Another year. Another set of arguments over the National Awards. For instance: Did Sridevi deserve Best Actress? Indeed, under normal circumstances, would her performance in Mom even have been considered over, say, Parvathy’s in Take Off? I don’t have an answer, for the definition of “performance” depends on the type of film, and for the type of film Mom is, here’s what I felt about Sridevi’s performance: “Her star quality is undeniable. One part of me protested that this was too much of a performance, while another part marvelled at her control, the way she lets just a cheek quiver in indignation or allows her entire body to convulse with grief. Whatever it is, it’s unquestionably effective.”

But the definition of “type” is one of the many areas where the National Awards become contentious. This question comes up with the Oscars too: What “type” of film are you recognising? The Independent Spirit Awards are very clear that they are honouring films produced outside the major studio system, and this year’s nominees for Best Picture included Get Out, Call Me by Your Name, The Florida Project, Lady Bird and The Rider. But the Oscar’s Best Picture list included some of these films, along with behemoths like The Post and Dunkirk. Should the National Awards emulate the Independent Spirit Awards or the Oscars? Should a film like Baahubali (an excellent entertainer) compete alongside Village Rockstars (an excellent drama, whose Best Feature Film award is much-deserved)? 

Should a film like Baahubali (an excellent entertainer) compete alongside Village Rockstars (an excellent drama, whose Best Feature Film award is much-deserved)?  

One argument would be that cinema is cinema, big or small, and that the only criterion should be: Does the film accomplish what it sets out to do? But one could also argue that a lot of these smaller films gain visibility only through the National Awards (though Village Rockstars has done very well in the festival circuit), and maybe there should be two categories of awards. Then again, where would you place something like the marvellous Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, which has a big star (Fahadh Faasil), but is also a “small” film, even though it is certainly a mainstream film?

Another aspect of the National Awards is even more debatable. There is no confusion about some categories like “Best Popular Film,” “Best Action Direction” (I’m so glad they have this category), “Best Film on Social Issues,” or “Best Children’s Film.” Even the technical awards – cinematography or editing or sound (again, I’m so glad there’s a “Best Location Sound Recordist” category) – can be viewed fairly objectively, with the caveat that a different set of jury members might have come up with a completely different set of awardees.

But how does one come to a consensus about “Best Lyrics,” using subtitles (whose quality is often very iffy)? (The award, this year, went to Muthu Ratna, for the Kannada film, March 22.) The jury is set up with people from all over the country. I served on the jury once. My group consisted of two Malayalees, a Maharashtrian, a Bengali – and I’ve witnessed, first-hand, the inevitable lost-in-translation aspect. It’s the same thing that colours my reviews of, say, a Malayalam or Bengali movie – I come at them from the viewpoint of an outsider, and an insider may see and feel things very differently. Should this stop me from reviewing films in languages I do not know, whose cultures I have not experienced? Certainly not. But then, when I draw up my year-end lists, I am not clubbing films from all languages, the ones I know and the ones I don’t. I might make a list of Tamil films, another list of Telugu films, a third list of Malayalam films…

But how does one come to a consensus about “Best Lyrics,” using subtitles (whose quality is often very iffy)? (The award, this year, went to Muthu Ratna, for the Kannada film, March 22.) The jury is set up with people from all over the country.  

But this is not possible with the National Awards (and this is why they have the state awards). And we end up with the annual ritual of hand-wringing. How does Vinod Khanna qualify for the Dada Saheb Phalke Award? I am not saying he doesn’t deserve an award – after all, he was a huge star, and he’s provided a lot of us with a lot of cherished memories. But how does he qualify for the biggest award in Indian cinema, whose previous recipients include K Balachander, LV Prasad, Satyajit Ray? Shashi Kapoor was another popular star who received this award, but then he also contributed to cinema as a producer of non-mainstream films. In other words, we are back to our original question: What “type” of artist gets honoured in this category? One who has enriched cinema, or also one who has entertained us?

The National Awards are as complex as the nation. Every state is different. There are languages, dialects, cultural differences – and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. The most significant thing about these awards is that they bring to our attention a lot of new names. Now, I want to see “Best Actor” Ridhhi Sen’s performance in the Bengali film, Nagar Kirtan. Jayaraj, is, of course, a familiar name, but now I have more reason to bookmark his new film, Bhayanakam, for which he won Best Director. The “Best Debut Film of a Director” award (Pampally for Sinjar) revealed to me that we have a language called Jeseri (a dialect of Malayalam, spoken in Lakshadweep). 

Maybe the solution is to appoint a committee in each state to come up with a list of winners in each category (in that specific language), and then a central committee gets to judge whether, say, the best Tamil lyricist (as decided by Tamilians) is better than the best Gujarati lyricist (as decided by Gujaratis). The central committee is still going to face the issue of having to make this decision  with the help of subtitles, but perhaps the state-level committees can make a strong case that will help. (The use of this metaphor is unusual. This song explains this situation very well. And so on.) I’m just thinking out loud, and I’d love to hear your suggestions. How do we fix the National Awards? Even if you don’t think they need fixing, do weigh in.

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