Home >Industry >Media >Substance over style: Malayalam cinema’s new mojo

New Delhi: Ujwal H has just finished watching two films back-to-back in the theatre. But even with a runtime of nearly two-and-a-half hours each, investigative thriller Oru Kuprasidha Payyan and drama thriller Joseph hasn’t left him exhausted.

“The thing about Malayalam cinema right now is that there is no single-point agenda to have a hero and heroine dance around trees, or one man beat up an entire army. Stories are topical and there is no formula," the 49-year old Thiruvananthapuram-based LIC administrative officer said. Joseph, for instance, is an unfiltered take on organ trafficking, while Oru Kuprasidha Payyan is based on a true story of the murder of an elderly woman in Kozhikode. Ujwal has grown up watching Malayalam superstars like Mohanlal and Mammootty, but is much more charmed by the contemporary, slice-of-life tales today. His favourites being the movies of actors like Tovino Thomas, Nivin Pauly, and Fahadh Faasil.

“It can’t be a one-man show anymore," he says.

Ujwal’s take is an apt reflection of the recent churn in Malayalam cinema—an industry that with only about 150-200 films per year is fast emerging as the most exciting, progressive movie space in the country. To put it in context, B. Ajithkumar’s Eeda, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet, Lijo Jose Pellisery’s crime drama Angamaly Diaries, and Dileesh Pothen’s family drama Thondimuthalum Dhriksakshiyum—among countless others—are only the most recent examples of an industry churning out some of the most revolutionary film projects in the country at the moment. The whole renaissance moment has been labeled as the New Wave.

“Flowing from a history that cultivated cinematic aesthetes who value form over content, and disdain the low-brow mass hysteria of other film industries, the New Wave in Kerala filmdom would rather let cinema rule over celebrity," theatre artiste and film writer Parshathy Nath wrote in a piece in The Hindu.

The transition

But the New Wave was far from a certainty even a decade ago. While even its oldest surviving superstars, Mohanlal and Mammootty, were known for rooted and realistic cinema at the beginning of their careers—with films like Bharatham (1991), Devaasuram (1991) and Amaram (1991) standing out as examples—the period from the late 1990s to the early years of the 2000s was different for the Malayalam movie industry, and not pleasantly so.

“Malayalam cinema was never into the whole superstar thing—like Hindi, Tamil or Telugu," said filmmaker Bejoy Nambiar. “I used to take pride in the fact that we loved our actors, but never idolized them like in other states. But the late 1990s and early 2000s were a confused and complex phase of trial-and-error in Malayalam cinema, where nobody knew what was working and a lot of people were aping what was happening in the Tamil, Telugu and Hindi industries," he added. As actors like Lal grew out of their self-cultivated images, and repetitive-seeming outings like Ravanaprabhu (2001) and Aaraam Thampuran (1997) started falling flat on their faces, the Malayalam industry was in need of a renaissance.

“With superstars, many filmmakers had to make narratives that would gel with their super-human images," said film critic and documentary maker C.S. Venkiteswaran. “That mould has been broken by new filmmakers; young people who actually brought in a focus on different kinds of worlds and ordinary lives," he said.

The change, S. Durga director Sanal Kumar Sasidharan says came about around 2011 with director Rajesh Pillai’s Traffic—a multi-narrative thriller centered around the idea of an organ transplant for a comatose boy—that is regarded as one of the first defining films of the new wave in Malayalam cinema, which is now beginning to be recognized across the country and even the world. Soon enough, a host of young filmmakers came in— Aashiq Abu (Salt N’ Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam, Mayaanadhi), Lijo Jose Pellisery (Amen, Angamaly Diaries, Ee.Ma.Yau), and Dileesh Pothen (Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Thondimuthalum Dhriksakshiyum). So did actors like Dulquer Salmaan (Ustad Hotel, Bangalore Days, Kammatipaadam), Fahadh Faasil (22 Female Kottayam, Maheshinte Prathikaaram, Thondimuthalum Dhriksakshiyum) and Parvathy (Ennu Ninte Moideen, Take Off, Poo).

“The films by directors like Sathyan Anthikad and Sreenivasan in the 1980s and 90s had limitations because they wanted to appease the crowd that came from a conservative society," said Sasidharan. “Now, people like Aashiq Abu and Dileesh Pothen don’t care about society because they understand there is a crowd that is accepting changes that have been brought about by film society and festival discussions over years...," he added.

Business modalities

Ironically, the small size of Kerala as a state and the Malayalam film market has worked wonders for it. For one, there are no corporate studios backing Malayalam films but only private producers and financiers. So, unlike Bollywood or the Tamil and Telugu industries, their budgets are unlikely to run into hundreds of crores. While Rajinikanth’s recent Tamil-Hindi bilingual 2.0 cost its makers close to 500 crore, the most expensive Malayalam film (Nivin Pauly’s epic period drama Kayamkulam Kochunni) was made for 40 crore. Other movies have sprung up for even less— Venkiteswaran said the budget for some films made by directors like Sudevan and Sasidharan would not even suffice for a single song in a Tamil movie.

“The unconventional themes come because of the budget. You can’t do action because there is no money. So, you can bring in the audience either by way of humour or story," said Mukesh Mehta of the Malayalam film production and distribution company E4 Entertainment.

New technologies have also made it easier to make films since every youngster can make films with just a digital camera. That has created a flood of young people entering the field. Which, in turn, has resulted in a host of fresh narratives. Angamaly Diaries, for example, is the coming-of-age story of a young man in a small Kerala town, set against the backdrop of gang rivalry and the pork trade.

