Will the real Phalke Award please stand up
Will the real Phalke Award please stand up

Namrata Joshi

Of late, a proliferation of private awards and film festivals, named after Phalke, have conspired to befuddle and mislead even as some winners are accused of mixing up the duplicate for the original.

The Government of India instituted the Dadasaheb Phalke Award, India’s highest honour in cinema, in 1969. The annual recognition that commemorates Dhundiraj Govind Phalke, the maker of Raja Harishchandra (India’s first feature film) has been bestowed on legends like Devika Rani, L V Prasad, Soumitra Chatterjee, K Balachander, B Nagi Reddy, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Mrinal Sen, Shivaji Ganesan, Satyajit Ray, Shyam Benegal, Amitabh Bachchan, and Rajinikanth among many others.

All of them received this honour for their incredible artistic journey and invaluable contribution to the growth and development of Indian cinema. Dadasaheb Phalke award is presented by the Union ministry of information and broadcasting along with the annual national film awards and comprises the Swarna Kamal trophy, a shawl and prize money of Rs 10 lakh.

However, of late, a proliferation of private awards and film festivals, all named after Phalke, have conspired to befuddle and mislead, even as some winners (most recently, Vivek Agnihotri for The Kashmir Files) are accused of mixing up the duplicate for the original.

The hullabaloo about receiving them is reminiscent of all the false claims made yearly around the Academy Awards and the Cannes Film Festival. Making it to the long list of eligible films for the Oscars often gets celebrated as a big achievement, while it is nothing more than the Academy’s acceptance of the film’s submission. Any film, however good or bad, by a veteran or a newbie, can make it to this ‘reminder list’, provided it fulfils the eligibility criteria. Similarly, showing a film in Marche du Film, i.e., Cannes Film Market, is not the same as being officially selected for the Cannes Film Festival. A market screening slot can be booked on payment.

A casual search in Twitter reveals the existence of multiple faux-Phalke awards. This includes Dadasaheb Phalke Icon Award Films (DPIAF), founded by actor-anchor-dancer-event organiser-editor Kalyanji Jana who also happens to be the organisation’s chairman; Dadasaheb Phalke Excellence Awards (DSPEA); and even one named after Phalke’s wife, the Saraswatibai Dadasaheb Phalke Film and TV Awards. There are also the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation Awards, the Dadasaheb Phalke Academy Awards, and, well, you get the gist.

This raises genuine concerns. The first is the lack of accountability and the ease by which the name of an icon is exploited. Have there been any agreements, licenses or permits that allow these awards to exist? In an interview with Amar Ujala last year, Phalke’s grandson and the founder of Dadasaheb Phalke International Awareness Mission, Chandrashekhar Pusalkar, had objected to the indiscriminate use of Phalke’s name in such personal business ventures and wanted an enquiry into the funding of such awards.

What about the prestige of the country’s top honour for cinema? Are there no laws protecting the use of these titles? Aren’t these fly-by-night awards diluting the dignity of the government’s long-established appreciation of its finest artists? In the Amar Ujala interview, Pusalkar had decried that the private awards named after his grandfather were granted to random artists, as opposed to the likes of Bachchan and Mangeshkar, who were honoured, deservedly, by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The confusion around the Dadasaheb Phalke award came to a head recently when trophies in almost 30 categories were presented at an event at Taj Lands End Mumbai for the Dadasaheb Phalke International Film Festival Awards. The original and official award, as has been pointed out earlier, is only in one category: Lifetime achievement.

As per its website, this private organisation was founded in 2012 and established in 2016 “to carry forward the legacy of Dadasaheb Phalke”. Anil Mishra is the founder and managing director, and the management also has Phalke’s grandson, Pusalkar, on board as the jury president. It also organises the Dadasaheb Phalke Awards South in Hyderabad, Telangana.

Over the years, it appears to have acquired top brand sponsors, and clout with the 2023 awards supported by the Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya and a letter of acknowledgement and appreciation from Home and Cooperation Minister Amit Shah proudly displayed on its home page. The bigwigs from the film industry have also been validating and legitimising the awards by accepting and celebrating them as an achievement. Apart from Agnihotri, winners this year included eminent personalities like Rekha, Vidya Balan, Aalia Bhatt, Ranbir Kapoor, Anupam Kher, Varun Dhawan among others.

But what we have to ask here is whether this recognition would have any merit if it were not piggybacking on the name of the father of Indian cinema. There’s a lot in a name after all; and these faux-awards clearly know the value and clout of utilising that. (The writer is a Consulting Editor)