Metamorphosis of Modern Malayalam Cinema

P. Akash tracks the revolutionary growth of Malayalam Cinema.

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Illustration by Shristi Roy

After years of carrying out their on-again, off-again love story, Maathan (Tovino Thomas)  and Apu (Aishwarya Lekshmi) finally consummate their relationship in Aashiq Abu's Mayaanadhi (2017). As they lie in bed together reveling in the aftermath, Apu says, "Sex is not a promise." Although it sounds a bit on-the-nose, the fact that a character in a regional language movie says it, speaks volumes about how far Malayalam cinema has come.

As a child, although I watched a fair number of Bollywood and English movies, the ones that really stuck with me were from Malayalam cinema. Perhaps it was the dialogues, the settings, which represented a place and a language that I inherently understood. Or it may have been our moustached, pot-bellied actors and saree-clad women, who were similar to the people I grew around. Cinema may be universal, but Malayalam cinema was relatable.

According to popular definition, an auteur "is an artist, usually a film director, who applies a highly centralized and subjective control to many aspects of a collaborative creative work; in other words, a person equivalent to an author of a novel or a play." The auteur theory, which originated in the French cinema of the 1960s, put forward the theory that the director is the only major creative force of a film. Cinema being a highly collaborative medium, the theory is much disputed in modern cinema analysis. But, it still holds a significant amount of importance when viewing the work of a filmmaker and how his/her style took hold and evolved through their careers.

A similar sense of authorship has taken over modern Malayalam cinema in the last decade. The terminology has little to do with any generational comparisons, but more with the actual quality of storytelling. The filmmakers who are a part of this movement are storytellers. To them  the scripts and stories are the thing; they do not rely on star power to carry their films. This kind of film has exploded in the last two or three years as Malayalam cinema has been dishing out one great movie after another. "The age of the filmmakers who shot on celluloid got replaced by the new and young filmmakers who had digital resources at their disposal, and they made good use of it", says Vishal Menon, a movie critic at Film Companion.

Place matters in these movies. The local and the specific take precedence over the exotic. In Dileesh Pothan's Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016), the quaint old town of Idukki acts as a secondary character in the story, with the characters speaking and looking as if they've spent their whole lives ingrained in this particular culture. The script is also an example of how filmmakers have started prioritizing characters over plots. The title–Prathikaram means ‘revenge’ or ‘retaliation’--sounds like that of a standard potboiler in which the ‘hero’ takes revenge for the evil done unto him. Instead, the person who has done Mahesh (Fahadh Faasil) wrong is nowhere to be found. The story then becomes about the characters in that particular place and time rather than an oversimplified and outlandish revenge saga. Pothan's debut film was so distinctive that it was just an augury of what was to come next.

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Angamaly Diaries (2017)

Source: Google

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Lijo Jose Pellissery's Angamaly Diaries (2017) opens with literally a travelogue of Angamaly and its culture and people, dropping us right in the middle, as the filmmakers tell us where we and the characters are going to spend the remaining two hours. It is a rollicking film that never pauses for breath. Pellissery doesn't dwell too much on plot devices, placing more emphasis on the characters and the troubles that they have entangled themselves in. Angamaly Diaries was highly acclaimed not just in Kerala, but in other regions as well. The most attractive attribute of it is the brashness of the filmmaking style employed by Pellissery. This brashness could be defined as a disregard for the visual grammar that the average Malayali film lover has been used to. Handheld cinematography, extremely long takes and rhythmic editing were some of the ingenious techniques used by Pellissery and his team. The film is appropriately violent and sombre when it needs to be. And, it culminates in a breathtaking eleven-minute-long take which is so audacious that it tends to become unbelievable.

Sreehari Nair, a film critic at Rediff who has closely monitored and analyzed the last decade in Malayalam cinema, feels that the preceding decade of movies may also have had an impact on the current filmmaking scenario. "For the longest time I have believed that Malayalam Cinema slipped in the 2000s not because it stopped doing what it did in the late 1980s and early 1990s, but because it failed to improve on the celebrated films of that era. The Malayalam New Wave of the last decade was built partly on respect and partly on indignation," says Nair.

