How Malayalam Cinema Caught the Popular Imagination
As I write this, Twitter has broken loose with the…
As I write this, Twitter has broken loose with the news of Malayalam film, Jallikattu, a rural pièce de résistance by firebrand director, Lijo Jose Pellissery, being chosen as the Indian entry for best international feature film at the 93rd Academy Awards. This would make it the third time a Malayalam film made its way to the Oscars, and the second one since 2011. The past decade has been a revival of sorts for the Malayalam film industry, when the young guns stormed in and dabbled with original concepts and bountiful perception. That the non-Malayali audience is now seeking out Malayalam cinema for its worthwhile content is testament to that.
Case in point, my Punjabi wife. Enamoured by Malayalam cinema’s progressive storylines and realistic craft, she became an early supporter of the industry, which was far from the ignominious repertoire of superhero sequels, superfluous plot lines, and stereotypical character that dominated the larger-than-lifeness of Bollywood she had grown up watching. Like many others of her generation, her initiation came through director Anjali Menon’s urban classic Bangalore Days, way back in 2014, a digestible feel-good movie that I safely recommend to newbies looking for a gateway to our cinema. But my wife is one amongst the expanding bandwagon of non-Malayali audiences who’ve discovered the new wave of Malayalam films, which have been made accessible through OTT platforms and subtitles. Today, in elite film circles of Mumbai, Malayalam film names that most critics struggle to pronounce, seem to be topics of cocktail chats, and intellectual banter. It wasn’t always like that.
While Malayalam films have always had a deep-rooted relation with the people of Kerala, it was the ’80s and ’90s that robustly churned out socially-driven themes and family dramas. Back then, the two Ms of Malayalam industry — Mammootty and Mohanlal — and a host of other stalwarts gave performances that were etched into the collective consciousness of the discerning Malayali audience. Some of those characters and dialogues still reverberate in households and even contemporary cinema. Prior to that, the doyens of the literary realm had shaped the formative years of Malayalam films, which started with the internationally acclaimed, Chemmeen (1965). That wave was guided through the ’70s by a bunch of auteurs with their aesthetics and content, and the ’80s, where the oeuvre of towering directors like Padmarajan and Bharathan remained rooted in realistic content before the advent of the superstar syndrome took over. At some point in the late ’90s, the foundations were laid for what would become the most unpalatable phase of Malayalam cinema, where displays of machismo and misogynistic characters stripped the industry off its content value. In an effort to appropriate other South Indian film industries, high decibel dialogues and moustache-twirling heroes became the norm. Scripts were written for star value, while style trumped over substance.
Malayali audience lapped it up nonetheless. But a decade of tasteless tropes, well, almost, necessitated a revival. The dooming industry was in for a renaissance. So, sometime around the beginning of this decade, an army of young directors, writers and actors — that included second-generation industry kids — started unfolding a torrent of fresh ideas, allegorical narratives, and techniques for a much-needed revival of the industry. Leading the charge for the kindled new formats were directors like Aashiq Abu (22 Female Kottayam, Virus ), Lijo (Jallikattu, Angamaly Diaries), and Rajeev Ravi (Kammatti Paadam). Abu’s school of film-making spawned directors such as Dileesh Pothan (Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum), and Madhu C. Narayanan (Kumbalangi Nights), who made sure their stories stewed in characters rich in moral failings and personal flaws, and unconventional plots that seemed fascinating, but never far-fetched.
In 2011, the coupe de grâce came with the release of films like the riveting hyperlink drama Traffic, directed by Rajesh Pillai and Abu’s Salt n’ Pepper, a light-hearted brilliance with food as the backdrop. Adaminte Makan Abu, the second Malayalam film to grace the Oscars, too, came out that year. A modest genius, Abu credits the audience for this change in narrative. “Film-makers used to depend on commercial formulas. At that time, the concept of masculinity was manipulated to thrill the audience. It did well for some time, but our audiences, as we know, can force the industry to change their ways. They started dissing the commercial stuff, and diverted to content-based films. Sensible content started gaining credence,” he notes. Courtesy OTT platforms, Malayalam cinema is quickly gaining pan India appeal, with audiences craving story-driven films where scripts have replaced the stars. It bodes well for the industry that the new generation of actors (as well as some of the veterans) are boldly experimenting with characters grounded in reality. Like Kerala, a politically charged state that boasts of a high literacy rate and thrives on different faiths co-existing, its films mirror a contemporary society that offers a kaleidoscope of subjects on screen. For new age film-makers like Abu, films offer an opportunity to valiantly address everyday issues such as politics, patriarchy, and caste.
