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Musings on Malayalam Cinema by Sharad Raj

It has been a school thing, my fascination for Malayalam cinema. It all started with the films of Seema and IV Sasi like, “ Avalude Ravukal”(Her Nights) whose posters and Sunday morning shows never seem to abandon my home town, Lucknow’s Odeon Cinema. As one grew up one got introduced to the films of Adoor Gopalakrishnan and G. Aravindan. “Mukhmukham”( Face to Face) of Adoor was the first non-soft porn Malayalam film I had seen, followed by Aravindan’s, “Chidambaram” starring Smita Patil and Bharat Gopi. I remember being completely bowled by Bharat Gopi’s performance. He became a favorite and I would not miss an opportunity to catch a Gopi movie on Doordarshan. Decades ago, it was mandatory for Doordarshan to screen award winning films, and I remember watching almost all films of Adoor Gopalkrishnan back-to-back over the weekends. Entire perception and meaning of Malayalam cinema had changed for me in the course of time. I was also introduced to stars like Mohanlal and Mammootty by then, along with Gopi, often called the Sanjeev Kumar of Malayalam cinema by many, a star-actor basically.

Then I joined the Film and Television Institute of India (Pune) in 1988. Personally, I was attracted by the cinema of Ritwik Ghatak, instantly. Face was wet while watching “Meghe Dhaka Tara” (Cloud Capped Star) and “Jukti Takko aur Gappo” (Reason, Debate and a Story) made me swear allegiance to Ghatak. But it was the myth of that maverick student of Ghatak, John Abraham, that gave me goosebumps. His “Odessa Collective” was an idea one was immediately attracted to, as were his films like “Amma Arinya”(Report to Mother).My perception of Malayalam cinema had changed for good. Also by then Shaji Karun’s “Piravi”(The Birth) had won international acclaim.

Then came a long hiatus. One could only watch Malayalam films in film festivals, after leaving the film institute. There were no other avenues. Decades later, the digital age of the twenty first century, internet and OTT platforms made cinema viewing a shared experience of different cultures and languages a possibility. Along with world cinema, films of Indian languages made inroads into our homes. And Malayalam cinema made a comeback into my life. By now Aravindan was no more and Adoor always made fewer films, but it is the mainstream Malayalam cinema that had matured and evolved in its ethos. The seeds were always there. Both Mammootty and Mohanlal were stars of mainstream cinema since long. It is the accessibility of language films which was limited hence, one only heard of how films in Kerala were of much superior quality than popcorn entertainers of Hindi film industry. But now one can see that difference with OTT platforms becoming a window of some fine films from all over the country not just Kerala. A world that exists outside of Bollywood entertainers.

One is purposely not discussing off the mainstream radar films for the struggle and challenges are similar, regardless of the language they are made. It is the mainstream films in Malayalam that need to be mentioned, that bring fine stories and interesting characters using the mainstream tropes and idioms for their audiences. Of course, I can only talk about the few that I have seen of late.

There is one Fahad Fasil. A phenomenon beyond doubt if one is to consider the admiration he gets on social media. Almost a rage. Fasil is Considered to be the finest actor in the country today. Coming from my Hindi cinema bias one thought he must be some dude a la Dulquer Salmaan (another fine actor). Lo and behold, Fahad turns out to be a man next door, half bald and unassuming but menacing as an obsessive psychotic in “Kumbalagni Nights” (2019). Have to concede I did NOT expect what I saw, and he scared me to bits in the film. “Kumbalagni Nights” is a coming-of-age film of a few half-brothers. Not many in the film are established stars or well-known actors but the film is a stupendous success, both critical and commercial.

Something unthinkable for a Hindi film. One of the finest Hindi film in recent times, “Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar“ was disowned by its producers until the pandemic came and ensured an OTT release.

“ Kumbalagni Nights” however, works purely on the merit of its unique story and even more unique filming or presentation of the concept. But the big surprise for me was Fasil’s character. To play a grey or a negative role with such aplomb and be a rage, not just amongst filmmakers and critics but also the theatre going audience is not just an achievement of Fasil but also of the Malayalee audience.

