Once, the British master moviemaker, Mike Leigh, told this writer at Cannes that an award was only as good (or as bad) as a jury that decides it. He was bang on, and one remembers the utter dismay when the Quentin Tarantino jury gave the Cannes Palm d’Or to Michael Moore’s Bush-bashing documentary, Fahrenheit 9/11. And undeservedly so! It was no secret that Moore’s work walked away with Cannes’ top honour only because Tarantino hated President Bush. And the decision was out and out political. Sadly, nothing to do with cinematic excellence!
But, yes, nobody could have faulted Tarantino’s ability to differentiate between good and bad cinema. He was a master in his own right having made brilliant works like Pulp Fiction, Reservoir Dogs, Kill Bill and Inglorious Basterds among several others.
However, the India story is another ball-game -- for the simple reason that juries or selection panels here are often made of men and women whose knowledge of film is abysmally poor, if at all. At other times, members are just not interested in doing their job, and they are there only to enrich their resumes.
This writer has been part of such panels. There was one instance when the chairman of the Indian Panorama Selection Committee -- which chooses movies for the most prestigious Indian Panorama at the International Film Festival of India (IFFI), and this package is supposed to showcase the cream of country’s cinema -- hardly watched any film. Yet, he was there on the day of voting to cast his vote! No wonder, then, that the Panorama is losing its sheen.
Take, for instance, this year’s Panorama at IFFI. It seemed like a major scandal when two of India’s master auteurs -- Buddhadev Dasgupta and Adoor Gopalakrishnan -- were kept out. Their creations Tope and Pinneyum respectively were not considered worthy of Panorama. Yet, the Toronto International Film Festival included both movies in its Masters Section.
The question is, will a Cannes or Venice or Berlin ignore a Mike Leigh or Ken Loach or Pedro Almodovar or a Jafar Panahi? No, they will not. But IFFI will brazenly bypass its own masters.
It is no different when it comes to India’s National Film Awards. This year’s honours went to really bad movies. The good ones were ignored. Classic films like Visaaranai (subsequently sent up for the Oscars), Thithi, An Off-Day Game and Chauthi Koot were given the thumbs down. Instead, a rank bad work like Baahubali got the Best Picture Award. Now, how worse can it get.
Girish Kasaravalli, another great master of the medium -- who has made gems like Tabarana Kathe, Ghatashraddha, Mane and Gulabi Talkies -- told this writer on Tuesday morning over the telephone from Bengaluru that “Baahubali was a disaster, and the honour smacked of rewarding personal loyalties... Any film that tends to question the state or establishment becomes unfavourable. I cannot understand why movies like Lathe Joshi or Masaan or Thithi were not given their well deserved credit. I also feel that the problem lies with the Directorate of Film Festivals (DFF). It is not interested in promoting meaningful cinema”.
And with the next National Film Awards all set to happen and with the jury all set to be constituted soon, Adoor has minced no words in an interview with The Hindu, published on Tuesday. The article says he “has written to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting urging it to ensure that the jury to select films for the National Awards this year is headed by a filmmaker of eminence who is familiar with modern trends in cinema, and the jury as a whole instills a feeling of fairness in the minds of the professionals involved”.
In a letter addressed to I&B Secretary Ajay Mittal, released for publication here on Monday, Gopalakrishnan urged him to treat selection of the jury chairman and members seriously and stop an ‘incompetent jury from sitting to judge our work’.
“The national awards were conceived as a means to select and award films for their thematic relevance, social commitment, original approach, technical excellence and above all aesthetic brilliance.”
Adoor told The Hindu: “Unfortunately, when the National Awards for 2015 were announced, all the major prizes, including that for the best film and the best director, went to outright commercial films, undermining the very purpose for which they were instituted. The problem lay in the appointment of the jury. It was composed mostly of people who had little or nothing to do with meaningful cinema either as professional practitioners or as discerning critics and scholars. The appointment of the jury seemed to have been done casually, not realising how deeply it would demoralise the genuine and committed practitioners in the profession.”
It was the same story this year with the Panorama. “Everyone in the profession was shocked by the kind of selection that was made. Anything genuine, original and artistic was rejected with a vengeance. The naïve, gaudy and incongruous got in. If one finds a reasonably good film in the selection it should have got in by default. Critics attending the Mumbai, Kolkata and Kerala festivals were heard saying that the rejections in Goa would make a good festival of the best of Indian cinema in the year 2016,” he said.
Adoor also told The Hindu that it was imperative that the names of nominees as well as their qualifications to be on the jury were made public before they sat on judgment. “Keeping their names from public knowledge is a sure way to infiltrate wrong people into such bodies,” he added.
This writer remembers a former director of the DFF saying that the names of jurors or panelists were kept under wraps to protect them from being harassed by producers, directors and actors whose movies may be in the running for prizes. But this sounded like a mere excuse as the “interested parties” always found a way to get to the members of the jury/selection panel.
So, Adoor contends that the names of the nominees must not be kept a secret. Only then, can the selection be just and the process transparent. It is only then that the jury or panel feels a sense of accountability to the Indian cinema fraternity, indeed to the entire country.
(Gautaman Bhaskaran has served on several Panorama panels, national juries and international juries in Venice, Melbourne, Deauville and Abu Dhabi.)