National Film Awards 2023: South India On Song

K Balakumar

Aug 28, 2023, 10:49 AM | Updated 05:40 PM IST

Music maestro Ilaiyaraaja.
Music maestro Ilaiyaraaja.
  • The musical side of the National Film Awards has been historically dominated by southern movies and personalities. This year was no different.
  • In the National Film Awards announced on Thursday (24 August), the most striking feature has to be the total sweep of the musical awards by south Indian films and artists.

    The best male singer award was easily won by Kaala Bhairava, the man behind the Academy Award sweeping chartbuster Naatu Naatu, for RRR. The best female singer award was scalped by Shreya Ghosal for the hauntingly beautiful Maayava Thooyava in the film Iravin Nizhal under the baton of A R Rahman.

    The best music director for songs was Devi Sri Prasad for his rambunctious numbers in the blockbuster Pushpa The Rise. And the best music director award for background score went to M M Keeravani, inevitably for RRR.

    This is Shreya Ghosal's fifth National Award, her first for a film from South India. Her previous awards have been for Hindi (Devdas, Paheli, Jab We Met and the Marathi and Bengali films Antaheen and Jogwa, both in 2008.)  This is her first national award in 15 years.

    Keeravani's case is even more interesting. His first and only national award had come way back in 1997 for the Carnatic musical extravaganza Annamayya.

    His second award has come 26 years later, making it the biggest time gap between the two triumphs in the history of the National awards. It underscores his longevity and steadfastness. His son Kaala Bhairava‘s successful show must make it doubly satisfying for the family.

    Even in the non-feature film category, Srikanth Deva's score for the short 'Karuvaraigal' got a special mention from the jury.

    The Phenomenon Of Raja And Rahman

    This domination of awards by the south film industry in the musical category is not entirely surprising or new. In the last decade alone (since 2013), the award for the best music director has gone to films from South India 11 times (this includes both best musical score and for songs. The two different categories were re-introduced from 2009).

    Overall, even though Hindi films have swept 19 awards in the category since its inception in 1967, the four south Indian language films (Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada) have won 34 awards while others combined, including Hindi, Bengali, Punjabi, Odia and Marathi, have managed to secure 30 awards.

    Among South Indian films, it is a close-run thing. Tamil and Telugu have both won 10 awards each, Malayalam nine and Kannada five.

    The musical supremacy of south Indian languages at the National Awards can be in a sense attributed to the presence of two of the best musical talents India has seen — Ilaiyaraaja and A R Rahman.

    The 'Mozart of Madras' has walked away with six awards while the Pied Piper from Pannaiyapuram has secured five awards (and he is the only to have got it for three different languages — Tamil, Telugu and Malayalam. 

    Four other musicians from the south, K V Mahadevan, Johnson and B V Karanath have got the National Award twice each.

    That south India has reaped such a rich harvest despite some of its best names like M S Viswanthan, Dakshinamoorthy, Ravindran were consistently overlooked (We don't want to start a flame war and this is no suggestion that south Indian musicians were hard done by.

    Even the brilliance of Salil Chowdhray and R D Burman was never recognised by the National Awards committee).

    The Legend Of Yesudas And SPB

    It is not just the music directors list that is dominated by the talents from the south of Vindhyas. The singers' list, both male and female, is dominated by Tamil, Telugu, Malayalam and Kannada performers.

    The most successful male singer in the history of national awards is, of course, the remarkable K J Yesudas with a staggering eight awards.

    After the first five years of the award (since the male singer category was announced in 1967) was filled with Hindi and Bengali singers (the likes of Mahendra Kapoor, Manna Dey, S D Burman, yes as a singer, and Hemant Kumar), Yesudas brought the first laurel to the south with his song Manushyan Mathangale Srishtichu for the film Achanum Bappayum under the baton of G K Devarajan.

    The legend's eighth award came for Poy Maranja Kalam for the film Viswasapoorvam Mansoor in 2017. The music director was Ramesh Narayan. The 45 years difference between his first and last awards is another testimony to the legend's greatness. 

    Yesudas has won it for songs in three different languages Malayalam, Hindi and Telugu. But his contemporary, the ebulliently brilliant S P Balasubrahmanyam, went one up on him, by winning awards for four different languages — Telugu, Hindi, Tamil and Kannada. He, however, managed to win the coveted honour six times only.

    But the sheer spread and sweep of Yesudas and SPB pan-India, especially in the 70s, 80s and 90s is worthy of a full-fledged book. The two sang in every conceivable language, style, and genre with aplomb and poise that cannot be easily emulated.

    For the record, others who have won multiple awards include Shankar Mahadevan and Udit Narayan (three each), and Hariharan, Manna Dey, Hemant Kumar and M G Sreekumar (all two each).

    On the distaff side too, things aren't much different. Aside from Shreya Ghosal, who has five awards in her kitty, the list is speckled with South Indian star singers — K S Chitra (six), P Susheela (five), S Janaki (four) and Vani Jairam (three). Among this, Janki's first triumph came in 1977 for the sensationally fresh Senthoora Poove for Ilaiyaraaja in 16 Vayathinile.

    The likes of Janaki, Yesudas and Susheela are no longer actively singing. But the effulgent talent of Ilaiyaraaja and Rahman continue to burn brightly. And you can't put it past them to win the national honour in the years to come, too.

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