I don’t want to talk about this news story in depth just yet, because it feels like there is going to be more to it that hasn’t come out yet and I am waiting for that. But I also don’t want to miss out on your thoughts and opinions, and possible knowledge of what I am missing, so I will put this up for us to use for discussion and then a “real” post possibly in couple of days when it has played out more.
The National Film Awards were instituted in 1954 with the goal of honoring the contribution of film artists from all over India. A formal clear recognition of their service to the nation. A message to the filmmakers that they matter and their work is valuable, and a message to the public at large that film is a part of national service.
(First winner: Do Bigha Zamin)
The National Film Awards are presented by the President of India, as are the Gallantry Awards to military heroes, the Nari Shakti Puraskar awards to brave women, and so on and so on. The President serves as a representative of the nation, part of the value of the award is that it is being given to you personally by the honorary soul of the country.
India is a constitutional democracy similar in structure to a constitutional monarchy. As are most democracies in the world (America is weird and doesn’t work quite right, but is also the most famous example of “President”, thus the need for this clarification). The goal is a balance of power, representatives are elected, they come together to elect a Prime Minister from among them, and a cabinet is nominated. But, separately, there is also a President who serves as the ultimate authority with the ability to call for elections, appoint people, blah blah blah. The President is elected by the national representatives AND state representatives, giving him a broader base of support. He is supposed to only act on the advice of the Prime Minister and the cabinet unless such advice is unconstitutional. The President is a figurehead, essentially. But a meaningful figurehead, one who serves (like a monarch would) to give the longer view and the deeper connection to the people.
The most important thing a President of India can and has done is declare a state of “Emergency”, suspending civil liberties, which is what President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed did on the advice of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. But most of the time, the President serves a valuable purpose of not doing much. He takes on the responsibility of the ceremonial role of the leader of the nation allowing there to be a clear line between that role and the day to day duties carried out by the Prime Minister.
And therefore it is the President who presents National Film Awards, and who is formally listed as the one “giving” the Awards. The same way in England it is the Queen who would give you an honorary title for services to the nation, even if it is a whole massive unrelated committee somewhere else that determines who should receive a knighthood. Part of the honor is to have the Queen herself do it, that is what gives the ceremony meaning. And that is the Queen’s primary purpose, to provide this meaningful ceremonial center of the Nation.
(Sort of like how Yash Chopra was still the public head of YRF, while Adi did the dirty business on the backside)
The National Film Awards in India are not the same as a knighthood. The Padma Shri would be closer to that. But the National Film Awards are also not quite the same as any other award ceremony. There is that moment of honor and meaning in them, the feeling that you are on a sacred mission for your country, which you wouldn’t get merely by being awarded a certificate by a committee on the last day of a film festival.
And that is also where their greatest value lies. The National Film Awards are reported all over the Nation, the award ceremony is televised, they are a Big Deal. Because they are presented as a Big Deal, not just another award ceremony but the representative of all Indians (the President) stepping forward to pay tribute to the best in the country. And the end result is that millions of people hear about filmmakers they might not otherwise have known, watch movies they wouldn’t otherwise have seen, there is a practical result to all this ceremonial tribute, the Nation gives these awards and then the people of the nation start to watch the movies.
All of that is to bring us to this year. At the last minute, after the awardees had traveled to Delhi (their travel is covered, but that of their family is not), they learned at the rehearsal in advance of the ceremony that the President would NOT be presenting the awards. They were told there would be “two parts” to the ceremony, some 100+ awards would be presented by the Minister of Broadcasting Smriti Irani, and 11 would be presented by the President himself. The official line explaining what happened is that the President’s office has a policy that he only appears at events for one hour, which only gave him time to present the top 11 awards. This upended a precedent for how this ceremony had always been done, with no warning. There was immediate questioning of the policy and a promise that it would be looked into a response given. Which was not received.
The end result was that some 70 awardees came together and crafted a letter to Chaitanya Prasad, director of Film Festivals who was coordinating the event, along with the President’s office and the Minister of Broadcasting, expressing their grievances. Not with the awards, they are still pleased to have received the honor, but merely with the handling of the ceremony.
