March 31, 2001


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'Not for me a process that is illegal!'

Actor Dhritiman Chatterjee is very displeased.

As jury member of the 48th National Film Awards 2000, Chatterjee feels that it is a sad day when the most prestgious awards in the country are sullied by controversy such as the one this year.

Pradip Krishen, Shashi Anand and Madhumita Raut, three of the jury members quit the jury in disgust.

Chatterjee, for his part, chooses to stay, but minces no words when it comes to stating his opinion. Basharat Peer met the film personality. Excerpts:

Dhritiman Chaterjee What really led to the controversy over the National Film Awards?

Controversy has dogged film awards virtually every year. But this year, it has reached new heights. As you know, three jury members walked out as they couldn't take in the situation.

I am more concerned about the composition of the jury and its decisions about the National Film Awards, the most prestigious in the country. The composition of the jury reflects a deliberate attempt to trivialise, marginalise and de-intellectualise the National Film Awards, to devalue them beyond redemption.

Why do you think this has happened?

The jury had four or five people -- either active filmmakers or somehow connected with filmmaking -- and some others present simply because of their affiliation directly or indirectly to the ruling political party.

I would not have had any problems if these people were qualified in their respective fields. For the discussions and debates, then, would have been reasonable and informative. But these people had no qualifications to speak of to judge cinema.

There were at least two such members connected to the BJP in one way or another. In fact, one of them, a BJP MLA, even confessed that he had virtually no connection with cinema.

Once, I even had to explain to the jury what Special Effects and Audiography meant. The minimum requirement for any jury member, I would have thought, should be an understanding of cinema, at least!

How does this reflect on the people who selected the jury?

Whoever selected the jury must have wanted to say, "This is our private turf, our zameendari. We can do whatever we want, choose whoever we want. You can do nothing about it."

Look at it this way. If you were judging excellence in Medicine, Law or Computers, you would obviously choose experts from those fields. How is cinema any different?

Why is it felt that anybody and everybody is fit to judge cinema?

For the first time, the members of the jury were not introduced to the press. Why?

As you know, the controversy broke out as soon as three jury members walked out.

Some people were nervous, for two reasons. First, there was an attempt to shield certain members from the press. One such member, the BJP MLA from Cuttack, said to the press that she did not even know why she was on the jury.

Second, there was an attempt to keep me away from the press. After the formal conference, I found myself surrounded by some 40-50 mediapersons. The point I want to make here is that while I made my objections in writing to the director of the festival, with a copy to the Minister, I did not go to the press. The press came to me.

What were the written objections you made to the Director of Film Festivals?

I have reason to feel and believe that the selection of the jury is flawed.

We were told that one particular jury member (Macmohan) was related to a certain actress (Raveena Tandon) who was nominated. She ultimately got the best actress award. I hope this is not true.

The rules -- especially clause 21 (a) -- framed by the Directorate of Film Festivals, say that this member is not entitled to serve on a jury. Refraining from voting from that particular category is not enough. Mind you, I have nothing personal against that particular member.

I made it clear to the Directorate of Film Festivals -- with a copy to the Minister -- that my attestation of the citations is only conditional; that I need written confirmation that all jury members have, indeed, satisfied all the rules and regulations, especially clause 21 and 21 (a).

If my signature is not present in the citations, the National Awards would stand invalid and cancelled.

In principle, I do not want to be associated with a process that is illegal.

There have been reports that a strong criterion for giving the awards was not the merit of film but 'the Indianness of the subject'. Comment.

There are two or three issues involved here. First, there was no informed debate on the films simply because some jury members were not competent enough to judge them.

Second, one of the jury members who edits the RSS mouthpiece, Panchjanya, started the voting by long speeches on Indian and foreign values. He also firmly stated the RSS-BJP line of Hindutva. This is very wrong and had nothing to do with cinema.

I think it influenced the decision of the jury in two cases: In the case of the animation film Pandavas (based on the epic Mahabharata), which got the best film award in the English film section. Anybody who knows anything about cinema can see that it is an extremely bad animation film. It fared badly at the box office.

Then, take Split Wide Open. You may have differences of opinion on the content, but there can't be two views on the fact that it was excellently made.

The editor of the RSS mouthpiece argued that Split Wide Open was pornographic, that it was a distortion of Indian values and that it should be banned. These arguments had nothing to do with cinema.

The jury is not appointed to be a moral judge. It is appointed to be a judge of cinema. Besides, the censor board of this country has passed Split Wide Open. I think this was Fascist talk of worst kind .

What do you think of Pukar getting a National Award?

This film was given an award without even being screened in its entirety!

The chairperson (Vyjayanthimala Bali) decided that seeing half the film was enough and had it stopped halfway. I requested her that if we were considering it for an award, I want to see more of it to form an opinion. She got angry at that and stormed out of the auditorium.

I was able to see the last ten minutes of the film. I think it is very wrong to adjudicate a film without even giving the jury a chance to see the film.

Does this mean that it was predecided which film would get the award?

I cannot say that -- I do not have any proof of that. But in a way, Pukar was pulled out of the dustbin.

Since there were a lot of films, the jury was divided into four panels to see a specific number films.These panels unanimously rejected some films or pulled up others to be seen by the common body. Pukar and Daman were unanimously rejected by their respective panels.

That is why I say that they were, in a sense, pulled out of the dustbin for viewing by the common jury.

Do you think that with the large number of entries makes it difficult for the jury to do justice to each and every film?

The jury members have made recommendations in this regard to the Directorate of Film Festivals. In fact, recommendations are made every year, but nothing happens.

There should be a system in which the central jury watches only 20-25 films and gets to judge the cream. The panel system must also be done away with, so that everybody watches the films together, discusses them and the problems of distortion are cut out.

As far as the filtration process is concerned, we were told that the regional committees, which were formed before, are scrapped now due to allegations of groupism, nepotism, etc.

Now, anyone who can afford to pay the fee can send his film as an entry. By my calculation, the jury, individually or collectively, watches almost 25 per cent of the total number of films produced in India, in a single year.

So we have recommended that the regional system should be recalled, with a modification that films from the south be viewed by a panel from, say, north so that favouritism is cut down.

Do you feel the jury selection process needs scrutiny as well?

Definitely. The Information & Broadcasting Ministry has the power, but not the competence, to select the jury. Of course, it depends on the minister who is in charge.

It is very important that the jury selection process must become autonomous of the Ministry. It must be independent.

If justice cannot be done towards the National Film Awards, then people will get totally disillusioned.

The point is that the honourable President of India puts his seal of approval on these awards and gives them away. That is a highly respected position.

If the selection process is illegal, should the honourable President put his seal of approval on these awards?

The National Awards Controversy

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