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Birth Anniversary special: Will the real Dadasaheb Phalke award please stand up?

In an age when the worth of artistes is often measured by the awards they possess, the presence of three awards in the name of the father of Indian cinema, born today (30 April) 147 years ago, is causing quite the debate.

Keyur Seta

The Dadasaheb Phalke award is the highest film honour in India. The award is part of India’s prestigious National Film awards and is presented annually by the government of India. It was named for filmmaker Dhundiraj Govind Phalke aka Dadasaheb Phalke, the father of Indian cinema. Phalke was the creator of India's first film in 1913, titled Raja Harishchandra. It was this little film that gave rise to today's billion-dollar Indian film industry. 

While the film industry began with Phalke, the awards in his name came much later, in 1969. The first recipient was actress Devika Rani. Following her, some great names in Indian cinema like Prithviraj Kapoor, Sohrab Modi, Satyajit Ray, Raj Kapoor, V Shantaram, Ashok Kumar, Lata Mangeshkar, Dilip Kumar, Yash Chopra, Dev Anand, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Hrishikesh Mukherjee, Shyam Benegal, Gulzar, and Shashi Kapoor have been honoured. 

However, over the past few years, a couple of other awards named for Phalke have been making news. Two in particular stand out, causing confusion amongst industry insiders as well. These two are the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation awards, which were started in 2014, and the Dadasaheb Phalke Excellence awards, about which not much information is available, except that they began in 2016.

Confusion arose last year when people mistook these awards for the award presented by the government. The media must share the blame for this as a number of reports mentioned them as ‘Dadasaheb Phalke awards’, not as the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation awards or the Dadasaheb Phalke Excellence awards.

Therefore, there was a hue and cry on social media last year when news about Gurmeet Ram Rahim Singh Insaan (of MSG fame) winning the Dadasaheb Phalke award spread. Fanning the fire, a large number of his followers claimed that he had won the prestigious award presented by the government when he had actually won the Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation award. 

The same outrage spilled over social media this week when Urvashi Rautela won the Dadasaheb Phalke Excellence award in the Best Promising Performer (sic) category for her dance number ‘Saara Zamana’ in Kaabil (2017). Again, a news agency mixed up the award with the Dadasaheb Phalke award in its report. This added to the confusion as a large number of its subscriber publications carried the report as is.

Of the two non-governmental awards, the Dadasaheb Phalke Excellence awards have no official website or Facebook page. The Dadasaheb Phalke Film Foundation awards are run, as the name suggests, by a film foundation. The foundation's vice-president, Babubhai Thiba, told, "The government gives the award to only one deserving candidate [each year]. Our industry is so vast that there are 25 technician associations. But nobody cares about them. Nobody remembers them."

According to Thiba, "The USP of our awards is that we make each of the 25 associations nominate one person for the award. We present the awards to them. We honour them by calling them on stage. We also give a token of appreciation in the form of Rs11,000. We have seen technicians burst into tears on stage. At any of the awards, be it Filmfare, Stardust or Zee, nobody remembers the technicians, who are the ones who work hard. Without them neither a film can be made nor can the industry survive." 

Yet, the foundation also gives out a large number of awards to celebrities. Thiba justified it, saying, “If you wish to make awards entertaining, you need to include celebrities and glamour. The audience will also have fun. If we only keep technicians, they won’t find it interesting.”

Asked the reason for naming the awards after Phalke, creating confusion, he said, “Dadasaheb Phalke is the father of [Indian] cinema. Therefore, we have started this trust in his name. It’s a registered trust. And the family members of Phalke are also involved in it. We found out how they are and in what condition. Government hadn’t helped them. We helped them get a house and we help them each year. Their financial condition was that bad. They said nobody asks about their well-being. We call them on stage and present them with gifts and token amount.”