Dhanush and Vetri Maaran’s- ‘Swimming in
and Vetri Maaran have done the impossible! No,
we are not talking about the National Award; that
was not impossible. Then what is? Winning it for
Aadukalam! And, why would that be? Because Aadukalam
is not the kind of movie we get to talk or hear
about while discussing awards. We have had more
than 50 years of National Awards and this half
century has built a strong, almost impenetrable
wall between popular cinema and the ‘award’
cinema. It was an unwritten rule – ‘want
to get a national Award, make a movie that impresses
the intellectuals and/or incurs heavy losses (or
even does not get released) in theaters’.
It almost went without saying that a National
Award winning movie or performance would always
be ‘different’, in the sense that
it would never hold the masses’ attention.
Winning the award for Aadukalam is indeed equivalent
to the now famous punch line form the movie, ‘Naanga
ellam tsunamiyile summing poduravunga’!
Just looking at the history of the National Awards
is proof of this fact. All the great blockbusters
over the years find little or no mention in this
list. To find them, you have to go
to the Filmfare list, which seems to be an awards institution
which has diametrically opposite principles to the National
committee – awarding commercial cinema and stardom.
It is perhaps this kind of polarization of appreciation
that created the strong commercial-art-house divide
that exists in Indian cinema. But, Aadukalam might be
a telling blow on this wall, though it will take many
other such strong ones before the wall finally collapses.
Really, looking at the National Awards history seems
to suggest that there has been a separate industry or
movement that has been making cinema specifically for
purposes like awards and film festivals. Now, this is
not to belittle or criticize any of these master film
makers who have continually won the top honors over
decades, but one cannot help feeling that the primary
objective behind many of their movies has been critical
recognition. But, that is another debate altogether!
The undisputed fact however is that normal cinema (not
‘over the top’ commercial cinema) stood
very little chance of winning honors at the national
level. It is not as if the mainstream lacked movies
that had quality performances or storylines, but as
if an attitude of ‘you cannot have the best of
both worlds’ existed. If you wanted critical acclaim,
you had to step outside the mainstream. It was also
an unwritten rule that art-house cinema @ award cinema
should not be cheerful; pathos should be its reigning
emotion! And, for an actor to win national recognition,
he/she had to be part of a sob (read realistic) story,
look depressed and beaten up. In short, an actor needed
to earn sympathy to earn an award. There were other
ways too and the most prominent of them is playing roles
that were physically demanding.
And, that is the yardstick by which the national awards
were predicted all these years. When Vikram did Pithamagan
we predicted and expected that an award would happen
because we knew that it was the kind of role that would
be picked up on the National Awards radar; and we were
right. When Arya and Pooja did Naan Kadavul we again
expected the same to happen and we were almost right,
the movie and performance, both were in contention.
When Amitabh Bachchan did Paa, people knew that he stood
a strong chance. And we also discussed the strong possibilities
of Kanjeevaram last year. And when it is time for the
awards next year, it is possible that we will be talking
about Vikram’s much talked about heart-warming
portrayal in Deivathirumagal. But, this time, no one
was talking about Aadukalam and its chances of going
to the National Awards. Instead there were a few murmurs
around Angaadi Theru and perhaps Nandhalala. If there
is one person who predicted great heights for Aadukalam,
it was Dhanush himself. One still remembers him confidently
stating at the audio launch of the movie that this would
be a landmark in his career. This is not the regular
promotional humbug that is belched out for every movie
released. It was an understated and calculated assessment
of the quality of the film.
Year after year, National Award predictions (and the
awards themselves) have centered on portrayals of extraordinary
or out of the ordinary characters, not extraordinary
portrayals of normal characters. In short, the awards
seem to have gone to the roles, not the performances.
Even great artistes like Mohanlal and Mammootty (who
have perfected the balance between commercialism and
art cinema) have to submit to the archetype notions
of art cinema in order to be considered for the National
Of course, there have been instances where performances
of everyday life characters have won National Awards,
like Saif Ali Khan for Hum Tum, or the glorious example
of Kamal Haasan’s Naayagan which won hearts and
awards wherever it was shown. But, those instances have
been few and far in between, and have been able to do
very little to break the general notion of ‘arty-ness’
that surrounds the National Awards.
Back in 2004, no one even thought that Saif would pick
up the award; in 2011, we too scarcely imagined that
it would go to Dhanush, especially for playing a scraggy
youngster with a ‘devil may care’ attitude
who doesn’t mind dancing in the middle of the
road. Why? Is it because we cannot recognize good performances?
No, but because of the fact that the decades of National
Awards have prejudiced our minds against judging mainstream
performances in more than just a superficial manner.
Imagine what would have been the reaction of people
around you if you had predicted a National Award for
Dhanush after watching Aadukalam; they would have advised
you to see a psychiatrist! That might give you an idea
about the strength of the virtual wall that exists between
commercial and offbeat cinema.
But, with recognition for Aadukalam, let’s hope
that the wall begins to diminish. Because Aadukalam
has no pretensions or intellectual designs of award
cinema, it is a pretty straightforward story that looks
to entertain people who watch it. Perhaps, this win
will dissolve preset notions of award cinema having
to be serious and mind numbing.
But, before we get too optimistic, let us also remember
that the National Award was shared by Salim Kumar for
‘Aadaminte Makan Abu’, something that qualifies
as the perfect art movie. And, before we get labeled
as people who deny actresses their deserved space, congratulations
to Saranya Ponvannan and Sukumari as well on their achievement.
It has been a great time for Tamil cinema!
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