National Awards: The glory and burden of winning
While the choices of award-winning actors continue to be questioned, discussed, and even criticised, how much of it is fair?
Till 1975, eight years after the institution of the National Awards, the Best Actor and Best Actress awards, now called Rajat Kamal, were referred to as 'Bharath' and 'Urvasi', respectively. Such was the impact of this award that awardees Sharada and Gopy continue to be called Urvasi Sharada and Bharat Gopy in Malayalam cinema. Despite the award being changed to the 'Rajat Kamal', future winners like Mammootty and Mohanlal were also referred with the 'Bharat' being tagged before their names. For actors, these awards became a testament to their prowess, and a milestone. How does this incredible recognition influence their career though? Is it always for the good? As some Tamil actors point out, not exactly.
Take, for instance, the 2011 winner for the Best Supporting Actor, Sivabalan aka Appukutty. "I'm not really sure about the impact of the National Award on my career," says Appukutty, who does, however, acknowledge a fair amount of recognition comes with winning the coveted award. "But there are also drawbacks due to winning the award," he says. "Filmmakers begin to approach you only with certain kinds of roles. It is a huge struggle for someone like me to come back into the space of a comedian."
Appukutty, who always harboured dreams of being a comedian in Tamil cinema, still hopes to carve a space for himself in the annals of great comic actors in Tamil cinema. "After winning the award, it is not like I'm inundated with offers. I don't have any conditions that I'll be part of only certain films, after my National Award. To be honest, I've been forced to do average hero roles due to the paucity of offers as a comedian."
Thambi Ramaiah, who won the Best Supporting Actor Award for Mynaa (2010), agrees with Appukutty's observation that an 'award' artist is expected to do only a certain kind of role, and then consequently gets offered only that. Ramaiah points out that sometimes, it also leads to doubts whether a particular role was offered as a result of their entire body of work, or just their award-winning performance. "For instance, take my role in Thani Oruvan. Was that a result of my Award or a result of roles I did in previous films like Komban?" However, he is quick to clarify that doing the role of Arvind Swamy's father in the Jayam Ravi-starrer was a moment of pride. "I felt proud of my capabilities. The ball is now in the creators' court and it is upto them to use me to the fullest."
While it is true that it is the filmmaker who can tap into the potential of an actor, being a National Award winner seems to have its share of disadvantages for actors, when it comes to taking up film offers. Priyamani, who became just the fourth Tamil actress to win the National Award for Best Actress, received a lot of criticism for the roles she did after her award-winning role as Muthazhagu in the 2007 film, Paruthiveeran. "I agree that winning the award is a huge responsibility, but it shouldn't be a limiting factor. I don't see why I should only do a certain kind of film. I believe it is important to not get typecast in the role that fetched you the National Award," she says.
The criticism mainly targetted her choice of comparatively less meaty roles in Tamil films after Paruthiveeran, like in the Vishal-starrer Malaikottai. "It's not possible to do Paruthiveeran every single time. I didn't want to do the same role again. I got the tag as a performer, but I also wanted to do something different. So, when I got the chance of Malaikottai, I did it," she explains. "This is the first time people saw me in a different avatar, and there were people who told me they never expected to see me do such roles. Malaikottai was the first time I did a song and dance routine in a Tamil film. It was the first time Tamil audience knew Priyamani could dance. I believed the role showcased that I could look glamorous, while also upholding the performer tag."
It is this 'performer' tag which comes with National Award recognition that actors hold in high esteem. "For National Awards, entertainment is not the only factor. It has to be a special performance that wows the hearts of a randomly picked jury. I don't think I'm influential enough to get an award without having talent," says Ramaiah, who brings up the pertinent point of how not every role after Mynaa has tested his acting calibre. "Only a handful of films such as Saatai or Kadhai Thirakadhai Vasanam Iyakkam gave me that happiness. When people looked at my performance and said I lived that role, it was great praise because such words are usually reserved for actors like Sivaji Ganesan and MR Radha."
Unlike veterans and stars who won the National Awards, like Nagesh or Manorama, it is not exactly easy for upcoming actors like Priyamani or Appukutty to break out of the mould of being an award artiste. "As an actor, you don't want to be offered the same kind of roles. It is monotonous not just for the actor but also for the audience who would tire of watching the actor play the same role again and again. I don't want filmmakers and the audience to think Muthazhagu is the only kind of role I'm capable of doing," says Priyamani, who has consciously diversified her roles across languages. For a Malaikottai, she has done a Thirakatha. For an Arumugam, there was a Charulatha. "There was also a dance number with Shah Rukh Khan in Chennai Express. That film is still talked about. The song is still talked about. People are still dancing to the song. As an actor, I'm creatively satisfied with that choice--and every other choice too."
While the choices of award-winning actors continue to be questioned, discussed, and even criticised, how much of it is fair? Don't filmmakers too need to look past the surface? "Filmmakers have the responsibility to use these actors properly. They cannot be used as mere props in a film. After winning the National Award, the responsibility of an actor is done, but that's where the responsibility of filmmakers begin. You can't cast, for example, a Nedumudi Venu in a bits and pieces role. It is important to cast him in a role befitting his stature," says Ramaiah.
This line of thought, though commendable in principle, seems to be counterproductive for actors looking to survive in the industry. For established stars like Kamal Haasan, Dhanush or Vikram, a National Award might be a validation of their work, a congratulatory pat on the back. It does not decisively chart the future course of their career. However, for someone who is just starting out, it can mark a major detour. While there is no doubt that adding a 'Bharath' or 'Urvasi' to their names will give their careers a much-needed fillip, the burden of living up to it can be distracting and beleaguering.
Luise Rainer, the first actress to win two Oscars, back-to-back no less, once famously said, "For my second and third films, I won Academy Awards. Nothing worse could have happened to me." It is up to the filmmakers, the actors, and even the audience, to understand that awards are given to appreciate one particular performance by one particular actor in one particular film. Perhaps it should not be allowed to define them. For their good.