National Film Festival 2016: To the Viewers go the spoils

Published: Fri, 06/10/2016 - 11:57 Updated: Tue, 06/14/2016 - 10:36

Notes from the National Film Festival 2016: the distribution of the awards may have disappointed (with good reason), but the terrain of Indian cinema does not

Dhruba Basu Delhi 

The 63rd National Film Awards, announced on March 28 and presented on May 3, stayed true to tradition by occasioning much eyebrow-raising and, in some cases, outright rejection. Doing the rounds was the theory that Amitabh Bachchan’s association with Gujarat Tourism and the Incredible India campaign had a hand in his winning Best Actor for playing a flatulent curmudgeon in Piku. Director Gurvinder Singh, whose film Chauthi Koot won the Best Punjabi Film award, refused to take his award, declaring the affair a “complete farce” for favouring commercial films and wondering whether it was “a BJP award and not National Award”. His point, though strongly worded, is not without merit.

The problems become clear when one looks at the monetary aspects of the various awards. Baahubali got `2,50,000 for being adjudged the Best Feature Film. This amount is about 0.02% of the budget with which the movie was produced. Bajrangi Bhaijaan, winner of the preposterous Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment award, was produced by Salman Khan Films; what is Salman Khan, worth a couple of hundred million USD, going to do with `2,00,000? What did his brother, Arbaaz Khan do with the amount when he won it for another Salman-starrer, Dabangg, five years ago?

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Of course, this particular category has been dominated by big-budget films, the roster of previous winners including Mary Kom, Bhaag Milkha Bhaag, 3 Idiots and Chak De! India, produced by Sanjay Leela Bhansali, Rakeysh Omprakash Mehra, Vidhu Vinod Chopra, and Aditya Chopra respectively. Do the established (predominantly Hindi movie) industry bankrollers need money from the Indian State in recognition of their ability to make a lot more money?

The same question attaches to the awards for Best Actor and Actress. Taking nothing away from Amitabh’s or Kangana Ranaut’s entertaining performances, one cannot but wonder whether two of the most high-profile stars in the biggest industry of the country really need the Rs 50,000 or the promotion. The amounts suggest that they are meant to assist talented filmmakers and professionals who do not have vast resources at their disposal.

It is the stated purpose of the Directorate of Film Festivals, which is in charge of all organisational aspects of the ceremony, to encourage “the production of films of aesthetic and technical excellence and social relevance contributing to the understanding and appreciation of cultures of different regions of the country in cinematic form and thereby also promoting integration and unity of the nation”. When 18 out of 31 non-best film awards, including direction, acting, cinematography, original and adapted screenplay, dialogue, and production design, are taken by Hindi-language Bollywood blockbusters, the exact nature of the integration and unity being promoted must be interrogated. All the more so when one of the members of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award Committee was Anup Jalota, a BJP member and campaigner for over a decade now, who announced that the rationale behind giving the award to Manoj Kumar was that: “he dedicated his life to spreading messages about how love for the country was most important (and) at times such as now when there is opposition to even saying ‘Bharat Mata Ki Jai’, Manoj Kumar’s movies will guide misguided youth and bring them closer to their motherland”. It seems superfluous to point out that this has nothing to do with the ‘growth and development of Indian cinema’, which the recipient of the Dadasaheb Phalke Award is supposed to be honoured for having contributed to.

Nevertheless, while the jury is out on the relevance and exact function of the National Film Awards, Hardnews took the screening of the winners at the DFF’s National Film Festival, held at Siri Fort Auditorium in Delhi, as an opportunity to try to break free of Bollywood’s stranglehold on the north Indian cinematic imagination.

It turned out to be a very good decision. 

SAIRAT

The highest-earning Marathi film of all time and the first one to cross the `50 crore mark, Sairat, which received a Special Mention Certificate for lead actress Rinku Rajguru’s performance, emerges from the stable of director Nagraj Manjule, who won National Awards for his first two films, Pistulya and Fandry, as well. It is Manjule’s attempt, in his own words, to craft a “classic love story”, but it is becoming clear that anything he does is informed by an intensely personal value system, evidenced by his sustained focus on the question of caste, his casting of local youth and the choice of his own village, Jeur, as the setting for the film. Neither Rinku nor Akash Thoshar, who plays the male protagonist, is a trained actor, but they execute their roles with a flair that belies this fact.

