On Saturday night, Bollywood (or if you prefer, the Hindi-language film industry)'s equivalent of the Oscars took place. Admittedly, the Filmfare Awards and their uninspired choices every year constitute an institution that I rarely can muster excitement about (not only for constantly overlooking independent parallel cinema and favoring commercial fluff, but especially in terms of how votes are accumulated and weighted - half the movie-going public, half a jury composed of five or six industry members), but this year was a very nice surprise. I think history was created in that Black, the film which swept all the major categories (a whopping 10 [EDIT: 11, actually] in total), is a film that features none of the conventions of a mainstream Bollywood flick - no songs and dances, no comic relief, a two-hour running time, and the absence of a romantic track; what's more, the majority of the film is in English! Of course, this isn't much of a surprise; although the film released almost a year ago in February of 2005, it's been a virtual lock for the big four: Best Film, Best Director (Sanjay Leela Bhansali), Best Actor (Amitabh Bachchan) and Best Actress (Rani Mukerji), if not everything else. Hopefully this will push directors and writers to understand that art films can be commercial and critical successes - Black isn't exactly light-hearted fare (a loose re-working of William Gibson's The Miracle Worker) and it still made 20 crores-plus at the Indian box office (roughly $5 million U.S. or thereabouts).
Although I'm a little miffed that Rani Mukerji scooped up her second consecutive Best Actress win (why?), I can't argue with Bachchan and Ayesha Kapoor (Best Supporting Actress) winning in their respective categories. It was also great to see Sanjay Leela Bhansali win Best Director again (his third trophy in the last seven years). If he keeps working on his craft (less melodrama and excess, more trusting his audience), there's no reason why his films can't compete at the international level in the years to come. He certainly has the eye for composition and an ear for dialogue; now he just needs to make the leap from offering visual feasts to developing substantial ideas, themes, etc.
The best moment of the night was Madhuri Dixit's triumphant return to the stage in an abridged dance performance blending together three of her song sequences in Devdas (also directed by Bhansali back in 2002). Dixit (who was reigning queen during the early-to-mid 90s) is an actress whose work has been more interesting post-marriage, when her screen appearances became less frequent. Although the quantity of her output fell, the quality of her acting work skyrocketed; her two supporting performances in Devdas and Lajja were award-worthy IMO (she won Best Supporting Actress for the former). I hope that Dixit is able to grace the silver screen again; producers have lost interest now that she's approaching the dreaded 40 mark (an unfortunate trend in this film world), but if the reaction to her appearance last night is any indication, the audience wants more (as do I). I just hope she's able to find better material than playing elder sisters or spinster aunts, relegated to the background where younger (but talentless) leads steal the limelight. Roles for women are much better now than they were a decade ago, but sexism and marginalization still exist. Maybe she'd do better going the parallel cinema route, banging on the doors of Shyam Benegal, Mani Ratnam, or perhaps SJB can write something great for her. One only needs to look at the career of Shabana Azmi to see that it is possible to have a career in your 40s and 50s; it's just that it may not be in commercial cinema.
Speaking of Shabana Azmi, she looked absolutely terrific while accepting her Lifetime Achievement Award. I can't find an appropriate picture, but believe me when I say that she looked dazzling. What was even more impressive was her succint, articulate speech in which she primarily gave tribute to all those behind the camera - technicians, artists and other talents - that rarely get acknowledgment (indeed, the Filmfare Awards has yet to create competitive categories for Art Direction, Cinematography, etc - they have a separate jury which just votes on a winner).
Otherwise, the night was ho-hum. Abhishek Bachchan (Amitabh's son) picked up another win for Best Supporting Actor (he also won last year for Yuva) for a rather bland piece of work. I was taken aback to see Will Smith there (who presented Best Actress); he's also set to appear on Indian Idol later this week. Paheli, which was submitted as India's official selection to the Oscars, unsurprisingly came out empty-handed (it received very few nominations in the first place). Trailing Black with five trophies was Pradeep Sarkar's Parineeta (Art Direction, R.D. Burman Award for Achievement in Music, Sound Design, Choreography and Female Debut [Vidya Balan]), and then Bunty Aur Babli, which garnered three (Musical Score [Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy], Lyrics [Gulzar] and Female Playback Singer). In something of an upset, the low-key Page 3 won Best Screenplay (I suppose I'll have to see this now).
Best Dressed? Best Actress winner Rani Mukerji (here with her father):