Malayalam cinema: shifting paradigms by Sulochana Ram Mohan
Malayalam Cinema evolved through time. To use a cliché change has been the only constant in Malayalam cinema. In the first decade of the new millennium, we learned to call it the “new generation wave”. Not many were amenable to the changes nor the naming of the process, the main criticism being that Malayalam cinema was fast losing its ethnicity and entering a globalized zone with no “Malayalee” traits to show.
Rima Kallingal in "Rithu"
Questions on what exactly a Malayalee is or should be and how he should immunize himself to globalization and preserve his heritage, were debated. Low-cost digital films were frowned upon and a nostalgia for the good old family-oriented films of the seventies and eighties became widespread. Despite all this hue and cry the new generation cinema found its niche audience, especially among the youngsters, who had grown bored of the dialogue driven, over sentimental, hero oriented, long narratives that the mainstream cinema had catered so far.
There is some confusion as to which film can be called the pioneer of this new generation. Shyamaprasad, a director who has always strived to stay one step ahead of time, with ‘Rithu’, released in 2009, did bring in a youth-oriented film, with homosexuality being the undercurrent. It was bold enough to shock a few traditionalists. I remember Vinu Abraham, writer and scenarist commenting on this film as the coming of age of Malayalam cinema. Friendship, love, commitment, family, career choices, all the dilemmas of the new millennium were addressed in this film that had no star cast or heavy drama to hold it up.
‘Kerala Café’, an anthology of ten short films by veteran directors of Malayalam, was heralded as a change marker, since all the themes handled were relevant to the period, overt sentimentalism shelved in favour of brute truths, and a palette of ten different thought processes fused to form a slice of life in earnest. Ranjith Shanker’s first film, ‘Passenger’ is also pointed out as a path breaker, with its fast pace, intelligent reactions, the common man rather than a super hero saving the people being the moral of the story, etc.
But the epithet “new generation”, with a few defining traits in common, came into the forefront with the amazing and unexpected popularity gained by such films as ‘Traffic’ by Rajesh Pillai, ‘Salt and Pepper’ and ’22 Female, Kottayam’ by Aashiq Abu, ‘Chappa Kurishu’ and ‘Neelakasham, Pachakkadal, Chuvanna bhoomi’ by Sameer Thahir, ‘Cocktail’ and ‘Ee Adutha Kalathu’ by Arun Kumar Aravind, ‘Ustad Hotel’ by Anwar Rasheed, ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Trivandrum Lodge’ by V.K. Prakash, ‘City of God’ and ‘Amen’ by Lijo Jose Pallissery, ‘Annayum Rasoolum’ by Rajeev Ravi, ‘Mumbai Police’ by Roshan Andrews and so on. Non-linear narrative style, breaking away from star system and its super human traits, bringing forth new talents in acting, direction, photography, editing, screenplay writing, costumes and all technical areas, being open about sexuality and other activities like eating, singing, partying, traveling, and so on, and exploring how these cravings get to define men and women in unexpected ways, challenging the existing norms of conventional morality and gender specifics.
To the delight of young film goers, good old romance also was given a complete “make-over”. Anjali Menon with her scripting for ‘Ustad Hotel’ had already laid the foundation for a youth oriented original take and it was no surprise that her directorial effort, ‘Bangalore Days’ was a runaway hit that wormed its way into the cosmopolitan hearts of the young. City and city life in all its glory with a piece of the village backing up as nostalgia, friendship and family mixed up in fun and feisty rebellion, tragedy of joint families breaking up, the opening up of new career spaces, loss in love and gain in confidence, all that matters to the young viewer are found in this potpourri of lives. Alphonse Putharen, who can be named an out and out new generation artist, with his ‘Neram’ and then the blockbuster ‘Premam’ gave a twist to romance unseen till date. Jude Anthony, with his ‘Om Shanthi Oshana’ followed, and in a very light vein, explored and exposed, the hearts of the young in love. Vineeth Sreenivasan too, with the big time success, ‘Thattathin Marayathu’ proved that young love indeed is an evergreen story, pulling in the crowds all the time.