Sairat’s story is not entirely new: inter-caste love that invites the ire of the upper-caste family (in this case Patils, politicians of formidable regional standing), driving the lovers to strike out on their own in a merciless world. However, the lack of novelty at this level does not detract from the film. For one, novelty can be found at nearly every other level, from the farcical inter-district cricket match in the opening scene that is perfectly complemented by tongue-in-cheek commentary from a local wit who transforms into an ironically sincere sycophant upon the customary arrival of the Patils, to award-winning sibling duo Ajay and Atul Gogavale’s infectious and soaring music, recorded in Hollywood (at the erstwhile MGM Studios) for the first time in the history of Indian cinema. The development of the relationship between the protagonists is treated with loving attention as they attend college and make both subtle and bold overtures to each other while their friends comically kill time in the background.

Besides, the story will remain relevant as long as honour killings are a reality in this country. The film’s devastating ending drives home the point that escaping is not the solution to entrenched social hierarchies. The caste system is too total, too pernicious; nothing less than its complete dismantlement will free those whose lives are circumscribed by its repressive mechanisms.

Dau Huduni Methai

Manju Borah, the director of this agonising Bodo film about the trauma of insurgency, is a great example of the kind of person who could use State grants. Hailing from Guwahati and working on the margins of the film industry for nearly two decades now, she has already accumulated four National Awards since 1999, for Baibhab, Aakashitorar Kothare, Aai Kot Nai, and Ko:Yad, and is currently working on Assam’s first animated feature film, Sarbagunakar Srimanta Sanakardev. Despite the impressive record, however, her productions are compromised by low budgets and a lack of advanced technology. She is honest with her opinion of her own films, which she maintains are not great by conventional standards but ride on the fact that they are about the people, traditions and cultures of the North-east.

Dau Huduni Methai, which means ‘Song of the Horned Owl’ in Bodo, substantiates to a large extent Borah’s point. The most arresting sequences in the film are those that reference what is culturally esoteric to the Bodo communities, such as the telling of the titular myth about dead men returning home as horned owls whose calls presage more death. It is told by an old, frail woman who is first seen preparing a recipe of seeds and spices that will visit curses upon the insurgents responsible for her son’s death, to her young, innocent granddaughter.

The film does not cut hurriedly through these scenes, or the ones in which the female protagonist, Raimali, is shown engaged in traditional weaving drills while brooding about the fate of her lover. Juxtaposing images of the Bodo lifestyle (the eri silk woven by Bodo women is considered the best in the North-east and is a source of economic empowerment for them) and their countryside, lovingly lingered on by the camera whenever possible, with violent interludes of shootings, bombings, subterfuge, and the visual refrain of the rape victim (Raimali again, whose recollections constitute the narrative) breathing heavily in an abandoned house, powerfully evokes the disruptive effects of AFSPA on members of economically and developmentally marginalised communities that are struggling to hold on to their traditional methods of livelihood and survival.

At the same time, Borah’s reservations ring true as well. Most of the acting and dialogue is of a lacklustre, pedestrian standard, which, perhaps, partly explains the attention to aspects that involve minimal amounts of both. The pacing grates because not much is surprising or gripping. The story of the sufferings of innocents in conflict zones is a story that has been told in many forms. It must continue to be told as long as it is relevant, but the telling must reinvent itself in innovative ways. Some innovations cost money, but the history of low-budget cinema around the world shows that it needn’t also suffer from a poverty of ideas.

Borah’s complaint about the unlikelihood of any of her films achieving mainstream release or any kind of wider viewership due to the skewed priorities of an unhelpful distribution mechanism point towards institutionalised disincentivisation vis-a-vis regional cinema. Dau Huduni Methai’s selection in the ‘Focus on World Cinema’ category of the Montreal World Film Festival, one of Canada’s oldest film festivals, is a big boost for the declining Assamese film industry, and it is hoped that this will pave the way for filmmakers like Borah to tell stories from the margins with more vigour and confidence. 

