The Gollapudi Srinivas National Award is unique. It was instituted in 1998, in memory of the young filmmaker whose name the award carries. He passed away in an accident in 1992, during the shoot of his first feature. The award, therefore, is presented to a director who made his debut the previous year. The list of winners extends from Leslie Carvalho (the first recipient, in 1997, for The Outhouse), Shyama Prasad (Agnisakshi, 1998) and Hemanth Rao (Godhi Banna Sadharana Mykattu, 2016) to Konkona Sen Sharma (A Death in the Gunj, 2017) and C Prem Kumar (96, 2018). The most high-profile 'first-timer' is Aamir Khan, who won in 2007 for Taare Zameen Par.
This is the first time since the inception of the award that there's a tie. The 23rd edition of the prize — which will be presented on August 12, this year — has gone to Aditya Dhar (Uri-The Surgical Strike) and Madhu C Narayanan (Kumbalangi Nights). I was part of the jury — the others were Bharat Bala, Jayendra and Ram Madhvani — and Gollapudi Subba Rao, Gollapudi Srinivas' brother, was instrumental in facilitating the conversations.
There were 22 nominations in various languages from across the country, and it came down to Uri-The Surgical Strike vs Kumbalangi Nights. It came down further to this single question: What is directing?
If you asked me which is the better overall film, I'd easily pick Kumbalangi Nights. If you asked me which is the better-written film, again, I'd pick Kumbalangi Nights. But these considerations are about "content", which is already locked into the screenplay by the time the director steps in to do his/her thing. (Of course, the director usually has a hand in shaping this content, but at this point, his/her job is more that of a "writer" than a "director".)
The director's job, then, is to execute a series of shooting-spot decisions – about acting, about camera placement, about this and that and everything else — that will elevate this "content" into the best possible screen experience, the best possible kind of cinema.
Now, the Gollapudi Srinivas National Award is purely for direction. So — even while recognising the apples/oranges nature of this exercise — who is the better director? Aditya Dhar made a very effective film out of a proficient script, which tells me that his individual contribution to the final impact of Uri-The Surgical Strike was possibly more than Madhu C Narayanan's contribution to the final impact of Kumbalangi Nights. (Translation: how much of the effectiveness of Kumbalangi Nights is due to the brilliant writing, and how much is due to the direction?)
In other words, the script of Kumbalangi Nights was so good that even a halfway-decent director could have ended up with a solid film, even if not one as great as the present version of Kumbalangi Nights. And you can think of a bunch of such workmanlike directors, because the tonality of Kumbalangi Nights is not exactly something new for Malayalam cinema. There have been many such dramas in the past. But then, the same could be said of Uri-The Surgical Strike, which is a "revenge movie", the cinematic equivalent of an India-Pakistan cricket match. This isn't exactly "new", either.
But Aditya Dhar pulls off something we didn't get in the earlier war movies: there's dignity in the emotional stretches. There's mood. And he pulls off brilliant imagery, brilliant set pieces. Close combat has rarely produced an image as searing as the one where the silhouettes of the protagonist and an opponent are framed against bright-orange flames in the distance. It's visceral. It gets you in the gut.
Here, again, rises a question: how logical is it to compare these two films? If Kumbalangi Nights doesn't give us superbly staged war sequences, Uri-The Surgical Strike doesn't have an answer to the scene where a moonlit Madonna-like figure is ferried to the home of brothers who have been abandoned by their mother.
"Best Direction" – thus – is a tough nut to crack. It's easier to judge the overall-ness of a film than the individual contributions. How much of Fahadh Faasil's character in Kumbalangi Nights came from the actor and how much of it came from the instructions of Madhu C Narayanan? How much of the exciting action stretches in Uri-The Surgical Strike is the work of Aditya Dhar and how much belongs to the excellent technical team (the sound designer, the cinematographer, the editor)? Yes, there's a lot of actor-director or technician-director collaboration, but when it comes to the final film, are we seeing a director's grand "vision", or are we simply seeing something that a bunch of very creative and very like-minded people made together?
This award is presented to first-time filmmakers, and we don't yet know their signatures. As directors get established, we see certain aspects of their films remaining constant, regardless of who the writer is, who the technical people are — and we use the A-word. With an auteur, it's easier to discern the "directing" aspect, the grand "vision".
But that's perhaps what made this process so interesting. From the outside, we can only make educated guesses about direction, and a lot of it is based on instinct. All I can say is that it was a very tough choice, and I am glad both directors won, for films that take place in two extremes of the country. This year's Gollapudi Srinivas National Award is a reminder that art unites us all.