Scriptwriters like Anoop Menon (‘Pakalnakshathrangal, Hotel California’), Shankar Ramakrishnan (‘ Netholi Oru Cheriya Meenalla’), Murali Gopy (‘Left, Right, Left’), Unni. R (‘Charlie’, ‘Chappa Kurishu’), Shyam Pushkaran (‘Rani Padmini’,’Mayanadi’, ‘ Kumbalangi Nights’), the duo Bobby and Sanjay (‘Traffic’, ‘Mumbai Police’, ‘Uyare’), successfully changed the concept of the script, bringing in gender sensitive themes, ideological confusions, psychological dilemmas and new perspectives on crime and criminal mind set.
Anthology films where a few directors worked together with a common theme brought in fresh takes on life, albeit being small slices of stories put together tastefully. ‘5 Sundarikal’ (2013),portraying five women in particular crises of life, directed by Shyju Khalid, Sameer Thahir, Amal Neerad, Aashiq Abu and Anwar Rasheed was well crafted and presented. ‘Crossroad’, ( 2017), was another portmanteau film celebrating womanhood. Ten directors joined hands under the leadership of veteran director Lenin Rajendran to put forth stories of women in different situations of life. Madhupal, Nemom Pushparaj, Babu Thiruvalla, Ashok. R. Nath, Albert, Sasi Paravoor, Avira Rebecca were seven of these directors. The most outstanding film was ‘Pakshikalude Manam’ by a young debutant female director Nayana Sooryan. A young woman engrossed in studying birds---- a committed ornithologist you could say…gets married and dons the role of stay at home wife. But birds keep appearing in her dreams, the colours of feathers and smells of soft bodies lure her once again into the forests where a strange bird, only seen once in a blue moon, was about to make an appearance. Her teacher, who knows more about the habits of the bird with unique multihued feathers accompanies her, much to her husband’ s disapproval. But the twist at the end of the tale is hearbreaking Nayana Sooryan has handled the theme with more deftness than a newcomer usually does. The film is very compact, the actors well versed, dialogues crisp and emotions sensitively highlighted. Pradeep Nair’s ‘ Kodeshyan’ and Lenin Rajendran’ s ‘ Pinpe Nadappaval’ also deserve special acclaim.
Though the first crop of new gen films tended to be metro oriented with technology used in themes as well, soon new directors and script writers with different outlooks entered the scene and the little-known laidback villages and suburbs of Kerala came into the limelight with stories of the marginalised and sidelined people there. The film ‘Friday’ by Lijin Jose released in 2012 showcased a Fahad Fazil, shorn of his signature boxers and coffee cup, nuanced English dialogues and flighty loves. As a down to earth auto driver who could not rid himself of certain old-fashioned values that defined life for him. Fazil gave an altogether different performane that wooed the viewers. Different narratives of difficult and tragic lives were cleverly intertwined to give the film an honest tone of contemporary reality.
The 2014 success story of ‘1983’ by Abrid Shine followed in this vein and can be seen as the beginning of another facet of the new gen Malayalam movies. It is surprising that such films tugged at the heart of the average Malayalee far more deeply than the metro narratives with more rich and colourfuI frames. In 2016, ‘Kammaattippadam’ by Rajeev Ravi and “Maheshinte Prathikaram’ by Dileesh Pothen captured aspects of the changing rural life of Kerala. Suddenly such films became a center of attraction. In 2017, ‘Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum’, again by Dileesh Pothen was highly commended by critics and sophisticated film buffs alike, setting the trend for the time. ‘Parava’, directed by Soubin Shahir, ‘Kismeth’ by Shanavaz K. Bavakutty, ‘Eeda’ by Ajithkumar, ‘Ee ma Yu’ by Lijo jose Pallissery, ‘Theevandi’ by Fellini. T.P, ‘Argentina Fans Association,Kattorkkadavu’ by Midhun Manuel Thomas, were all well received films that focused on little revealed stories of the people living away from the so called mainstream , urban glory.
