So, the 65th National Film Awards were announced today for the best of Indian cinema in 2017. On one level, it is extremely heartening to see that at least three awards were awarded posthumously. Sridevi was honoured as Best Actress for her performance in Mom, Sambit Mohanti was awarded for Best Dialogue for the Odiya film, Hello Arsi, and the biggest cinematic honour of the land, the Dadasaheb Phalke Award was given to Vinod Khanna for his overall contribution to Indian cinema.
With due respect to Khanna, no doubt, he was a huge star and a highly competent actor. His fine performances in films like Mere Apne (1971), Achanak (1973), Shaque (1976), Meera (1979) and Rihaee (1988) bear that out; while his charisma, screen presence and style in Haath Ki Safai (1974), Amar Akbar Anthony (1977), Parvarish (1977) and Qurbani (1980) played a big, big role in the success of these films. But the Phalke Award?
I would not have grudged this award had other luminaries of Indian cinema, still alive today, been bestowed with the same honour earlier. Sticking only to the world of acting, we have Waheeda Rehman, Vyjayanthimala, Kamini Kaushal, Shashikala, B Saroja Devi, Sowcar Janaki, Nimmi and even Mala Sinha or dancer-actress Helen to name some. All senior to Khanna and fine artistes in their own right with long, successful careers and with a body of work that is far more impressive than Khanna’s with several classic films and masterful performances thrown in.
Take Waheeda Rehman for instance. She has done unforgettable work in Pyaasa (1957), Kaagaz Ke Phool (1959), Satyajit Ray’s Abhijan (1962), Guide (1965), Teesri Kasam (1966) and Reshma Aur Shera (1971). Or Vyjayanthimala. Starting out as someone largely appreciated for her dancing abilities, she proved what a fine dramatic actress she was in Bimal Roy’s classics, Devdas (1955) and Madhumati (1958); and in several other films like Sadhna (1958), Gunga Jumna (1961), where she got the Bhojpuri dialect spot on, Sangam (1964), Amrapali (1966) or the Bengali film, Hatey Bazarey (1967). Kamini Kaushal and Shashikala are perhaps the last of the actresses who began their career way back in the 1940s – the former debuting in Neecha Nagar (1946) that won the Grand Prix at the first ever Cannes festivals, besides giving other fine performances in some highly regarded films such as Biraj Bahu (1954), Jailor (1958) or Godaan (1963), while the latter is perhaps the most memorable vamp ever of Hindi filmdom. Saroja Devi’s work speaks for itself across Kannada, Telugu, Hindi and of course, Tamil films, where her pairing with MG Ramachandran (MGR) is legendary. And have we ever had a dancer like Helen?
Apart from these all-time greats, even if one were to take Khanna’s contemporaries or those who came a little before him, Dharmendra would have been a more deserving recipient. His sensitive performances in Bandini (1963), Haqeeqat (1964), Anupama (1966) and Satyakam (1969) stand out and even after he became a top action star from the late 1960s onward, he tickled our funny bones beautifully in Chupke Chupke (1975). His list of classic films and great performances outscore Khanna. And speaking of contemporaries, there is the Big B as well.
I have just looked at some of the actors around considering that is Khanna’s field. I am not even getting into filmmakers or technicians or playback singers. Though I must mention that while Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle have deservedly been awarded the Phalke Award, it is unfair that singers from the regional film industries like P Susheela, S Janaki, Yesudas (though he did get the award this year for Best Male Playback), SPB or Sandhya Mukherjee are yet to get similar recognition for their phenomenal work.
One cannot shake of the niggle that Khanna, for all his talent and success in the film industry, nevertheless got the award due to his affiliation with the ruling party, the BJP, whom he represented as a Member of Parliament. If that is a criteria, then sadly, we are likely to see the same story play out in future years as well.