Some of the films that one has managed to see from Kerala are: “Kumbalagni Nights”(2019); “Irul” (Darkness, 2021); “C U Soon”(2020); “ The Great Indian Kitchen”(2021); “Drishyam 2” (2021) and Nayattu(The Hunt, 2021). Now all the films are not fantastic. For instance “Irul”, “The Great Indian Kitchen” and “Drishyam 2” are comparatively weaker films. But ONLY “comparatively”. “Irul”, another Fasil film is a chamber thriller, which sags in parts and has a predictable end but keeps you hooked for most part. “C u Soon” is an exemplary experiment that keeps the audiences engrossed despite a predictable storyline. The very novelty of its presentation makes it a difficult film to work, but it does. The entire film is shot via webcams, with characters dwelling in three different countries viz India, America and Dubai. It’s a mystery thriller that the protagonist (Fasil once again) solves by not even moving an inch, sitting in front of his computer! Have to concede the film’s novelty impressed me immensely.

“Nayattu” has a brilliant story of three cops on the run from a violent mob in the backdrop of state by-elections. Whatever happened to the macho cops of the “Singham”variety of Hindi cinema? Why did no male actor feel his “masculinity” was threatened by playing cops on the run? All three actors of Nayattu , Joju George, Kunchacko Boban and Nimisha Sajayan are fairly well know, award winning actors, yet. It is not that “Nattayu” is not flawed. The film does falter, for it fails to explore the interpersonal relationships between the three cops, something that “Sandeep aur Pinky Faraar” does beautifully. The result is “Nayattu” remains a chase drama alone and fails to rise above that. However, the sheer novelty of the story, hitherto unseen characters and the racy pace of the film works in its favour.

While “Drishyam 2” wilts under the pressure of a sequel and star power of Mohanlal, “ The Great Indian Kitchen” gives a knockout punch in the solar plexus of patriarchy but not without having implausible characters and a very poor ending. Yet it is an important film that challenges patriarchy within the paradigm of mainstream ‘entertainment’ oriented film.

This article is not to romanticize Malayalam cinema, or to suggest that it is free from the ills of other film industries, or Kerala is the only state that is making good films. Compared to Hindi films, Malayalam cinema is leaps and bounds ahead in its sheer choice of stories and ideas. While we in Bollywood are still stuck with a “Befikre” and varying templates of “Meri Brother Ki Dulhan“, the Kerala makers and writers and actors are trying newer and fresher ideas.

Bollywood takes pride in its “Hollywoodization” but to what effect? Majority of influences are from either romcoms or television shows like “Friends”, “Downtown Abbey”, “One Tree Hill”, “Orange County” to name a few. Not that Hindi films do not have their share of ‘good’ mainstream, but few and far between and not always successful, either creatively or commercially.

All the films listed above have actors playing characters, the makers are nowhere pandering to stars or awards an actor has won. The overall film takes precedence; therefore a “Kumbalagni Nights” is a superior film to say, “Drishyam 2”. The wonder is Malayalm cinema is able to pull off success sans stars and one of the most popular star of the present generation (Fahad Fasil) is not a “hero” in the conventional sense. They do this regularly. Fasil is more of a character. So, if at all one was to take Hollywood as the benchmark then it is the Malayalam films that are closer to mainstream American cinema than our self-proclaimed Bollywood blockbusters. In Malayalam we can expect a “Sully” or a “The Wolf of the Wall Street” without their stars worrying about their fan following or their screen image. Films that are layered, that challenge the formula and refrain from typecasting. That according to me is the key difference. Audience taste apart, the makers are able to push the envelope because they are either sure of their narrative power, a la “Angamaly Diaries” (2017) or “Jallikattu”(2019) that they can pull off an entertainer without star power or they know that a Dulquer Salmaan or a Fahad Fasil will be willing to accept the challenge of newer characters.

Add to this the command over cinema craft the makers display so often. Malayalam cinema today depends a lot on ‘long take’ for instance. From “Angamaly Diaries” to “Nayattu” most film s depend on the long take or ‘plan sequences’ as we call them. These shots are in complete contrast to those horrendous steady-cam shots so fashionable in poor films. Even Spielberg falls a prey to them in “The Post”. Here they work as well thought of narrative tool. The conservative approach to shot taking has been long abandoned by the new generation filmmakers. It may yet be a mixed bag, but Malayalam cinema has problems that are nice to have. Which are to have more innovative scripts and ways and means of avoiding the pitfalls the films still have. It is a problem of plenty, where the creative juices need harnessing, a much better place to be in than struggling with how to regurgitate the same old formulae.

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