Visaranai

Budgetary considerations were not a major problem for Vetrimaaran. Mentored by legendary filmmaker Balu Mahendran, the acclaimed Tamil director has been closely involved from the beginning of his career with Dhanush, whose production house (Wunderbar Films) financed Visaranai. This is not to say that the film, which won in the Best Tamil Film, Best Editing and Best Supporting Actor categories, has the hallmarks of a stupendous budget; that would be anathema for Vetrimaaran, whose training has been in rigorously realist cinema. What his relative financial leeway allows him is the room to give his vision the right kind of treatment.

Tour de force may be an overused phrase in film criticism, but it is for films like Visaranai that such phrases are meant. It follows a group of down-on-luck Tamil labourers in Andhra Pradesh who get caught up in a series of misadventures after they are arrested on false charges to expedite the closing of a case of theft at a local bigwig’s home. Police brutality is the standout theme as they are beaten mercilessly in order to get them to accept the charges, but the plot thickens with the involvement of politicians, the Tamil Nadu police, and nihilistic mercenaries, and it becomes pointless to isolate the actions of any one unit in the messy nexus. What does become clear, as the body count escalates, is the gross devaluation of life in the negotiations of power. No one is spared, no loyalties are respected, and no one is too important to sacrifice for the cause of a system of vested interests that is stronger than its constituent elements.

Visaranai presents these, the real, age-old facts of life, in seamless, visceral and spellbinding style. There is grit in the resistance of the friends, but the film cannot be pigeonholed as purely ‘gritty’; it is too alive to the helplessness of pawns, feeding the audience interludes of light relief before plunging once more into scarcely palatable sequences of violence, as if daring us to continue laughing. Death is discussed among the functionaries of the system so nonchalantly as to bring to mind The Banality of Evil, Hannah Arendt’s seminal essay on the way genocide was simply slotted into the daily lives of Germans during the Second World War.

The picture is highly dystopian, but there is nothing fictitious about it. It is based on the real-life experiences narrated by M Chandrakumar, a survivor of the events described in the film, in his 2006 novel, Lock Up. With the success of Visaranai, both a critical and commercial success and winner of the Amnesty International Italia Award at the Venice Film Festival, ‘Auto Chandran’, as he is known, has become a minor celebrity, but continues to drive his auto and write novels in his spare time. 

Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal

The endosulfan tragedy in Kerala is best understood visually. Stunted growth, disfigured limbs, heads enlarged by hydrocephalus, and a host of behavioural traits caused by mental retardation, cerebral palsy, and other disabling conditions are rampant amongst the 10,000-odd victims. Images of them, eerily similar to images of the Bhopal gas tragedy victims, do not sit easily on the average conscience.

Endosulfan is a pesticide that, beginning in the late 1970s, was sprayed aerially on cashew plantations of the state government-owned Plantation Corporation of Kerala, washed down by the rains into the valleys below, and consumed in drinking water by humans and animals alike. The effects began to show within a year, the first news report about it came out in 1979, a government committee recommended that endosulfan not be used near water bodies in 1991, aerial spraying of insecticides was prohibited in 1993, but it continued illegally under police protection to the detriment of the community and the environment.

It was only in 2001 that the issue began to receive large-scale media attention. Valiya Chirakulla Pakshikal is a docudrama that follows Madhuraj, the Matrubhumi photojournalist responsible for the expose, as he perseveres over the course of 10 years to bring the tragedy to light and justice to the victims. The film is not, however, about Madhuraj, and this is its strongest suit. By not concerning itself with his personal life or history, it scrupulously avoids melodrama and is ramrod-straight in its focus on the fallout of what amounts to a State-sponsored policy of neglect of public health.

