In an unprecedented move, about 50 of the 140 recipients of the 65th National Film Awards boycotted the ceremony on Thursday after learning that only 11 of them would be receiving the honour from President Ram Nath Kovind. The rest of the filmmakers were to be felicitated by Information and Broadcasting Minister Smriti Irani and Minister of State Rajyavardhan Singh Rathore. Many recipients said that they learnt of this change in protocol at the rehearsal for the event on Wednesday. Traditionally, the president gives the award in the information and broadcasting minister’s presence.

On Wednesday, 69 recipients signed a joint statement addressed to the president, explaining the decision to boycott the ceremony. “It feels like a breach of trust, when an institution/ceremony that abides by extreme protocol fails to inform us of such a vital aspect of the ceremony with a prior notice. It seems unfortunate that 65 years of tradition are being overturned in a jiffy,” read the letter. We do not intend to boycott the award, but [are] not attending the ceremony to convey our discontent and are awaiting a more just solution.”

Three winners who boycotted the ceremony spoke to about their protest and why receiving the honour from the president holds great significance for winners.

Sankalp Meshram, winner of Best Film on Art/Culture for ‘Girija - A Lifetime in Music’

It was an unpresidented show. That should be the headline.

I think our [those who boycotted the ceremony] sentiment was very clear. First of all, the the glamour and the greatness associated with the National Awards is because it is the president’s medal and it is always handed out by the president. This is my fifth National Award and on all other four occasions, I’ve always received the awards from the president.

Also, the fact is that the date of the ceremony is fixed – it is always on May 3 because it is [shortly after] the birthday of Dadasaheb Phalke. Every year it is on this date. It is not as though the date shifted or that the venue or time was not known. One can’t understand why there has been a mistake or logistical problem in terms of planning. Also, from what one hears today, they knew the president will not be giving the awards and yet, they sent us letters, invitations and other stationery and on each and every item that they gave us, it said the president will be giving the awards.

Our position was that we are only protesting first, the decision that the ministry has taken to differentiate between some award winners who will receive the award from the president and others who will not. Everyone should get the award from the president. Secondly, we are also protesting against the manner in which we have been informed – just off-hand – that there has been a change in plan. After all, one has worked very hard to get the award in the first place. This is one moment of glory, it is a memory, one has looked forward to. It needed to be perfect for that memory. It cannot be that in a few cases, less than perfect organisation was arranged for us.

There is a very big difference between getting the award from the highest non-political authority of the country and getting it from a political appointee. Suddenly, the nature of the award changes. At least in my case, I didn’t want the image of me and this award being associated with some political party’s appointee.

There is also further aggravation. Only 11 certificates have been signed by the president. The rest are signed by the secretary of information and broadcasting.

Abhaya Simha, won the Best Tulu Film award for his film ‘Paddayi’

We don’t seem to have a complete picture from their side. But we came to know that ever since this president has assumed office, this has been the practice – that he hands out only one award in any award ceremony. So, if the Ministry [Information and Broadcasting] knew about it, they could have informed us because we are brought in on government-paid flights and put up in five-star hotels and so on. It is an occasion and all of us awardees came with the dreams and hopes that we will receive the award from the president of India. Suddenly, we realise during the rehearsals, that some awards were going to be given by the ministry and some others by the president. That’s when we understood that the programme’s format is different from what was told to us. Some of the awardees came from countries like New York, Dubai and Kuwait and also brought their family on their own expenses. The office of the President has such high respect.

We understand that it could get tiring for one person to stand for so long. He is an elderly man and we respect that. The previous President Pranab Mukherjee, I think, is around 10 years older too. The point is that the whole ceremony is designed in such a way that the president is given ample rest between the different awards. There are screenings, performances etc. We even suggested ways in which everyone could have been accommodated: the minister’s speech could have been cut short, once the president comes, there is a short film screening and then there is a photo opportunity too. There’s about 30 minutes that goes in this which could easily accommodate the absentees.

We are not against anybody, let me make that clear. Suddenly there were reports calling us the “award wapsi gang”. This is my second National Award and I haven’t returned my award. I’m not against anybody. I just don’t want to be humiliated, that’s all.

It becomes very easy also to construct a narrative that we are against Smriti Irani and the BJP. But it is not that. People may have reservations against the Rashtrapati too – each of us have our own political leanings and ideologies. But this is about the post he holds, its sanctity and dignity.

So, after the rehearsal on May 2, we stayed back at the hotel the next day and decided to not go for the ceremony.

Prateek Vats, won the Special Jury Award for ‘A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings’

Broadly put, all the National Awards, be it any stream, is given by the highest constitutional authority or head of the state. This takes the award beyond any political party or government. What happened yesterday was really weird, therefore.

It wasn’t communicated at all to us that there has been a change. Also, the sheer audacity of how they tell us during the rehearsals and also, they happily pick and choose awards that the President will give because apparently they seem to be worthy of his time. That was the real tipping point for everyone who boycotted the event. It is disrespectful.

The National Awards, by its original format, maintains that everyone is equal and the state recognises your work in your field. Suddenly, you hear there is a demarcation. It hasn’t happened before. It just felt weird to be going there and taking it.

We kept asking what is the reason for the change. But there was no answer. There was a lot of disrespect with which they treated us. No one from the Ministry or the Directorate of Film Festivals talked to us. Only the jury members, rather politely, spoke to us and listened to us.”

Other voices of dissent

On Wednesday, several artists had expressed solidarity with the award winners and criticised the change of protocol on social media. In a Facebook post, Oscar award-wining sound designer Resul Pookutty said that technicians in the film industry always get a “raw deal”.

“When your good office chose the last 11 from the list of 125, it is these extra ordinary small people who got left out in their national recognition. We learned from the news that the President’s office was too busy and couldn’t have allowed more than one hour. We could have been called back on another day! We would have come back with our own expenditure, in trains or buses,would have stayed in the cheapest lodges to avoid extra burden of repeat call… We felt bad because when Your good office chose from the bottom of the list it was only the stars and star elements got picked up! Or those 11 people could have been the young and first time awardees!”