Kerala suburbs in all its verdant lushness with people using their own slangs, invested rural sports like football and volley ball, and small town squabbles that added spice to such competitions, all came into the focus of such narratives which were devoid of pretensions and cinematic grandeur. Stripped off layers of hypocrisy that had so far defined the Malayalee in the cosmopolitan melee, our lives were defined by our nativity and naivety that had a charm to it. The film ‘Sudani from Nigeria’ released in 2018 was the highpoint of this trend, winning numerous awards as well as popular acclaim. Directed by debutante Zacharia Muhammed, Soubin Shahir as the protagonist gained celebrity status as the ethnic Malayalee, both in looks, nature, dialogue and dress sense. Savithri Sreedharan and Sarasa Balussery, drama artistes on silver screen for the first time too were received ecstatically for the ethnic flavor of motherhood that the Malayalee had forgotten and forsaken for more glamorous versions. In fact the Kerala we see was overshadowed by these stories rooted in our soil so very firmly.
In 2019 too with ‘Kumbalangi Nights’ being the flavor of the times and Shane Nigham the cherished hero of the youngsters. His earthy look and clipped dialogue delivery that he flaunts have become flag marks of ethnicity that somehow bonds with the modern youth. It is up to the filmmakers and scenarists to delve in depth to discover the nuances of our life and language that shows a surprising survival urge even in the deluge of disasters haunting the land and the mind-set of the tenacious Malayalee.
The Covid lockdown situation affected the movie industry in more ways than one. Big releases in fully packed theatres became an impossibility resulting in huge loss in income. Shooting in open air too was stopped and this affected the daily wage earners like light boys, make up assistants, messenger boys and the like. Even those who catered regularly for film sets were jobless for a time. And cine buffs too were at a loss because new films were no longer at hand. But technology had ways to overcome hurdles and soon the OTT platform came to the forefront. ‘C u soon’ by Mahesh Narayanan starring the versatile Fahad Fazil and Darshana Rajendran was released on September 1, 2020. The entire movie has been shot through virtual format, with events seen through screens, everything from mobiles to laptops to CCTV visuals. The viewers too had to learn to see and enjoy a film in a way totally different from the way they were used to. ‘ C u soon ‘ was a success story and was followed by other releases on OTT platforms like Amazon Prime, Netflix, Zee T V, Sony Liv, Disney Hotstar, etc. Many of these films were of the investigative genre, maybe because it was easy to hold the attention of the viewer with links connecting the different aspects of an ongoing crime detection. Starting with ‘ Drishyam 2’, a sequel to the widely received ‘ Drishyam’ by Jeethu Joseph himself, starring the all-time popular star Mohanlal, ‘The Priest’ by Jofin T. Chacko, with the other superstar Mammootty in the lead, ‘ Chathurmukham’ with the female superstar Manju Warrier being the centre of attraction, directed by Ranjeeth Kamala Shankar, ‘ Nizhal’ by Appu. N. Bhattathiri with Kunchacko Boban as an official of justice, ‘ Cold Case’ by Tanu Balak with none other than the young vibrant Prithviraj leading the investigation, were all well taken and well received films.
Though not exactly designed as step by step investigation of the official nature, films like ‘ Arkkariyam’ ( Sanu John Varghese), ‘ Irul’ ( Naseef Yuzuf Izuddin), ‘ Joji’ ( Dileesh Pothen), ‘ Nayattu’ ( Martin Prakkat), ‘ Wolf’ ( Shaji Aseez), ‘ Kuruthi’ ( Manu Warrier), etc too revolved around crimes, the criminal mindset being explored in depth and the ways in which the forced closed in lifestyle of the pandemic times brought out the inner turmoils of individuals trapped in unpalatable situations. The latest release, ‘#Home’, scripted and directed by Rojin Thomas, can be seen as a coming together of all these elements defining the new technology oriented film making. The theme centres around the home, just as the lockdown has tethered life to the house, all the travellers and fun craving youngsters being forced to return and end up in the very same nest they abandoned to seek newer and greener pastures. But slowly shedding off layers of hypocrisy and fashionable frustrations, they get down to the basics of what exactly family means and how those bonding ties can be a means of stabilising emotions and expectations rather than limiting ones ambitions. Lives of the older and the younger generations are juxtaposed cleverly to highlight the contrasts in viewpoints and lifestyle. One can say with conviction that this is a film that is very much needed in these hopeless times when nothing is deemed lasting or necessary.
Sulochana Ram Mohan is a Trivandrum based writer, film buff and poetry lover.