The situation in Kasargod, the affected district that Madhuraj travels to at intervals of about five years, is almost post-apocalyptic. There is no sound of fauna, the fields lie dead and the water is poisoned. Teachers, doctors and parents have the same tales to tell, about afflictions that abruptly ruined the lives of students, patients and offspring, rendering them deformed, physically and mentally challenged, incapable of living functionally, and in most cases carrying malignant tumours.

The interactions between Madhuraj and the victims are the most powerful moments in the film. There are words sometimes, but they are not necessary. Madhuraj is played by Kunchacko Boban; the victims are ‘played by’ the real-life victims, and one suspects that the occasional, controlled breakdowns we witness from Madhuraj were in fact the muted reactions of Boban as the actor came face to face with the horrors wrought by men upon men for profit. It is unbearably moving.

The narrative falters, however, when it goes abroad, to Canada and the 2011 Stockholm Summit on Persistent Organic Pollutants, where Madhuraj and his team are trying to get endosulfan banned by the United Nations, a position that the official Indian delegation at the conference opposed due to pressure from endosulfan manufacturers. The proceedings at the conference are performed half-heartedly and are unconvincing in a jarring kind of way after the immersiveness of the Kasargod sequences. It even feels, at times, as if information is fed in a way that presupposes a lack of intelligence on the audience’s part.

That said, one must recognise the importance of the Stockholm episodes in context of the fact that, despite the vote at the 2011 conference going in favour of the ban, despite the numerous reports over the years that have established a direct link between the use of the pesticide and the high rates of health disorders in the target areas, endosulfan is still manufactured and used in India. A Supreme Court ban on production and sale was lifted in 2012 and it was announced in 2014 that it was to be phased out by 2017. The winner of the National Award for Best Film on Environment Conservation/Preservation is a timely intervention, flaws and all, from Malayalam director Dr Biju, who is cementing his reputation as a maker of thoughtful, conscientious cinema. 

Shankhachil

If awards and recognition are the measure of success, Goutam Ghose stakes a strong claim to being one of India’s living legends. An untrained filmmaker, he has won 16 National Awards and a slew of international awards at Venice, Cannes, Nantes and other film festivals since he kickstarted his career with anti-establishment documentaries in the 1970s, and is considered a tireless champion of humane issues.

Shankhachil, adjudged the Best Bengali Film of 2015, does not break from the issue-based tradition that is central to Ghose’s auteurism. Its issue, ostensibly, is the state of cultural and developmental limbo at the Indo-Bangladesh border, which it chooses to look at through the experiences of a schoolteacher’s family as they cross the border illegally to cure their daughter’s heart condition. It is the sort of premise that Steven Spielberg would win an Oscar for and as far as sentimentality goes, Ghose has left Spielberg in the dust. The schoolteacher, Muntasir Chowdhury Badal, cannot stop loftily pontificating about what it is to be Bengali and the call of the land one’s ancestors were forced to leave, while his daughter, meant to embody childlike innocence and curiosity, is instead a sort of curio unto herself, ceaselessly expressing amazement and ignorance as she runs around the border landscape that Ghose has lavishly captured. In other words, the other tradition Ghose has not broken away from is that of nyakami, a propensity for bathos and a distaste for subtlety, in mainstream Bengali cinema. It reaches its zenith or nadir, depending on how you look at it, with the tragic climax of the film; the daughter is dead and the parents are in custody because Muntasir refuses to lie about his identity any longer.

What Shankhachil talks about is significant, but Ghose seems to be largely concerned with establishing the blameless humanity of his major characters and using that to leverage a lachrymal response from his viewers, as if to say good people suffer in situations that they had no part in creating, which is not much of a perspective to offer. Instead of an engagement with the ground realities of life at the border and the way they condition the communities there, the film engages in emotional retail, gift-wrapping the sadness of innocence lost in rhetoric and cinematography. After all, a child dying of heart disease and not being able to afford medical care are not intrinsically border issues. How the question of identity links up with the travails of the border Badals is vague at best. As are the chances, if Shankhachil is anything to go by, of Bengali cinema’s revival at this juncture.

Notes from the National Film Festival 2016: the distribution of the awards may have disappointed (with good reason), but the terrain of Indian cinema does not
Dhruba Basu Delhi 

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