When mediocrity becomes entitlement, Malayalam film awards are born

Malayalam cinema came one full circle today as Jury chairman John Paul (the scenarist of some of Malayalam’s finest ‘mainstream’ movies) announced the state film awards. It was a balancing act on an unprecedented scale.

Arthouse/indie movies were placated as the so-called ‘new generation’ was feted. The old order was summarily sidelined and new talent given a standing ovation.

All that is fine – after all, the industry needs new blood, and the old order cannot clamour for recognition simply because they have been there for a long time.

Mammootty, who was thumped by Nivin Pauly (shared with an unknown Sudev Nair) has nothing to regret while for Pauly, there is everything to gain. This is his year – and for all it takes, let us give a round of applause to the young man (who also let us pray, will not turn out to become another ‘superstar.’)

So how does the industry complete a full circle? This is the year of Premam, that cult movie by two-film-old Alphonse Putharen, starring Nivin Pauly. The film gained as much acclaim and an even keel of criticism for its protagonist’s romantic dalliance with his college lecturer and his drunken ways in the classroom.
Cut to 1980. That is the year Chamaramreleased. The film, directed by Bharathan, portrayed how an anguished youngster finds love and solace in his elder professor only to end in tragedy. The film, note the point, was scripted by John Paul. Its lead actor was Prathap Pothen, who incidentally won a special jury award (coincidences, indeed).
At two levels, all these become relevant. One is that a scriptwriter who could pen a rather revolutionary script (for a story by noted writer Balakrishnan Mangad), way back in the 1980s seems to have found creative and emotional connection with the new wave of cinema in Malayalam today.
Laudable, indeed, given that the 80s were the era of the OTT melodramatic movies of Prem Nazir, Jayan, MG Soman and Jose, et al.

Incidentally, Angadi was the superhit film of the year and we queued up to watch anything from Anthapuram to Moorkhan to Naayattu the very same year. Chamaram, therefore, was by all means revolutionary.

Two, 1980 was the year Manjil Virinja Pookal that went on to give us Mohanlal and helped change the Malayalam film landscape released, It came just a year after Balachandra Menon had stormed into the scene with Uthradarathri.

When the 1980 state film awards were announced, the best film went to Oppolwhile Chamaram claimed the second best film. Balan K Nair, who was rejected at the Kerala state for best actor, losing out to Achan Kunju in Lorry, went on to win the National Award.

Look at the trends here:  New talents such as Fazil and Balachandra Menon on direction, and actors such as Mohanlal pitted against then-veterans, were making a big buzz rush into the industry. And these new talents have gone on rewrite our film history just as Nivin Pauly & Alphonse Putharen et al will invariably do.
Now, let us come to the crux. Take a snapshot of the 1980’s Kerala State Film Awards.

You won’t raise an eyebrow. Every winner was the best – barring one – and we will come to that.

There seemed no substitute to the winners: For all the award’s worth, Achan Kunju was mind-blowing in Lorry so what if the jury erred on the wrong side by not voting for Balan K Nair. 
Look at this year’s award, chosen by John Paul (who must have felt a beaming pride in the 1980s for meritocracy being rewarded). We have Anoop Menon as supporting actor – pray, for what? Being a clone of Mohanlal?
Vet the list further: While you will acknowledge the balancing act that the jury did by handing out awards to Jayaraj and Sanal Kumar Sasidharan for their indie projects, the crux of what makes good filmmaking succumbs to mediocrity.
And as always, the award jury continues the blunder of treating best film, direction, script and story – as if they operate in silos.

How can a film be the best if its direction is lopsided? How can it be the best if at least its script isn’t the best? How can it be best if, come on, at least its story isn’t the best?

If this seems to be triggered as a diatribe against any of the winners, let me say it with total conviction; it isn’t.

It is about how a jury that must rise above populist considerations falls prey to that. At least John Paul must have known. But then when you have in the jury a film producer with popular hits to his credit such as Ee Parakkum Thalika, and  utter mainstream directors such as Bhadran, Balu Kiriyath and Suresh Unnithan, can we expect them to rise above?

And so we come to that misplaced award in 1980 – awarded to (drumbeats roll) – Poornima Jayaram! Well, doesn’t history come a full circle indeed with Nazriya Nazeem being voted as best actress this year?  
And hey, much like MVP, voted as best wholesome entertainer that year, we have now Om Shanti Oshana as the best popular film.
No award can satisfy all. But what any jury could possibly do – and must definitely ensure – is that populist considerations don’t take the upper hand.
The flipside to recognizing mediocre work is that it breeds irrationally; it soon becomes entitlement. And thus, history will repeat itself with pedestrian works standing high on lofty pedestals.

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