With the ongoing pandemic situation, much like other fields of art & entertainment, the experience of filmmaking, film viewing and film awarding have taken a hit.
How does a jury deliberate in selecting films at the state, national, and international levels? What parameters, considerations, criteria go into determining decisions? Often, selections may appear unconventional, biased, and even controversial. Is there a set of rules and regulations laid out to arrive at a collective decision? Does the jury have free reign to chart its own course? Should films be judged purely on merit, or do the dreaded 'Other factors' play a role in influencing the selection process?
When the process of selection is marred by 'Other factors', the implications have far-reaching ramifications, not only for the integrity of the awards but for the entire film industry as well. The first casualty is the low budget, independent films that lose out to big-budget, box office star cast, and media-driven marketing and publicity of films. Although these indie films are often well-intended, meaningful, purposeful with socially relevant themes, often presented in a novel and innovative ways, they stand very little chance. Hence, the composition of a competent jury plays a vital role in the fair selection of safeguarding small deserving films.
Every time such awards are announced, the standard phrase, "Yet Again" reverberates in the filmy circles. There are hue and cry on the outcome - objections and grievances are aired in the print, television, and digital media. Protests, nasty letters, phone calls, threats, social media trolling becomes the norm. Cases are filed in the courts calling for a stay on the announcement and presentation of the awards.
India produces a little over 2000 films a year, in many languages from many regions of this vast nation. The sheer volume can cause a burden on the selection process, though not all films are submitted for the awards - notable being, The National Film Awards, The Indian Panorama section for the International Film Festival of India, India's official film entry to the Oscars, the respective state's film awards, and films for subsidies. The aim of the National awards is to encourage films for their aesthetic and technical excellence and social relevance, thereby showcasing unity in diversity. A similar yardstick is used for judging films at the state level more or less.
The advantage of being in an international jury is the vast array of films from different nations, ethos, cultures, and languages, rooted in their own milieu, yet transcending borders to make it universal. A commonality which implies that we are all in it together, a feeling of oneness despite our differences. A similar feeling holds true being on the National jury considering the richness and diversity of cultures, subcultures, languages, dialects, geography, etc. India is like one big continent of nations. Apart from the official languages, there could be a film from a remote region in a language or dialect unheard of, and alien to other regions. A film in Khasi (Meghalaya), Beary (Karnataka), Kokborok (Tripura) could light up the silver screen with beautiful stories. Similarly, a film in Haryanvi, Tulu, Lambadi, or any of the many languages from other regions could add to the tapestry of our rich linguistic diversity. Unique, relevant, true stories rooted in the soil of these regions present some raw, pure, unadulterated cinema in its true form.
Earlier, interpreters sat in booths to translate every word, dialogue, and nuance of a film as jury members listened with earphones in the dark auditorium as a print of the negative was beamed from the projectionist’s cabin. Now with digital technological advancement, films are subtitled and projected from Blu Ray DVDs, pen drives, and laptops onto the big screen. Distance is no more an issue, and one can be part of an international jury in the privacy of one's home by clicking on the uploaded film.
A qualified and diligent jury is essential to protect films from the all too familiar politics that curls it's way blatantly into the selection process resulting in bad films, melodramatic performances, shoddy technical craft making the grade. Often transactional politicking forms the linear narrative between jury members regardless of the film’s merits. Petty considerations like regionalism, caste, creed, monetary, departmental, governmental pressures, and camaraderie deference or just looking through the lens of self-interest or irrational exuberance go into determining the end result. A lackadaisical attitude is meted to wholesomeness or totality to the cinema.
A good film holds up in all elements of film making, and not just one aspect. Great sky shots from drones and helicopters, from various angles in opulent locations zooming in on stars bereft of emoting, gyrating vulgarly doesn't merit cinematography worthy of an award. Photography like editing, music, acting, screenplay, direction, etc should synthesize to enhance and enrich the film. Each nugget should form an essential and integral component to magnify the whole; not stand in isolation.
Every jury member and the Chairman should be totally committed and transparent and held accountable for the decisions they make by placing on record the films they've selected. A fair and impartial jury is the only way forward. Also, a secret ballot has been touted for long for ensuring this but hasn't come to fruition. At the end of the process, it is the integrity of each member which is at stake and it begins with the Chairman setting an example.
