We Accepted Our National Award. But Don’t Dismiss Those Who Didn’t

The 65th National Film Awards were meant to celebrate the finest talent – but it left the awardees disappointed.

5 min read
We chose to accept the award and attend the ceremony.

It’s been two days of pride and joy tinged with sadness and a feeling that you’ve been given short shrift. A feeling you can’t shake off. I am part of the team that won Best Film in the Education category at the 65th National Film Awards.

Our film, The Little Girls We Were... And the Women We Are, is a labour of years of hard work put in by Rahi Foundation that works in a field that no one wants to talk about – that of child sexual abuse. Even when we discuss cases that make national headlines like Asifa’s, we talk about the politics around it, and not the crime in itself. The subject makes us uncomfortable. It makes us want to say, hush, it never happened. Hush, let’s not talk about it, let’s bury it and let it lie there. Because talking about it makes it too real. Five very brave women from around the country said enough. They chose to come on camera (no hiding behind silhouettes) and tell their story. Rahi has worked with many such adult survivors of child sexual abuse and helped them heal.

We chose to accept the award and attend the ceremony because for us to be recognised for the work no one wants to talk about was significant.

Best Film winner in the education category.
Best Film winner in the education category.
(Photo: Rahi Foundation)

But did I personally feel cheated? Yes.

Did I personally feel I was misled by the I&B Ministry? Yes.

Do I stand by those who took a stand and stood by it? Yes.

On 13th April, the National Film Award winner list was announced. Emails that were sent out by the Directorate of Films clearly stated the President of India, Ram Nath Kovind, would present the awards.

Invites that followed stated the President would present the awards.

Invite to the event.
Invite to the event.

Newspaper advertisements stated the President would present the awards.

Ad taken out in a leading daily.
Ad taken out in a leading daily.

Events As They Unfolded...

On 2 May, the awardees gathered at Vigyan Bhavan for rehearsals. What followed left all of us severely disappointed. The Additional Director General of the Directorate of Films made an announcement that the President would only present 11 awards. This was a major break from 64 years of protocol. The President has always presented all awards, so what changed this year? If all are equal, then why this discrimination?

I&B Minister Smriti Irani was called in to assuage the very upset recipients. She informed us that the President had given them only an hour for the ceremony. She was polite, the awardees were equally polite. She said nothing could be done, the awardees told her they will boycott, she said she’ll take it up with the President’s office, the awardees very respectfully decided to give the honourable minister a chance.

But I have a few questions for the I&B Minister:

Ma’am was this information that the President had little time, not with you from the beginning? If yes, then why deny this information to the recipient? Why push them into a corner at the last minute? Is this not a deliberate attempt to mislead?

The response of the President’s press office was even more disappointing. They expressed ‘surprise’ at the ruckus since President Kovind doesn’t attend any ceremony beyond an hour.

Here are some questions for the press office:

Did the invites not go past the President’s press office? Do newspaper advertisements not go past the President’s press office? Is the press office not aware of years of protocol? While being aware,did they deliberately choose to dismiss the awardees as not being worth the President’s time?

Why All This Disappointment?

For scores of people who work in the film industry, an award like this is the final recognition. For a country where awards are often bought and sold, National Awards are perhaps the only ‘honest’ attempt at recognising talent. It is also an opportunity for regional cinema, documentary and independent filmmakers to be recognised and feted by none other than the President himself.

This moment, to be feted for your art, is what drew several of the awardees to Delhi on Wednesday.

While the ministry takes care of the airfare and stay for the awardees, their guests have to make their own arrangements. A filmmaker told me she had spent Rs 40,000 bringing her family to Delhi so they could watch their daughter being feted by the President of India.

So no, sir, you don’t get to dismiss their sentiments and emotions and their work with a ‘lump it or leave it approach.’

Most awardees were staying at the Ashok Hotel in Central Delhi and decided on the morning of the awards to write a letter expressing their disappointment. They weren’t rejecting the award, but the ceremony. Around 70 people signed it. They hoped till the last minute that the ministry and the President’s office would take heed of their grievances.

Of course, that didn’t happen.

Jury head Shekhar Kapur was sent to speak with them and after his intervention some of the awardees decided to attend the ceremony. Around 50 people didn’t.

At the Ceremony...

I spoke to those who chose to attend despite having signed the letter. Many are young independent filmmakers who depend upon funds from various government institutions to produce their art. They had spend a sleepless night pondering the situation.

It was a difficult position that they should have never been put in.

As we sat down for the ceremony, nearly half the seats were empty. Armed with a list of names of those who had signed the letter, the organisers started pulling their nameplates off the table. This was the most heartbreaking moment for me. These filmmakers were to receive the national award, the highest honour of their career, and now their name plates lay on the table and eventually on the floor.

Nameplates pulled out.
Nameplates pulled out.

Volunteers were pulled in to fill the empty seats.

What followed was a bittersweet ceremony. We received our award with joy tinged with sadness.

For those who troll the awardees who boycotted as the ‘award wapsi gang,’ or ‘dramebazz’ or other such epithets, you have no idea the gumption it takes to stand your ground. It takes courage that many of us don’t have.

The ceremony was meant to make us feel special. It left us with a feeling that we didn’t matter.

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