The 65th National Film Awards ceremony saw a lot of suspense, drama, action and emotion — much of this for the way the ceremony was conducted rather than the cinema that was being celebrated.
An estimated 50 of the 125 awardees refused to attend the event protesting that, contrary to what their invitation said, they were not going to receive the awards from President Ram Nath Kovind.
The wrinkle in the red carpet surfaced on Wednesday when the awardees reached the venue for the rehearsal. They were told that breaking from tradition, the President would give away only a select few awards — 11 of the 70 categories — and the rest would be given by Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting Smriti Irani and her junior Minister Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore.
This did not go down well with many awardees who felt that this segregated the awards into two categories, and, most importantly, went against what their invitation had said.
Irani, called to placate them, is said to have assured them that she would “convey” their “sentiments” to the President’s office. Unimpressed, the winners reached The Ashok Hotel, where they had been put up.
This morning, the Press Information Bureau posted a statement that the award ceremony would be divided into two phases: At 4 pm, Irani and Rathore would hand the awards, then at 5.30 pm President Kovind would arrive and give the rest of the awards.
Around the same time, many winners decided that they would boycott. Filmmaker Shekhar Kapur, head of the jury for feature films, reached the hotel to negotiate but he, too, couldn’t convince them.
Close to the scheduled time at the Vigyan Bhavan venue, most seats reserved for winners were empty. Some of the winners came in but for half of those who didn’t, their nameplates were removed.
Utpal Borpujari, who directed the best Assamese film Ishu, decided to come on behalf of his entire crew and his state. But he added he was upset that the President was not giving all the awards. “It’s like giving out the Padma Awards,” Borpujari said. “You cannot have the President give just a few of the Padma awards and have the Home Minister give the rest”.
When the ceremony began around 4:15 pm, nobody was sure how many winners would show up. Of the 90 names announced, around 70 had turned up. To avoid further embarrassment, names of around another 30 winners who didn’t attend were not even announced.
After the President arrived, he awarded Sridevi’s family her Best Actress Award, Vinod Khanna’s family his Dada Saheb Phalke Award, Yesudas for best playback singer, AR Rahman for best music and awards in seven other categories. All who were to be awarded by him were present.
PHOTOS | National Film Awards 2018
Sources said Rashtrapati Bhavan had taken a decision that it was not possible for the President to award “30-40 awards at one function.” He would only give major awards and not stay for more than an hour at such events.
Sources said this was conveyed to the I&B Ministry about three weeks ago. Said Ashok Malik, press secretary to the President: “The President is very happy to give the national film awards. He will give away the major awards. Obviously, he has limited time so the rest of the function will continue in his absence.”
Result: even as the ceremony was on, barely 3 km away, a group of awardees sat in the lobby of The Ashok Hotel. They had decided to stay away.
“When we heard that the President will only come for the last one hour to present 11 ‘selected’ awards, we expressed disappointment. But at that time, we were told we will get a final word from the Ministry by Thursday morning,” said filmmaker R C Suresh, who won the award for his film Sword of Liberty.
As many as 69 awardees — including Suresh, Nagraj Manjule, Sani Ghose Ray, Meghnath, Praveen Morchhade, S Solomon Raju, Parvathy Thiruvothu, Kaushik Ganguly, Juhi Bhatt, Justin Jose K, Suresh Eriyat and Deokar Amar — came together by afternoon and signed a letter addressed to the Ministry and also marked to the President, saying, “It feels like a breach of trust when an institution/ceremony that abides by extreme protocol fails to inform us of such a vital aspect of the ceremony with a prior notice. It seems unfortunate that 65 years of tradition are being overturned in a jiffy.”
The awardees signed off saying that in the absence of any response from the Ministry, they would have no option “but to be absent from the ceremony.” However, some of the signatories later attended the function.
Manjule, among the 11 awardees honoured by the President at the event, said, “I stand in solidarity with these awardees. The ceremony should have been postponed if the President had other commitments. However, if I don’t attend the ceremony, it would be a disrespect to the President.”
Samarth Mahajan, Best On-location Sound Recordist Award for the documentary, The Unreserved, was in the lobby with his parents who had come from Gurdaspur in Punjab. He said, “If we were informed in advance about this development, we wouldn’t have come all the way. Now everyone is taking their individual decision to attend the ceremony or not. But even if I am the last person left here, I will take a stand. Else worse things will happen in future.” The family decided to stay away.
Added his father, advocate Rohit Mahajan: “My son is still a National Awardee. We will celebrate this evening. We are feeling bad, but would have felt worse if he had accepted the award at the hands of anyone less than the President.”
Morchhale, whose Walking With The Wind bagged an award in the category of Best Film (Ladakhi), said: “The President is the neutral citizen, he is the head of the state. If we accept the award from him, we feel India is honouring us. Accepting it from a minister is not the same feeling. It’s sad.” He stayed away from the ceremony.
Veteran filmmaker Meghnath from Ranchi, whose film on tribal ideologue Ram Dayal won an award in the Biographical film category, also a signatory of the letter, said, “What we are protesting is the symptom of a disease. All our institutions — be it education or law — are suffering. Let cinema as an institution, which was built over many years, live healthily. They are trying to spoil that institution. If we see the list of awardees, they couldn’t have been awarded by mainstream film awards. The state respects our films because we are alternate cinema, we don’t care about crores. Why didn’t they tell us before?”