The Great Indian Malayalam Cinema!

In the last few days, I have been prompted by a few friends to watch Kuruthi, a Malayalam film which was released on Amazon Prime two weeks ago.  The interesting part is, most of those who gave this recommendation are Non Keralites. I just managed to watch this film yesterday and before I could post “My Flash Review”TM as usual, I have already started getting recommendation for another film – #Home, again a Malayalam film that has just released on OTT this weekend. Malayalam cinema has never had it so good.

It’s not been like that always. Back in the 70s and 80s in Tamil Nadu, where I was growing up, Malayalam films had a ring of notoriety attached to them. Invariably, a Malayalam padam meant a shady, crass, soft porn film with a typical target audience in mind and any talk of Malayalam films was met with naughty giggles. So much so, even “normal” Malayalam films were packaged as films with erotic content and some fancy titles and released in other states. Interestingly, such films found more takers in other states than Kerala itself.

If my memory serves me right, the reason for Malayalam films that time getting this infamous image was I.V.Sasi’s Avalode Raavugal which hit the screens in 1978. The film’s story line centred on a sex worker and her relationship with three men in her life.  For that time and era, it was considered to be an extremely bold theme and the film was duly released with an “A” certificate. The film was a phenomenal success in Kerala and catapulted I.V. Sasi to a film maker of repute in Malayalam cinema.

The film got dubbed and released in other languages like Tamil at a time when Tamil films were pre-dominantly dealing with family drama and associated sentiments. Though the film actually dealt with a social evil, the overt theme and the bold narrative of Avalin Iravugal in Tamil created almost an indelible image for Malayalam films in TN as a repertoire of sleaze.

This at a time when in reality, Malayalam cinema was boasting of some fine film makers like Aravindan, Adoor Gopalakrishnan, Padmarajan and the like.  Somehow their films were bracketed as “Art films” which could be watched only on Sunday afternoons on Doordarshan, when other language (Non Hindi) films used to be telecast in turn. Mostly the films chosen were of the Award winning variety and I remember watching films Elipathayam and dozing off in a few minutes. I.V.Sasi went on to make some mainstream films like Ee Naadu, America America etc. which became super hits at the Box office. Even then, outside of Kerala, I.V.Sasi was the original master of sleaze!  So, in the 80’s, the image of Malayalam cinema swung between two extremes – being “Slow and Arty” on one end and being “Sleazy” on the other end. As an avid follower of Malayalam cinema then, which had just seen the blossoming of Mammootty and Mohanlal in some outstanding mainstream films, it was difficult to convince my friends in TN of the superior quality of Malayalam films.  Invariably they were denigrated as “Mallu padams”.

All this started changing for the good in my opinion, with a film titled Oru CBI Diary Kurippu. Headlined by Mammootty, this film was released as it is (without dubbing) in Safire theatre in Chennai and other cities of TN. This is way back in 1988/89. The film got a huge positive response and I guess the distributors and theatre owners made a killing in the process. Soon, Safire would become the go to place for mainstream Malayalam films (and incidentally Hindi films too, later). So, popular Malayalam films which became hits in Kerala, soon found their way to theatres in TN and soon to other South Indian states as well.  This phase where super hit films of Mammootty and Mohanlal like August 1,  Manu Uncle, Chithram, Vandanam etc. got good response in TN helped immensely to erase the original image of Malayalam films as “Art films” or “Shady films”.

I vividly remember when Uncle Bun, a Mohanlal starrer in which he was seen as an obese character was released in Chennai, huge cut outs were erected in front of Safire theatre just like it used to be for Tamil stars like Rajinikanth, Vijayakanth et al.  Mainstream Malayalam Cinema and Malayalam stars had arrived.

Which takes us to the “Massification”TM phase of Malayalam cinema. The subsequent years in the 90’s and 00’s saw the mass hero cult from Tamil cinema being copied and pasted in Malayalam cinema. Actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal who, in my opinion are among the All-time Top actors Indian cinema has ever seen, moved from being real on screen to being larger than life, closely aping their brethren in Tamil and Telugu industries. So, mass hero entry scenes, frequent slow motion effects, loud punch dialogues, low angle shots and all that jazz became staple features in Malayalam films too.  In a sense from the halcyon days of Elipathayam (Mouse Trap), Malayalam cinema fell into “Mass Trap”!  And coincidentally in this phase, I was sort of out of touch with Malayalam films due to lack of access to them in locations where I was based for work then.

Luckily, in the last few years I must say that Malayalam cinema has got back its mojo. Particularly, post the pandemic driven lock down and with the burst of OTT as a platform, film lovers not just from Kerala or from South India, but from other regions, have discovered the depth of Malayalam cinema.  Of course, Social Media has played a crucial role in amplification of the quality of Malayalam cinema, not to forget the role of Sub titles.  So, when the sequel of Drishyam was released few months ago, not just Malayalis, but people all over were raving about it.

And in this phase of Malayalam cinema, if there is one actor who has emerged as the shining star, it is undoubtedly Fahadh Faasil.  He has been consistently focussing on content in his films so far and has not shied away from bank rolling some unconventional scripts like Trance or C U Soon.  And it’s now good to see other stars like Prithviraj Sukumaran following his footsteps to back good script based projects even if they are risky at the outset.

The film Kuruthi, which I referred to in the beginning, is one such film.  Apart from being a part of the cast, Prithviraj has also produced this film which is a social commentary on today’s sharply seen social divide based on religion. I doubt if such a film will see the light of the day in any other language.  But then, of late in Malayalam films, we have seen that film makers have been willing to take up touchy topics which are of course prevalent in the society. Films like Trance which talks about commercialisation of religion or Sufiyum Sujatayum which has Hindu-Muslim love angle or what is now called as Love Jihad as the central theme, have become quite common in Malayalam cinema.

A film like The Great Indian Kitchen which doesn’t boast of a mega star cast has found resonance across the country purely by the strength of the subject.  The point is, such films are now being regularly made in Malayalam, watched and being hailed by critics and people alike all over the country. That’s why today, even if I don’t follow the new releases, I am sure, I will be duly prompted by some of my Non-Mallu friends who have already caught up with it, to watch the same.

Malayalam Cinema has now truly transcended all boundaries and become “The Great Indian Malayalam Cinema”! And talking about Malayalam Cinema do not draw the impish smiles these days. I.V.Sasi will Rest In eternal Peace.