Having had the honour and privilege of working under Muzzafar Ali, Shaji N. Karen, K.S.Sethumadhavan, J. Mahendran, Saeed Akthar Mirza to name a few, it's been an enriching, learning and rewarding experience. Discussions, deliberations, heated arguments for or against a film are normal and warranted, which is natural unless in case of unanimous decisions. The Chairman's vote is used to break a tie but unfortunately, some break the rules arrogantly. After the process is over, the jury cannot hide under the guise of anonymity by claiming the decisions were collective or indulge in a blame game. It is advisable for the jury to draw up their respective lists for transparency. A lot of hard work, dedication, struggles, financial constraints and commitments, creativity, sleepless nights go into making a film. The least a jury is expected to do is to watch the film in its entirety and not shred it to pieces by fast-forwarding in the span of a few frames and not giving the film a chance. Producers pay a fancy fee for submitting a film and at the National level fast-forwarding a film is unlawful and disallowed.
Every member has his or her own criterion for judging films, which is understandable, given their respective perspectives on cinema. But it is also imperative and necessary to traverse from a subjective view to a holistic and objective approach. Similarly, it would help to have a jury comprised of a wide pool of professionals from not only the cinema industry but from the other arts and academic fields as well. A mix of age, gender, and mindset helps to be unprejudiced, balanced, broad-minded as well as to empathise and understand certain bold themes and different perspectives that could delve into uncharted territory. In the final analysis, the purpose is not only to find good cinema but to look for talent, freshness, creativity, and artistes who dare to think out of the box. This becomes difficult with a conservative jury.
A creative artist with a proven track record of consistent wins and noteworthy performances, may not necessarily produce their best at every outing. The great Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn remarked, "Your only as good as your last film." A film that does well at the national or international level may not necessarily farewell at the regional level and vice versa. The jury should refrain from being prejudiced or swayed by such considerations.
Many of these films will not make it to the theatres for a commercial release and hence, their only hope of recovering some return on investment is through subsidies from the respective state governments or winning awards at the national level or selections into International Film Festivals qualifies for grants. Some interesting, outstanding films are streamed online and help to recover some investment.
Being on a jury and interacting with other members over long periods of time is a learning process in terms of observing, dissecting, appreciating and judging films, and arriving at decisions in a methodical and meticulous manner despite the constraints. Some glimpses of brilliance were plain to see in the early stages of artistes’ careers. I remember being particularly impressed with Irrfan Khan's sensitive performance in the 1999 Hindi film, "The Goal" and nominated him for best actor, although the jury generally goes with a big name and Mohanlal won for “Vanaprastham”. Irfan plays a small-town football coach who spots the raw talent of an underprivileged young boy with no education and social stigma. Vidya Balan was impressive in the 2003 Bengali film "Bhalo Theko". Chatting up with Hrishikesh Mukherjee, the 1999 Dadasaheb Phalke Award winner, who spoke with a grateful heart about his passion for cinema, "I was never in the rat race and am surprised with this award." There is some truth to this and maybe our filmmakers could well take note of Hrishida.
With the exception of a handful of films, the majority aren't well made. If the screenplay is flowing with ease, the execution would seem to falter, or if the direction is commendable the quilting together of different strands could show strains. If the film moves effortlessly aided by fine performances, the length of the film could meander needlessly. If the cinematography and the lighting enhances the film, the acting could be mediocre or it could be excessively violent and verbose. So, the first criterion is the totality of the cinema. Judging should begin from here. Unfortunately, most juries fail to recognize this and is a sad commentary on our appreciation of films. In the end, it is the composition of the jury which is so vital for the selection of good movies. It becomes embarrassingly painful to watch films when the discrepancies are glaring and the basic grammar of cinema is not understood.
Already the National awards have been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic. There is uncertainty on how to move forward with the screenings. There is the possibility of digital viewing in the privacy of one's home and submitting decisions or having conference calls on Skype, but that would be asking a lot from members who aren't technologically updated. As it is OTT (over the top) media services are booming and coaxing viewers to watch online. Producers are looking at alternative ways to screen their films. But the real thrill and excitement is to watch films in a packed theatre for an unforgettable experience. Hopefully, that magic will return.
Leslie Carvalho is a filmmaker and writer.