A playback singing award for a promising newcomer is perhaps the best consolation for a disappointing year for Bengal in the 64th national film awards. The singer, Imon Chakravorty, has reason to be delighted that the jury was impressed by her performance in Praktan based on a lyric that also won an award. It may be regarded as an interesting contribution to the sentimental drama apart from a few sharp cameos in an overall setting that was quite contrived. Everyone is pleased that audiences responded positively to the human touches, the story-telling skill and professionalism that one misses in most films round the year. Whether a rare success or an award in the playback category can justify a celebration is another matter. Some years ago, a similar award went to Rupa Ganguly in a film where a Tagore song in her voice was a minor contribution. The husky tone of her singing must have impressed the jury although the film, much like Praktan, did not figure in any other category and is no longer remembered.
When it comes to a particular song selected by the jury, the question is whether it is judged on its own qualities or as an integral part of the screenplay. The best lyrics are based on relevant situations. A song on Kolkata turned out to be equally popular in the same film. It was related to the work of a travel guide whose romantic encounter with one of the tourists makes a charming sub-plot. Much the same impression is left in the award-winning song that serves as a kind of musical refrain in a script that is otherwise developed with an excess of poetic licence.
The real disappointment lies in the fact that Bengal has been virtually overlooked in the categories that mark overall cinematic excellence. If Marathi cinema has redeemed the interest shown by discerning audiences in other parts of the country and has consistently been recognised over the past few years, the impression has been reinforced by the success of Kaasav, a film about how to deal with depression, which should now generate as much curiosity as Court two years ago.
The Marathi cinema has been making rapid strides. The selection of the best feature film is to be seen with the choice of best director, Rajesh Mapuskar, of another Marathi film, Ventilator. What stands out are contributions of those who have excelled in other areas. Mohan Agashe is essentially from the theatre and, while he is also committed to his medical profession, acting remains a life-long passion. His role in Sadgati was a landmark and now, after almost four decades, he not only appears in a cameo but has co-produced the film that makes a definite statement on an issue that is close to life. On the other hand, Ventilator finds Ashutosh Gowarikar, remembered for his directorial success in Lagaan, playing a leading role in a film produced by Priyanka Chopra. Again, it is a story that relies on a real-life experience sustaining a strong human appeal. In much the same way, Rustom is built around a real-life drama with all its tensions. Akshay Kumar is compelled to get away from colourful rituals that have made him one of the most successful stars in Bollywood. Clearly, his performance could not be judged in isolation outside the framework of the film as a whole. The curiosity that has gripped the film fraternity is how the star of Rustom managed to steal a march over Dangal after the extraordinary detail that went into Aamir Khan’s performance. Debates that take place over rival claims to a particular award are quite healthy. It happens after the Oscars as well.
What is of greater significance is the emergence of regional trends. One can only marvel at the success with which the Marathi cinema has picked up eight awards, confirming that the films were judged not only on individual efforts but on total impressions. Awards for editing and sound design would suggest that technical work in Marathi cinema can match the efforts that go into big productions. Even a Bollywood production like Neerja stands out simply on its powerful adaptation of a real-life experience in which Sonam Kapoor is required to get away from pure glamour.
This is where Bengal has fallen far behind. Selecting a film for the language category doesn’t match the satisfaction of being judged in the national context. Kaushik Ganguly has done well in the past and the award for his new film, Bishorjon, confirms his reputation as one of the most reliable directors who has handled a wide range of subjects without trying to be too ambitious. But, looking at the industry as a whole, it would seem that either the subjects cannot extend beyond regional boundaries or, what is more distressing, the cinematic qualities cannot compare favourably with the achievements in languages like Marathi, Malayalam and of course, Hindi.
The explanation for the failure does not lie in restricted outlets or tighter budgets. Numbers still generate hope and the flood of newcomers suggests that the cinema has become an irresistible medium for the young in the digital era. Sadly, the enthusiasm is localised and cannot measure up to bigger expectations.