Mayaanadhi (2017)

Source: Google

The tone of a film is a central aspect of the storytelling. Very few filmmakers are able to master this through the course of their careers. This mastery is very much evident in the aforementioned Mayaanadhi. Aashiq Abu is one of the senior-most members of this New-Gen movement as he began his career with films like Salt n Pepper (2011), Da Thadiya (2012), and many others. In fact, most of the new filmmakers in the Malayalam industry are ones who have served as Assistant Directors on many of Abu's previous films. It would not be wrong to call him a forefather of this particular movement. Mayaanadhi is Abu's towering achievement, even if it was described as a romantic thriller in the promotion material. Although there's an inferior crime story that threatens to derail the audience's interest, the film soars when it returns to Maathan and Apu, brilliantly portrayed by Tovino Thomas and Aishwarya Lekshmi. There's pain evident in every frame of this movie as it charts a few decisive days in the couple's lives. There's a tendency in Malayalam cinema to go overboard with broad comedy, which is luckily nowhere present in Mayaanadhi. Abu inherently understands the core of this story which is the strained relationship between these two broken characters and goes about exploring and analyzing it in greater detail.

These new filmmakers are not afraid of getting political. For ages, Malayalam popular cinema has been defined by a saccharine storytelling, whose biggest goal was to reveal the inherent goodness of people. This kind of cinema had a very narrow definition of heroes and villains while proceeding to tell stories about "good" people. These were the so-called family entertainers. The new crop of filmmakers emerging in Kerala do not pay much heed to this mode of cinema, as they fill the screen with highly immoral characters. And, politics also plays an important role in this. A film like Rajeev Ravi's Kammattipadam (2016), although highly flawed in its narrative and visual structure - mainly the tight closeups and rushed ending - is a probing examination of class division in Kochi. It also involves a detailed portrayal of the Pulayar community, a sect of people who have not been given their due in Malayalam cinema. Kammattipadam cannot be described as a masterpiece, but the fact that it studies these communities so thoroughly should be highly commended. The movie looks at the blood that was spilled amongst people, the poor and disadvantaged, to build the modern metropolis that Kochi has now become. It also ends with a symbolic shot of the Kochi skyscape as if paying tribute to the unknown and forgotten martyrs of this catastrophic change.

There's a certain improvised quality in the movies being made in the industry. It can be described as a certain sense of looseness, as filmmakers feel free to experiment with both - form and content. "In the best Malayalam films being made today, you can sense filmmakers discovering films in the process of making them. There are a lot of “found things” in a film like Angamaly Diaries. Certain aspects of the landscape, certain facets of characters, a way of looking at faces", says Nair.

Sudani from Nigeria (2018) is one of the examples of that sense of that aforementioned looseness. Although inherently a feel-good movie, it concerns itself with a number of issues and conflicts not often explored in modern Indian cinema. It turns the clichéd sports drama genre inside out, studying why we love them the way we do. It also looks at an issue like the refugee crisis and the highly complicated red tape that is involved in it. Majid and Samuel, two nice but highly complex characters, are not connected by their language or cultures, but by their shared love for the sport of soccer. It becomes more melancholic when that particular sport is soccer, an underfunded but vastly loved sport in India. The movie also makes time to look at the anti-black racism that is prevalent in India, which is not something I thought I would ever say about a Malayalam film. Written and directed by newcomer Zakariya, Sudani is a film for the ages.

Menon also feels that Kerala's rich film history and culture may also have played a part in the current renaissance in cinema. "The New Wave that we talk about now had already happened in the late 1970s and early 1980s when filmmakers like Adoor Gopalakrishnan and M. T. Vasudevan Nair began their careers. These directors were heavily influenced by Satyajit Ray and the neorealism that he portrayed in his work," says Menon.

"It has to", says Nair, when queried about Kerala's film history and its influence. "The fact of our mainstream films having long scenes and long takes in which you see real energy flowing back and forth between actors is a result of our parallel cinema culture which had taken such chances with the audience and succeeded."

Maheshinte Prathikaram proved that Pothan had the ability to wring poetry even from dire situations. Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017) takes that theory and explores it further. Set mostly in the confines of a police station in the dry land of Kasargode, it is a fascinating story of the societal structures we built around ourselves. That division of structures is present everywhere in the movie; from the intercaste relationship between Prasad and Sreeja, to the strained camaraderie between the various police officers. Written by novelist Sajeev Pazhoor, Thondimuthalum moves with the lyricism and scope of a novel providing us with shady and immoral characters, none more interesting than the character of Prasad, played by Fahadh Faasil. Setting the story in the arid land of Kasargode proves to be a masterstroke, as the dryness and emptiness complement the emotional tribulations of the characters involved. And, what characters! From the unnamed thief (Fahadh Faasil) to the police officer with a complicated past (Alencier Ley Lopez), Pothan looks at everyone with a level of sympathy that makes the viewer hope that everyone involved gets away with no harm done. But, in the world of Dileesh Pothan, characters always have to face what's coming to them.