Recognition of Malayalam films at international festival circuits have added a much-need fillip to the industry to remain inventive and experimental. In 2019, Jallikattu and Geetu Mohandas’s Moothon premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival while in 2020, Kumbalangi Nights won at the Indian Film Festival in Stuttgart. “The way things are going, I’m certain that Malayalam cinema would be in the radar of the international audience,” feels actor Chemban Vinod Jose. “Even during Covid times, interesting movies are in the making, not just in Malayalam, but also in the south industry. Although, I feel Malayalam films are two steps ahead. In the festival circuits, people are curious to know about the kind of films coming from here on a cultural level,” adds Jose, who acted in and coproduced Jallikattu. Getting down to brass tacks, Malayalam films, in their new avatar, have elements that make them a league of their own. It shuns larger-than-life heroes, flashy screenplays, and formulaic content, which its Bollywood counterparts thrive on. Washboard abs and dance numbers hardly matter to this new lot of writers and film-makers. “Malayalam films have come a full circle where the story is treated as the hero,” says Jose. “I’m not a writer per se, but when I wrote Angamaly Diaries, the idea was to present a fresh narrative to a curious audience, including foreigners. The more local you go, the more international you’ll reach was my basic thought process,” adds Jose, whose supercharged crime drama even caught the attention of Martin Scorsese.
Scriptwriters like Syam Pushkaran, Anjali Menon, and Muhsin Parari are like the Malayali holy trinity of newage storytelling. They spin stories that are palpable as societal concepts, and engage deeply with the psyche of the audience. These screenwriters have been influential in thickening the plots even if the budgets were not as hefty. Which is why a film like Jallikattu — written by S Hareesh whose recent novel Meesha (Moustache), won the JCB prize for literature — could be made on a Rs 3 crore budget, while Salman Khan’s Dabangg 3 blew up Rs 100 crore. Dig further, and you’ll find independent film-makers like Sanal Kumar Sasidharan and Sudevan, who’ve made distinctive films with a budget of just a few lakhs — the kind of money that a Bollywood rom-com might spend on half a song. Narayanan feels contemporary films are taking a leaf out of the times when literature and art found its space in the film narratives that deep-dived into social norms and personal struggles. “There is artistic freedom, and a camaraderie amongst the creative minds in the industry. There is space to experiment with the backing of friendly production houses who’re seeking out creative minds, just like the old days,” Narayanan reveals. Abu credits it to technology breakthrough: “In the backdrop of information technology, there has been a spurt in the critically thinking young audience. So, the acceptance of films by that audience is our reward.”
Camaraderie and creative collaboration has as much to do with inventive narratives as technological evolution has to do with experimental techniques. “This is like a periodic update. There are many things instrumental for this drastic shift, but for me, a major factor was the advent of digital film-making. Technology facilitated this change,” says Abu, giving the example of his 2011 film Chappa Kurishu that was shot using a Canon 7D camera. Much like the smartphone that made everyone a photographer, technology has empowered a new tribe of film-makers. “The perception of film production has changed. Earlier, projects were planned to cater to the stars, and the control was in the hands of a few. But now, the medium has found its way into a creative space where it’s treated like art,” adds Narayanan. Abu feels that the old-school film-making process, with its big cameras and processing labs, might have given it the notion of rocket science, but technology today has evolved to benefit the independent film-makers. “Many people utilised this in a street-smart way to project their thoughts into cinema. Science has a big role to play in this shift,” he adds. Not only global in attitude, the Malayalam film movement is also running parallel with the feminist and #metoo movement, as film-makers and actors are moulding new frontiers to break the patriarchal norms of the industry, both on screen and off screen.
Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam, which stars his wife-actor Rima Kallingal, set the ball rolling for strong, female-centric plots who would not take misogynistic shit anymore. Resolute newcomers like actors Anna Ben and Grace Antony imbibed this naturally. “Stories have just started to be told from a woman’s perspective, about their needs and desires,” notes Kallingal, as she invokes the works by scriptwriter Syam Pushkar, and director Anjali Menon. “I would wish for so much more. This is just the tip, there is this whole unexplored space, and I hope we all get to see it in our lifetimes,” she adds. The feminist movement within the industry is dismantling the narrative off-screen too. In 2017, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC) materialised to balance the power struggles, especially in the wake of the #metoo movement that exposed the surreptitious side of the industry. Helmed by veterans like actor Revathi, and propelled by actors like Kallingal and Parvathy Thiruvothu, the collective has been unapologetically vocal about breaking the patriarchy. The watershed moment came in the wake of an alleged sexual assault case against Dileep, one of the formidable actors in the industry.
The scandal also led to some of the WCC members, including Kallingal and Parvathy, resigning from the dominant Association of Malayalam Movie Actors (AMMA). The battle lines were drawn. Will Malayalamam cinema lead the way for feminist narratives on screen? How long will these experimental rides of cinematic surge last? What would films explore in a post-corona world? If Abu is to be believed, Malayalam films will be going through a lot of experiments, hopping through stimulating subjects. “I feel the coming years would be interesting and fun in terms of the thought process of film-making.” Narayanan believes that “People accept what you give. There is a crowd for all kinds of movies, which is why there is acceptance for big-budget commercial movies, as well as for content-based narratives.” On the current state of the industry and where it might lead, Abu concludes, “A group of people came together and made some good movies. Ten years from now, when these kinds of movies become stale, another group will come and make different kinds of movies. It’s a cyclic shift that might apply to all film industries.”