(Photo from Quint which is, as always, my go to source for reliable in depth reporting on these kinds of things)
And then at the actual award ceremony, 68 winners did not attend, leaving empty seats.
So, I’m not quite sure what I think about this. Best case scenario, that I can see clearly from my experience of these kinds of events (worked for a not-for-profit, grew up in a state capital). But worst case, I think I am probably missing some information to fully grasp it.
Best case scenario: This is one of those random gestures towards efficiency that government offices sometimes attempt and which almost always backfire. I did a quick check, and President Ram Nath Kovind has presented awards recently. But they were all a much much shorter list of awards, I could believe those ceremonies were less than an hour. The National Film Awards are unique in the extremely large number of honorees, so if you were going to skip an Awards ceremony in the interests of time, this would be the one to skip.
Of course, it is still a bad idea to skip this award ceremony, even if it is very very very long and it doesn’t seem like an efficient use of time. Because, this IS the job, this is what the President of India is for. He is supposed to be the ceremonial head so that the Prime Minister is free to do the non-ceremonial tasks. If he starts skipping ceremonies, what exactly else is he doing that is so important?
(I know nothing particularly for or against this person, and if the choice was presenting the award of speaking at the United Nations, that would be fine. But it doesn’t seem like that was the situation)
And his presence is part of what gives this awards any value at all, they are supposed to be a great honor because they are presented by the President. Without that presentation, part of their value falls off. It is less of an honor for the winners, and it also has less real world value as the award ceremony might receive less coverage, you will not be able to put a photo of yourself with the President up in your office as a reminder at your next financing meeting, and all the other little ways that a purely “ceremonial” honor can effect real world results.
Ultimately, it also refutes the very thing the National Awards were instituted to combat, the sense that the film industry is a separate thing from the nation, something to be ashamed off and brushed aside. Through all the censorship and trade restrictions and lack of industrial status, there was always the idea that you had that one moment in the sun when the President of India him or herself would take time to honor you. And now there isn’t even that, film is so unimportant that it can be dropped off the schedule when it isn’t convenient.
So, best-case scenario, some bureaucrat somewhere said “why does the President have to be there for hours and hours? Let’s streamline this, the longest award ceremony he has to attend, and set a precedent.” And because of the subconscious disrespect for film and filmmakers, this idea made it all the way to the rehearsal point of the awards without anyone saying a) “Maybe we shouldn’t do this because it destroys a large part of the value of the awards” or b) “Maybe we should tell the winners this before they bring their whole families to see them receive an award from the President of India and are disappointed”.
In this best-case scenario, everything is a bit of a tempest in a teapot. Okay, the mistakes kept multiplying, there was no clear explanation or apology given to the attendees, the schedule wasn’t rearranged last minute when it became clear what a Big Big Deal this was, even if you are the most dedicated efficiency expert at some point you should have realized it was time to stop fighting and just give in to avoid the boycott.
But on the other hand, 68 winners actually boycotting the ceremony merely because of who was handing them the award also seems a bit like an overreaction. And an overreaction that could backfire, it is possible the public response will be “those spoiled film people don’t even deserve a ceremony, next year we should just mail them the awards”. Or maybe it will be effective, giving a clear message that even one step backward is unacceptable.
That’s best-case scenario. Worst-case scenario is that there is some kind of political message here that I don’t understand. Something about only choosing 11 winners with pure political credentials to receive the award, or else choosing to exclude 120 winners who might have said something damaging to the President’s party. That part I don’t know enough to interpret, to know if it is really here or not.
If it is really here, if that is the subtext of the snub and the response, then I will be interested in the fall out. And I would (tentatively and in this totally hypothetical situation) be in support of the walk out. Because these awards, not just the Film Awards but the Padma Shri and Gallantry Awards and others that are given by the President, are a foundational part of Indian society, they must (so far as is possible) be kept clean of the stink of partisanship. And the President himself, as a figurehead, must as well.