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Our Picks From This Year’s National Film Awards 

The list of winners leans more towards regional films than Bollywood

Suparna Sharma Jul 25, 2022

A still from 'Mandela' starring Yogi Babu. Photo: YNOT Studios

The 68th National Film Awards were announced on Friday evening and were greeted as they always are – with an outpouring of love, congratulatory messages and heart emojis for the films, actors, directors, technicians and singers who won, and shock and tears for films that were ignored. 

This year, too, the annual ritual repeated itself. The many powerful and worthy films that were missing from the list were duly noted, including director Prateek Vats’ Hindi feature, Eeb Allay Ooo!, and Pebbles, P.S. Vinothraj’s directorial debut film. 

Eeb Allay Ooo! is the story of a migrant worker whose daily job is to wear a money suit and scare away langurs from public buildings in Lutyens Delhi. Pebbles, a visually stark and stunning Tamil film, is based on a real-life incident involving the director’s sister.  

Both the films have won awards and accolades at international film festivals and Pebbles, in fact, was India’s official entry to this year’s Oscars. So its absence in India’s own list of the best films of 2020 is baffling. 

For several years now, governments and their juries have handed out at least some of the Swarna and Rajat Kamals (Golden and Silver Lotus) to their favorites. That has, naturally, meant a steady decline in the credibility of the national film awards. But both, the inclusions and omissions, are an interesting testimony of not just the artistic and creative merits of India’s cinema, but also of how much Indian politicians depend on it. 

This year the focus of the awards was decidedly not on Bollywood, but on Tamil, Malayalam and Telugu cinema. That is a course correction which was long overdue.  

Soorarai Pottru (Praise The Brave), a Tamil melodrama written and directed by Sudha Kongara (of Saala Khadoos fame), has bagged the five top awards – best film, actor, actress, screenplay and background score, only one of which it shares with Bollywood.   

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The best actor award has gone to Tamil superstar Suriya for Soorarai Pottru and to Ajay Devgn for his performance in and as Tanhaji.  

Apart from Devgn, his film Tanhaji, and the unknown-till-now Toolsidas Junior, Bollywood is mostly missing from this year’s list. 

Director Mridul Mahendra’s Toolsidas Junior, starring Sanjay Dutt and Rajiv Kapoor (who passed away last year), has received the award for best Hindi film. Inspired by the real life story of a father, a son and a snooker challenge, Toolsidas Junior is a sweet but terribly mediocre film. It’s certainly not the best Hindi film of the year. But then, neither is Ajay Devgn’s performance.  

Yet, beyond the top awards and the controversies, heartaches and celebratory parties, every year the list of awarded films showcases the beautiful diversity of India. Here are our top recommendations, in order of merit and preference: 

Photo: Gold Coin Motion Picture Company

Ayyappanum Koshiyum (Ayyappan and Koshi): The Malayalam film by writer-director Sachidanandan KR, better known as Sachy, is a character and dialogue-driven thriller that has spawned remakes in many languages.  

The director suffered a heart attack in 2020 and passed away four months after his film’s release. He was just 47 years old.  

His last film has won four awards, including best director, best supporting actor and, most interestingly, best female playback singer for 62-year-old farmer and folk singer, Nanchamma. She has written and sung the film’s title song, Kalakkatha, which is in the Irula language. 

Ayyappanum Koshiyum, which tells the story of the rivalry between a former Army havildar and a sub-inspector, packs in excellent performances, some Maoist politics and lots of communist violence.  

It is streaming on Prime Video. 

Photo: Hamsa Productions

Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum (Sivaranjani and A Few Other Women): This is a Tamil anthology directed by Vasanth S. Sai. The film, which has won three national awards, including best feature film in Tamil and best editing, tells three intense and affecting stories about three women – Saraswathi, Devaki and Sivaranjani. Each one’s story is different, and yet they are all the same. 

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I’m pleasantly surprised that the jury was able to pick just one performance out of the three for the best supporting award.  

Lakshmi Priyaa Chandramouli, who plays a wife and mother reduced to packing and delivering tiffin boxes, is very good. But so are the others, especially Kalieswari Srinivasan. 

Kalieswari, who played the female lead in the Dheepan, a searing French-Sri Lankan film which won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes International Film Festival in 2015, plays a woman trying to raise a child without an income or a husband in Sivaranjiniyum Innum Sila Pengalum. It’s an unforgettable performance. 

The film is streaming on SonyLiv. 

Photo: Pushkar Films

Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam (Monday is The Engagement): This one’s a deliciously funny and warm Malayalam film set around a young girl’s engagement that her family is planning. Except that it is always at the verge of a disaster because of the lack of funds, a melancholic lover, sulking aunties and old grouses. Directed by Senna Hegde, it won the award for best Malayalam film, and is streaming on SonyLiv. 

Watch it and you’ll crave a Mallu meal and a Mallu. 

Photo: Reliance Entertainment

Mandela: Director Madonne Ashwin’s Tamil film is a sharp and funny political satire starring Yogi Babu. The film, which bagged two awards – best screenplay and best debut film – is about elections in a small village that is split on caste lines. Polling takes place, but there’s no clear winner and the tie-breaker vote is held by one man, a hair stylist named Ilicha Vaayan alias Nelson Mandela. 

The film is streaming on Netflix.