Dhanush and Vetri Maaran’s- ‘Swimming in a Tsunami’!
Shankar, Maniratnam  

Dhanush 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 Awards.

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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