The announcement of the National Awards brings with it every year the realisation that despite that all-inclusive name, there is more interest in the number of awards won by films of a State, made in the local language. Thus, Tamil Nadu exults over the recognition for Ilaiyaraaja (Best Background Score for Thaarai Thappattai ), Kishore Te (Best Editing for Visaranai ) and Samuthirakani (Best Supporting Actor for Visaranai ). In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh it is a huge matter of pride for Telugu film-lovers that S.S. Rajamouli’s Baahubali : The Beginning has been declared Best Feature Film. And yet, this parochial chest-thumping does not mitigate the importance of these awards, which are, if nothing else, an annual reminder that Indian cinema is more than just ‘Bollywood’, that there was even a film made last year in the Wancho language spoken by a tribal people in the hills of Arunachal Pradesh.
There are films being made in Khasi, Bodo, Manipuri, Maithili, Mizo, Konkani, even Sanskrit. There are films being awarded not only for performances and costumes and choreography and technical feats on the other side of the screen, but also for how attuned they are to social issues, to environment conservation and preservation, to the educational and entertainment needs of children. Is there another award body that hands out prizes for Best Children’s Film? Or Best Anthropological/Ethnographic Film? Or Best Historical Reconstruction/Compilation Film? Or Best Film-Friendly State?
Critics may argue that there are too many categories, with many awards being handed out with an eye on appeasement rather than quality, for reasons more to do with politics than creativity. But that is perhaps only to be expected — for the National Awards reflect the nation, where several interests need to be balanced for the overall good. Hence the attempt to distribute the riches in a balanced fashion. If there are prizes given to gargantuan Bollywood productions ( Bajirao Mastani , Tanu Weds Manu Returns ), there is also recognition for Hindi-indie films such as Masaan , made for roughly the cost of a sequin on Deepika Padukone’s Bajirao Mastani costumes. The question that is usually asked at the Oscars — “but did this film really deserve this award?” — is rendered moot by the logistical nightmare the exercise surely is.
Imagine picking, say, a winner for Best Lyrics from entries in so many languages, with so many region- and culture-specific allusions, and by jury members who have to rely on English subtitles that convey the essence but rarely the flavour. Still, one has to ask: Did Baahubali really deserve Best Picture? The answer is probably yes, for whatever the cinematic merits of the mega-blockbuster (and there were many), it managed to unite the nation’s movie-watching public as no other film in recent times, across regional State lines, even across the Vindhyas. For the first time, Hindi moviegoers endorsed, to the tune of over Rs.100 crore, a film made by South Indians. If that doesn’t merit a National Award, what does?