What worked, and what didn't, in Malayalam cinema this year?
Last Updated: 03.20 PM, Dec 15, 2022
This column was originally published in the December 7 edition of our newsletter, The Daily Show. Subscribe here to read more content like this. We won't ever spam your inbox!
LET'S START WITH the good news. Malayalam cinema and audiences have finally embraced the viability and possibilities of OTT. But the not-so-good news is that it hasn’t really raised the bar when it comes to producing good content. On the contrary, it has led to a deluge of mediocre films tailored for the OTT space. The industry talk is that digital buyers are not keen on small-budget Malayalam films and are vying for big-budget theatre releases now. In such uncertain times, what really worked this year in Malayalam cinema?
Compelling narratives for superstars, not mindless potboilers
In Amal Neerad’s Bheeshma Parvam (a clever retelling of the Godfather and the Mahabharata), Mammootty’s Michael is a flawed hero with a saviour complex. His dialogues are succinct, the pauses and eye contact deliberate. That Michael’s imposing presence looms in the backdrop never takes the focus away from the other characters of the film. Sure, he gets those classy low-angle slow-mo frames dedicated to larger-than-life heroes, but Michael is just part of the larger narrative in Bheeshma Parvam. When he is injured and realises he needs to retire, he passes the baton on to the next generation.
Compare that to an Aarattu and Monster that paid obeisance to Mohanlal as the larger-than-life alpha male hero of both films. Lal’s characters in both films are indomitable punchline-spouting epitomes of virility who can make women shiver with a look, knock out evil guys with ease, and save a village in their spare time. Not only is the execution a throwback to action films from the early 2000s, but also, the narratives are stale and regressive with double-entendre dialogues uttered nonchalantly by the hero. That a large number of young moviegoers called out the sexual innuendos in Monster shows that such films have clearly overstayed their welcome in Malayalam cinema.
And fans of Mammootty and Mohanlal are certainly not averse to their favourite stars pushing the envelope in terms of genres, milieu and characters. Mammootty’s Puzhu and Rorschach were appreciated as he had the courage to go against the grain, with nary a thought to his superstardom.
Experimental themes, well-made films
As a story there isn’t much one can find in Khalid Rahman’s Thallumala. Set in North Malabar and revolving around two social media influencers, Rahman’s out-of-box execution never bothers to hide Thallumala’s irreverence. It’s original, snazzy and echoes the frivolity of a social media-obsessed generation. It’s also spectacularly entertaining, making it to the list of 2022’s winners. Similarly Nisam Basheer’s Rorschach, despite having a familiar theme, stuns you with its execution, staging and characters. There are characters streaked in grey, in a narrative that keeps spinning in circles while urging you to make your own interpretations.
Another film with a leading man whose nastiness knows no bounds is Abhinav Sunder Nayak's Mukundan Unni Associates.
Or take Dear Friend, a simple, intimate story of a group of friends who live in Bangalore and are there for each other through every major life milestone. But it all comes crashing down when one of the group, Vinod, disappears. It’s meditative, open-ended, and keeps coming back to you. While the film failed to sustain itself even for a week in theatres, it found its audience on OTT. Clearly, that’s one of the blessings of OTT.
P for Patriarchy
This year saw several dark horses reaching the finish line. Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, for instance, was never in the race but its theme — of a young bride besting her abusive spouse in a thrilling Taekwondo bout — got a thumbs up from families. Despite its idealistic approach, the film’s reception hints at an evolved audience that is welcoming of such stereotype-busting narratives.
Similarly, Palthu Janwar — the coming-of-age journey of a young livestock inspector — shows that the audience loops on characters, situations and themes they are able to identify with. Ditto for Nna Thaan Case Kodu.
Jeo Baby, who stunned us with The Great Indian Kitchen, once again underlines the inadequacies of men and their entitlement in Sree Dhanya Catering Service. It’s a wafer-thin plot — a bunch of men get together to make biryani for a birthday party at home, against the backdrop of booze, conversation and dance. The conversations, however, are hilariously impromptu, with characters who are as annoying as they are relatable. Despite women just lingering in the backdrop, the film makes a powerful statement against patriarchy.
M for Marketing
It was Dulquer Salmaan who showed the way by stretching the marketing topographies beyond the state with his multilingual Kurup. True, he already had a fanbase outside Kerala and Malayalam cinema was also getting an audience outside the state owing to the OTT boom. So the promotions of Kurup started with obscure local online portals that saw the actor making a 10-minute appearance. The film reached the interiors of Kerala via old-fashioned loudspeakers and wall posters, and Dulquer later travelled to major cities to put out the word. It brought into the theatres an audience that had been reluctant to step out following the pandemic.
Now marketing is a serious business in Malayalam cinema and irrespective of the budget or stars, they are coming out with innovative and quirky ways to market their films. Stars are no longer picky about only giving interviews to reputed publications and news channels and happily invest their time in local online portals and gamely face queries that vacillate between silly, academic and fun. They knew on which side their bread is buttered.
Controversies and moral code
Producer-actor Vijay Babu and Liju Krishna (director of Nivin Pauly’s Padavettu) were accused of sexual abuse, leading to much outrage and social media discourse. Though the accusations really didn’t hinder either of them in a major way (AMMA supported Vijay Babu, and Liju Krishna was bailed out after his arrest; their films too made it to the theatres), it is of course interesting that post-MeToo, such morality codes, while still ambiguous, are being dissected and discussed today. Hopefully the Internal Complaints Committee (ICC) will set up a safe working atmosphere for women in cinema. Senna Hedge’s 1744 White Alto, produced by Kabini Films, was the first to form an ICC this year.
Getting political correctness wrong
Jana Gana Mana is a classic example of how cinematic discussions based on political correctness (rather than rooted in conviction) wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny. Everything about this film reeked of dishonesty, with the makers embracing every single activism hashtag prevalent on social media, to bolster their poor script. While there are desperate attempts to capture the communal friction in the country, the execution is so graceless and preachy that the film flounders under the weight of its own deceit.
Puzhu, despite a stellar performance from Mammootty, often falls short when it tries to address caste politics and Islamophobia; the culprit in this case is the superficial writing. Meanwhile, the Vijay Sethupathy-Nithya Menen film 19(1)(a) suffered despite its noble intentions as neither its politics nor its execution could boast of lucidity or nuance.
Even as filmmakers and writers are showing more sensitivity to representation, gender, politics and misogyny, there is also a disturbing tendency to create art just for the sake of slacktivism. Thankfully such layers of dishonesty are more evident than before.
Inertia of the old guard
Be it Shaji Kailas who made the action potboiler Kaduva with a hero who was a throwback to all his alpha male heroes of yore; or Sibi Malayil with his Kotthu; or Joshiy with Paappan; or K Madhu with CBI: The Brain, what’s notable is how the older guard has been unable to shift their aesthetics or rationale according to the changing grammar of cinema. Even though some of these films got an audience (CBI worked purely for nostalgia maybe), it doesn’t take away the reality that they are out-of-step with the times.
Word of mouth for the win
Despite the marketing, stars, or experimental themes, eventually what works in Malayalam cinema is good old word of mouth publicity. True, superstars will continue to bring in the initial crowds but their staying power entirely depends on the content.