Pothan is one of the shining lights of this current renaissance. "The standout quality is his sense of balance and proportion", says Nair. "Just to cite one example, in the interval scene in Thondimuthalum, I loved that bit where Suraj runs toward Nimisha, and she takes the air out of his enthusiasm with a piercing look. And then, when Fahadh smiles at the couple, you see in them not anger, but a jokey connection they now share with this two rupee thief. It takes a real artist to construct a scene like that."

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Ee. Ma. Yau (2018)

Source: Google

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Death has always fascinated me. In movies and in real life. Among the high-pitched wailing and screaming when a death takes place, I have always felt a sense of morbidity lurking between the lines. That particular sense of morbidity is present in every frame of Pellissery's Ee. Ma. Yau. (2018). A pitch-black comedy surrounding the death of an old man shines a light on the various complications that arise after a death has taken place. Filled with dozens of colourful characters, it looks at a son, Eeshi (Chemban Vinod Jose, writer of Angamaly Diaries) as he attempts to provide an appropriate funeral for his departed father. He is thwarted by the local priest, thwarted by the nurses and doctors, thwarted by the coffin maker and Pellissery is there at every turn to capture the utter hopelessness of Eeshi and his friend Ayyappan, as they go door-to-door, from shops to money lenders, asking for a little help. The overcast skies and ominous atmosphere looms over every character in the movie as if it knows that they are doomed. There are scenes in Ee. Ma. Yau. that will make the viewer wonder whether to laugh or sympathize with the plight of everyone involved. Filled with his signature long takes and crowded scenes, the movie also confirms Pellissery as one of the most exciting filmmakers working today.

One of the unheralded members of this New Malayalam cinema is none other than Syam Pushkaran. The scribe of movies like Salt n Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam (2012), and Maheshinte and Mayaanadhi, Pushkaran has a style that creeps up on you until you won't know what hit you. One of the best dialogue writers in India, his scripts are filled with complex characters and modern themes that make these movies completely different from any other mainstream regional cinema. One of his primary achievements has been his creation of fully realized female characters. women who have a life of their own, who are not just defined by the men in their lives.

Kumbalangi Nights (2019)

Source: Google

Pushkaran achieved his career peak with Kumbalangi Nights (2019), a scathing look at Indian toxic masculinity. Set in the idle islet of Kumbalangi, it is an unexpectedly introspective look at what makes a man a man. Pushkaran creates characters of such complexity that it is difficult not to marvel at his skills as a screenwriter. Examples include Babu (Baburaj) in Salt N' Pepper, Maathan (Tovino Thomas) in Mayanadhi, Tessa (Rima Kallingal) in 22 Female Kottayam. These characters were the types of people seldom seen on the Malayalam screen. There are unconventional themes that Pushkaran wrestles with; for example, a character (Soubin Shahir) , after a life-changing incident declares, "I am not able to cry. Help me", through a caged window. In a matter of minutes, Pushkaran throws light on the taboo topic of mental health in our society and how we deal with it. His scripts are uproariously funny too, as the aforementioned scene culminates with the character crying resting his head on the paunch of a therapist. The movie also cements Shahir (star of Sudani from Nigeria), a brilliant talent who got his start in the industry doing comic roles, as a dramatic powerhouse. And, Fahadh, portraying the delicious role of Shammi, proves himself a thespian, an actor with currently no match in the country.

"It's really inspiring when the kind of stories that you are interested in–realistic and human–get the kind of love and recognition audiences would demonstrate for populist mainstream movies. It's empowering in a way," says Midhun Thomas, a young Malayali filmmaker who has recently graduated from the Satyajit Ray Film & Television Institute. "The last few years in Malayalam cinema has really driven people like me and my film school colleagues to focus on the stories that we actually want to tell rather than wait for a wider public appreciation."

There's a perception in the Western media that Indian cinema is equal to Bollywood cinema. But since the last few years, the Malayalam film industry has been comfortably and courageously breaking that perception at every single stage. We are fortunate that we are able to witness these filmmakers experiment with form and story at a time when mainstream cinema has begun to pander to a wide audience. They are not just content with providing us politically correct, family entertainers, but rather with real and complex takes on stories that look at and study the human condition. And well, with such an impressive strike rate, Malayalam cinema has nowhere to go but up!