The National Awards were not announced last year owing to the nationwide lockdown imposed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Hence, the awards announced are for the films of 2019.
Earlier, the National Awards did not matter much to the people. For that matter, they did not mean much to the mainstream film industries either, and the Hindi mainstream never related to these awards. Because, the mass films from the mainstream Hindi industry, though unofficially, were not recognised or found eligible for the awards.
For years, the awards moved around within a small circle of filmmakers. Certain makers, considered to be intellectuals, cornered the honours year after year. They made abstract, art movies that many considered pretentious. What these films certainly were not by any stretch of imagination, was entertainers, and hence they had few takers. Besides, in the please-all policy of the authorities to make the filmmakers from all regions happy, the awards were meted out region-wise to East and South as the West hardly contributed to this genre, while the North had no productions coming out from the region to claim any awards.
Later, in the 1970s, the I&B Ministry formed the Film Finance Corporation of India (later renamed National Film Development Corporation, or NFDC) with the idea of promoting good, purposeful cinema. Since then, the ministry did not have to look far for films to bestow its awards on. For most of its early days, the NFDC (FFC at that time) backed and promoted what was earlier described as art films. The pattern of awarding similar films continued. The NFDC backed over 300 films since its inception and over 50 of these films bagged the National Awards in some or the other category!
These awards had no connect with the box office performance and, hence, the popularity of a film. To put it in context of the box office, a National Award for a film in no way promoted its prospects by adding to the box office collections. Also, it does not help an actor or a director further his/her career in any way.
On an aside, it is curious to note that Richard Attenborough's film "Gandhi", with which the NFDC was associated, went on to win eight Oscars at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts And Sciences. The film also won five other prestigious international awards including BAFTA (British Academy) and the Golden Globe. Surprisingly, the film did not merit a single National Award!
In such an event, no wonder there was neither praise nor the criticism of the awards. The people were indifferent and, in most cases, unaware of this exercise. At best, the awards merited a paragraph or two in the mainstream media.
The scope of the National Awards nominations widened with categories being added and with the inclusion of equal participation for films from all languages. While the main awards were open to all languages, separate sections for films from each language recognised under the Constitution -- 17 in all -- were awarded. The practice continues, and has gone on to make the awards all-encompassing. For, after all, it was not fair to ignore the bests of regional films. This encourages the regional makers.
The awards' credibility, however, did not improve instantly. There were allegations on the selection of jury members, with people from close coteries of the regime being appointed. This, obviously, led to favouritism. There were instances when the award winner's relative or a favourite director would be found on the panel. It was all said to be about the Delhi babus calling the shots. If there was to be a comparison, the National Film Awards enjoyed even less credibility than the Bhushan Awards announced every year those days for worthy common people from all walks of life.
The National Awards are now gaining credibility as well as popularity and, the one reason for that being, these awards have also started recognising mainstream actors and stars. When Amitabh Bachchan, Akshay Kumar, Ayushmann Khurrana, Irrfan Khan, Kangana Ranaut or Vidya Balan is awarded, it helps the awards gain popularity because they are mass actors. Otherwise, an actor may have won the National Award twice, thrice and, in case of some actors, as many as five times, it meant nothing to the public. They were not masses' actors.
Besides the fact that the awards have now gone more mainstream, the other reason is also that the so-called popular awards, organised by the various publishing houses, have been degenerating due to them caring more to satisfy their sponsors and not for the people's choices. These awards are more about the accompanying functions where awards are presented. It is more about the 'tamasha' they put up then the merit of winners!
This year, the National Awards announced for the year 2019 include winners like Kangana Ranaut ("Manikarnika" and "Panga"), Manoj Bajpayee and Dhanush ("Bhonsle" and "Asuran" respectively), Pallavi Joshi ("The Tashkent Files") and the latest anthem of the music world, the song "Teri mitti", winning the award for its singer B. Praak.
Now, have the awards made everybody happy or, at least, most of the movie lovers? That is not possible, really. Only, now the divide and the expressions of one's likes and dislikes come more to the fore. On one side, the media makes sure there are controversies and the debates that follow, so that they can call a panel and feed their airtimes. The other is the social media.
The social media may certainly have sincere film buffs airing views, both for and against certain choices of the awardees, without having a motive, but soon the lobbies get involved. Those busy on social media broadly come in two varieties: Those who don't like anything that comes from the government, and those who don't like anything good happening to someone, period!
So, in order to measure a film's success, only the box office figures matter, and the opinions of the social media don't. The same applies to the National Awards. They seem to be the only prestigious awards now.
(Vinod Mirani is a veteran film writer and box office analyst. The views expressed are personal)