Awards jury: Saif and not sorry

The National Film Awards bucked the trend of awarding heavy-duty performances and socially relevant themes. Saibal Chatterjee reports on the films and stars that made it.

Veer-Zaara wins the Best Popular Film award
Veer-Zaara wins the Best Popular Film award

Controversies are an integral part of the National Film Awards (NFA). After all, no jury in the world can ever please everybody. The 17 persons who sat in judgment on over 100 feature films to select the recipients of the 52nd National Film Awards didn’t either.

Sudhir Mishra, probably the youngest NFA jury chairman ever, knew that he had a thankless job on his hand, but the articulate and combative Mumbai filmmaker was well equipped to field the volley of unfriendly questions that were directed at him following the announcement of the National Awards.

Nine out of ten questions centred on the decision to adjudge Bollywood star Saif Ali Khan the best actor for his ‘light-hearted’ performance as a cartoonist in the box office hit, Hum Tum. Mishra says in defence of the choice: "Why must the Best Actor award always go to a heavy-duty performance? Can’t an actor leave an impression without having to quiver his lips and deliver high-pitched soliloquies?"

The Best Film award for Madhur Bhandarkar’s surprise commercial humdinger, Page 3, has also raised more than a few eyebrows. But Mishra, true to form, has his answer ready: "The film is impressive because of the skill with which it creates a complex human tapestry. Having the courage to attempt a film so original while working within the market-driven Mumbai industry is itself commendable, but the award isn’t for the intention alone. It recognizes the quality of the execution as well."

The other two major awards of the year – Best Actress for Thaara for her moving portrayal of a Muslim woman abandoned by her alcoholic husband in Girish Kasaravalli’s Kannada film, Hasina, and Best Director for Buddhadeb Dasgupta for the Bengali film Swapner Din (Chased by Dreams) — have gone largely uncontested. The reason is pretty obvious: Hasina and Swapner Din bear the imprimatur of two men who have made winning National Awards a habit. Hasina has also been named the Best Film on Family Welfare.

Page 3 gets the Best Film award
Page 3 gets the Best Film award

Among the other significant winners of the 52nd NFA are Yash Chopra’s Veer-Zaara and the Tamil superhit Autograph, which shared the prize for the Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, Shyam Benegal’s Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose – The Forgotten Hero, which bagged the Nargis Dutt Award for Best Feature Film on National Integration, and playback singer Udit Narayan for his rendition of Yeh taara woh taara for the film Swades.

The jury has bucked a long-established trend by bestowing two of the top prizes on films that have clicked at the box office, reinforcing a belief that the gap between non-mainstream cinema and commercial movies is rapidly disappearing.

When the 52nd National Films Awards jury began its three-week-long deliberations late last month, who would have thought that Page 3, despite the widespread critical applause it garnered, would emerge as the best Indian film of 2004, or that Saif Ali Khan, rarely regarded as an actor of substance, would walk away with the top prize in his category?

By snagging the coveted Swarna Kamal for the Best Film, the trenchant yet breezy and engaging Page 3 has made headlines because never before in the long history of the National Film Awards has a commercially successful Mumbai venture bagged the honour. The award is usually reserved for films woven around socially relevant themes and made by established non-mainstream directors. "I can’t believe it. It’s a great feeling," says a thrilled Bhandarkar.

Saif is Best Actor for his light-hearted performance
Saif is Best Actor for his light-hearted performance

The Best Actor award, too, had never ever gone to a ‘lightweight’ screen performance. An unwritten rule had made it mandatory for the award in this category to be given to a role full of emotional force and serious intent. Saif’s uncomplicated performance in Kunal Kohli’s Hum Tum had neither, certainly not on the surface.

The jury, however, discovered great merit in Saif’s performance in the romantic comedy inspired by the Hollywood hit, When Harry Met Sally. Its citation lauded the actor for "his sheer ease, subtlety and spontaneity in portraying a complex and demanding role".

Page 3 got the better of a rather weak field for much the same reason. For Mishra, a film that is entertaining and engaging can also be a good piece of cinema. "That is perfectly true of Page 3," he asserts.

A section of the jury, however, feels that Page 3 was really the best of a particularly bad lot of films. Says one member of the jury:

"The quality of films that were entered this year was extremely poor. The only other film that could have bagged the Best Feature award is Buddhadeb Dasgupta’s Swapner Din." Swapner Din had to be content with the Best Director award.

This year’s National Awards bridged the gap between commercial success and artistic merit a little further by handing out another of the top prizes to Page 3 — Best Screenplay award. In the bargain, it has triggered an old debate: should commercial Hindi cinema be kept out of the purview of the principal categories of the National Awards given that there already is a prize for the Best Popular Film? Page 3 has straddles creativity and commerce. It is perhaps time for the National Film Awards to follow suit.