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Explained: The National Film Awards, their history, significance, and recent trends

The 68th National Film Awards were announced on Friday for films that released in 2020; the Awards had been delayed by two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. What are these awards, and who selects the winner? Who have been the biggest winners?

Suriya in Soorarai Pottru.

The 68th National Film Awards were announced on Friday (July 22) for films that released in 2020; the Awards had been delayed by two years due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The winners were announced at a press conference in New Delhi, and streamed on the PIB YouTube channel.

Tamil film ‘Soorarai Pottru’ has won in five categories: Best Feature Film, Best Actor for Suriya, Best Actress for Aparna Balamurali, Best Music Direction (Score) for G V Prakash Kumar, and Best Original Screenplay for Sudha Kongara, who also directed the film.

Suriya shares his Award with Bollywood actor Ajay Devgn, who has won for his role in ‘Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior’. The film has also won the award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment.

Sachidanandan K R has won the Best Direction Award for the Malayalam film ‘Ayyappanum Koshiyum’ and Madonne Ashwin has won the Best Debut Film of a Director Award for the Tamil film ‘Mandela’.

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What are the National Film Awards?

The National Film Awards “aim at encouraging the production of films of aesthetic & technical excellence and social relevance”, according to the Directorate of Film Festivals of the Union Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The Awards also aim to increase appreciation of different cultures and communities across India, thus promoting unity and integrity. They are presented by the President of India each year for the films of the preceding year.

First given out in 1954, they were called the ‘State Awards’ and were limited to recognising the best films from a dozen regional languages. It was in 1968 that separate awards for artists and technicians were given. Nargis won the inaugural Award for Best Actress, for her performance as a schizophrenia patient in ‘Raat Aur Din’, while Uttam Kumar won the Best Actor award for both ‘Antony Firingee’ and ‘Chiriyakhana’.

The Awards were officially designated Urvashi Award and Bharat Award respectively. The actress Sharada who won the Award three times (for ‘Thulabharam’, ‘Swayamvaram’, and ‘Nimajjanam’) came to be known as “Urvashi Sharada”.


There are three sections of the Awards now: ‘Features’, ‘Non-Features’. and ‘Best Writing on Cinema’. The winning entries in the ‘Features’ and ‘Non-Features’ sections are selected on the basis of “cinematic achievements”. The ‘Best Writing on Cinema’ Awards are given with the aim to encourage the “study and appreciation of cinema as an art form”.

This time, no award was given for Best Critic. The Best Book on Cinema went to Kishwar Desai’s ‘The Longest Kiss’, which is about Devika Rani, often called “The First Lady of Indian Cinema”.

Who selects the winners?

According to the Directorate of Film Festivals, the jury deciding the winners comprises “persons distinguished in the field of cinema, other allied arts and humanities”.


In 2018, as controversy erupted over President Ram Nath Kovind only presenting awards in 11 categories out of the total 140 winners, over 60 awardees wrote an open letter in protest. The letter, while asking the President to reconsider his decision, noted that the National Awards, “unlike other awards ceremonies, has been considered as the most pristine and unbiased”.

Earlier in 2017, eminent filmmaker A R Murugadoss had alleged bias and nepotism in the jury’s selections. He said that the awards reflected the partiality of the jury members, which was headed by veteran director Priyadarshan.

Who have been the biggest winners of the Awards?

Shabana Azmi holds the record for having won the Best Actress Award five times, including three back-to-back wins for ‘Arth’, ‘Khandhar’ and ‘Paar’, from 1982-84. Bengali actresses Indrani Halder and Rituparna Sengupta are the only two awardees to be honoured for the same film, Rituparno Ghosh’s ‘Dahan’ (1997).

Six of the legendary Satyajit Ray’s films have won Best Feature Film in four different decades: ‘Pather Panchali’ (1955), ‘Apur Sansar’ (1959), ‘Charulata’ (1964), ‘Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne’ (1968), ‘Seemabaddha’ (1971), and ‘Agantuk’ (1991).


Seven films starring Shah Rukh Khan in the leading role have won the award for Best Popular Film Providing Wholesome Entertainment, the most for any actor; however, he himself has never won the Award.

Are there any broad trends visible over the decades of the Awards being given?


There has been a perception that the Awards are dominated by Hindi cinema. Looking at the numbers, it is easy to see where this perception comes from: since the categories were introduced, 25 Awards for Best Actor, 27 for Best Children’s Film, 19 for Best Music Direction, 17 for Best Supporting Actress, etc., have gone to Bollywood.

Looking at the winners of the last few years, it is clear that there is a trend to award films that deal with themes of nationalism and patriotism, often of a macho nature. This includes films dealing with historical figures: ‘Tanhaji: The Unsung Warrior’ (2020) is one example.


Other examples are ‘Manikarnika: The Queen of Jhansi’ (2019), which won its leading lady Kangana Ranaut her third Best Actress Award; ‘Uri: The Surgical Strike’ (2018), which got Vicky Kaushal his first Best Actor Award; and ‘Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham’ (2019), which was declared the Best Feature Film.

An interesting feature that many would like to see become a full-fledged trend, is the inclusion of awardees whose characters do not conform to the gender binary. Thus, Bengali actor Riddhi Sen won Best Actor for his portrayal of a trans woman in ‘Nagarkirtan’ (2017) — incidentally, he is also the youngest recipient of the Award till date. And Tamil actor Vijay Sethupathi later won the Best Supporting Actor Award for ‘Super Deluxe’ (2019), in which he played a trans woman.

First published on: 22-07-2022 at 21:55 IST
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