baubles that Bollywood just needed to have.
In the early 2000s, the awards were fraught with controversies. Kirron Kher won the Best Actress award for the Bengali film Bariwali in 2000. Only — Bengali actress Rita Koiral, who had dubbed for Kirron, claimed that she should be awarded too. The entry form for Bariwali had conveniently not mentioned this little detail. Kirron ignored the claims and refused to share the award.
The following year, Raveena Tandon and Anil Kapoor took home the top acting awards for Daman and Pukar respectively. Three members of the 17-member jury quit alleging, “a political cartel had turned the awards into a farce”. It was also alleged that screen villain and Raveena’s maternal uncle Mac Mohan, who was on the jury, had much to do with her winning the award. A year later, the jury led by director Prakash Jha awarded actor Ajay Devgn the Best Actor award for The Legend of Bhagat Singh. Interestingly, the director was shooting with Ajay at the time for Gangaajal.
Awarded by the Government and handed over by the President of India, the National Awards are supposed to be the most prestigious film awards in the country. But the sheen does get dulled when an Arjun Rampal wins for Rock On!!, Saif Ali Khan does for Hum Tum and Akshay Kumar for Rustom/Airlift. When the awards were instituted in 1954, its guidelines stated, “The National Awards for films provide special impetus to regional cinema and encourage the production of films of aesthetic excellence and social relevance”.
It’s time the Directorate of Films Festivals took a long and hard look at itself before the institution becomes just another popular award minus the song-and-dance.
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