You know how everyone says “Awards are meaningless”? Well, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award is a special kind of meaningless that is also meaningful but only in a particular way. It is complicated. And Manoj Kumar won one, yay!
Dadsaheb Phalke himself was the Father of Indian Cinema. That is, now he is the “Father of Indian Cinema”. Back when he was actually making movies, he was part of the “corrupting influence of Film”. The early freedom fighters and Fathers of the Indian Nation really hated movies. Gandhi himself spoke out against them. But, time went on, people who had grown up with Phalke films and other Indian made movies started to gain power, and eventually the Indian government created an Award in his honor.
Not that Phalke or his family gets anything out of this. This article gives a great overview of how the family has been treated by the government. They have never been invited to the Phalke awards ceremony, neither Phalke nor his wife (who was his cameraman, editor, chief technician, set designer, and everything else), has ever been given an award by the government. At the same time that a stamp was issued in his name and postcards were made of his studio, his descendants were forced to sell the land for development in order to survive. The only public honor they ever remember getting was when V. Shantaram, himself a filmmaker, publicly presented Phalke with a purse containing 5,000 rupees as part of a celebration of the 25th anniversary of Indian film. The money was used to buy their first house.
Appropriately for an Award named in honor of a man who the government never appreciated while he was alive, it usually goes to filmmakers long after their heyday, when everyone has forgotten why they were so important to begin with. The first winner was Devika Rani, a fellow film pioneer along with Phalke, who back in the 30s was considered scandalous for acting onscreen, smoking, drinking, and cursing. And running a film studio on her own after her husband’s death. But, 30 years later, long after she had retired from public life, it was safe to bring her out as a respectable older woman.
And now Manoj Kumar has won! One of the all time most patriotic filmmakers. He made the first hit film based on Bhagat Singh (Shaheed), made a film at the personal request of the Prime Minister based on the connection between farmers and soldiers (Upkaar), and made the movie that is still the template for most anti-NRI films (Parab Aur Paschim). And he also had his fair number of affair rumors, fights with the censor board, and slights by high society, just like any other filmmaker.
But now he is old and his last movie is from 1999, so sure! Let’s give him an Award now! Quick, before he dies, or does something controversial!
Okay, that all sounds really cynical. Really, this is how awards work every where, you only get them after you are too old to be dangerous. And Manoj Kumar really does deserve it, if nothing else for introducing this amazing spinning restaurant set, which was recently given an homage in the “Indiawaale” scene from Happy New Year.
(The reason I am so sure it is an homage, is because the rest of it is so similar also. Our hero is singing a patriotic song in an effort to show up the man who cowardly caused his father’s death. Also, back in the day Manoj Kumar was super handsome, right?)