“Now, we have what is known as new generation movies which are a bit more radical; speak about things like sexuality, gender, and relationships," said Muraleedharan Tharayil, professor of media and film studies, Chetana College of Media, Thrissur. “I don’t know if it can privilege Malayalam cinema as being better than others but it’s a reflection of a change in taste."

The absence of a macho hero (both Faasil and Salmaan have played extremely flawed, vulnerable characters. In Jomonte Suvisheshangal, the latter is the wayward son of a wealthy businessman who discovers himself) is another defining attribute of Malayalam movies these days. Most lead actors are currently working without an image that audiences may identify them with, but prefer to play more vulnerable, everyday, relatable characters.

“If you look closely, (after years of) dominance of two huge male stars, there is a vacuum (in Malayalam cinema, as far as the hero is concerned). The hero here is often impotent and hesitant," Venkiteswaran said. “Many of these are post superstar films, where you don’t have a hero."

Naturally then, the surroundings of the narrative become more important, since the way the plot unfolds is not centered on one person and doesn’t have to cater to his established image. In Annayum Rasoolum, Faasil plays a Muslim taxi driver in love with a Christian girl in Vypeen, an island in the vicinity of Kochi. A romantic film called Eeda, released in early 2018, was set against the backdrop of political violence in Kannur. These hyperlocal stories are a far cry from the semi-urban, upper-caste narratives that actors like Lal featured in, in the 1990s.

“One of the things that stands out (in Malayalam films today) is the stark realism that is a cross between Italian neorealism and the film noir," Tharayil said. Italian neorealism is a national film movement characterized by stories of poverty, oppression and injustice, filmed on location among the working class and often using non-professional actors (Angamaly Diaries, with its 86 debutantes, is an example). Film noir, on the other hand, is a cinematic term for stylish Hollywood crime dramas, especially those that emphasize cynical attitudes and sexual motivations.

“There are characters and situations which are very local and not at all glamorized. Besides, the new feminist and Dalit movements are leaving a very strong impact on the Malayalam industry," Tharayil said. “Suddenly, there are actors who will never find a place in any other language, because they are not (conventionally) glamorous. Fahadh Faasil, for example, is bald and short. The glamorous ones are all over the place, so perhaps, these people seem new."

There are other reasons for the filmmakers being able to attempt these new stories. The state doesn’t just have a history of movie clubs and film societies that provided ample space for discussion, the International Film Festival of Kerala held in Thiruvananthapuram since 1996 brings Malayalam, English and world cinema under one umbrella—exposing film buffs and content creators to more than they can imagine and helping newer narratives emerge. The high literacy in the state is coupled with the fact that it’s a self-contained, close-knit community speaking one language that looks forward to local stories and has limited likes and dislikes.

“One more advantage in the Malayalam movie industry is that piracy has been controlled thus far, unlike Tamil and Telugu, where the film is out on pirated platforms on day one," Mehta said.

Business-wise, Mehta said, Malayalam producers and distributors still bet on a long run in theatres and are not crazy about opening days and weekends. That could be because of the model in place. For Hindi films, the distributor-exhibitor share keeps changing throughout a film’s lifetime. In the first week of a movie’s run, the share is divided equally between the two, while in the second week, there is 60:40 divide in favour of the exhibitor, which changes to 70:30 in the third week. So, even if the film is running in its fourth week, the distributor doesn’t make much. Kerala that has around 400 screens and only 25 multiplexes makes most of its revenue from single screens, where the terms are different and collections continue to be equally divided. So, the producers are happy to let the film grow.

Challenges remain

However, the picture is not rosy all the way. For one, the hyperlocal nature of Malayalam movies is not always appealing. As overseas collections of Telugu films would show, there is a huge audience in the diaspora that laps up films made in the language and most of these are youngsters studying abroad. Apart from Baahubali 2: The Conclusion, Telugu films like Rangasthalam, Bharat Ane Nenu and Aravindha Sametha Veera Raghava have stormed the US and Australian box office, lately. “Malayalam producers and directors are not actually targeting the diaspora. Most films are too localized or niche," Venkiteswaran pointed out. While there have been some attempts like Dulquer Salmaan’s Comrade In America, a comedy-drama about a young communist who travels to the US for love, these are few and far between. Also, Malayalam films that are anyway dealing with limited recovery opportunities haven’t really been hit by the video streaming wave. While Netflix and Hotstar have a handful of Malayalam movies to offer, Amazon Prime Video hasn’t brought out a library at all.

“Online services are making inroads into non-Hindi cinema like Tamil, Telugu, and Kannada, but I think that churn will happen for Malayalam very soon. In the next one or two years, you will see direct-to-digital films being made. You just need that one big film to show the way," Nambiar said.

...and the #MeToo moment

Filmmakers in Malayalam cinema may have made attempts to project strong women characters on screen, but the gender imbalance in the working of the industry itself is rather stark. Even as the #MeToo movement stormed the country in 2018, the women’s collective in Kerala protested the reinstatement of actor Dileep’s membership in the Association of Malayalam Movie Artistes (AMMA). Dileep has been accused in the abduction and sexual assault case of a fellow actor in February 2017. He resigned from the association in the face of public opposition. Late last year, actor Mohanlal called #MeToo a passing fad, reiterating what many women in the Malayalam movie industry have emphasized for long—there is an ingrained, almost accepted nature to the existing patriarchal system.

“The collective is a response to the experience that all of us have faced as women in the industry and is our attempt to address the biased social thought and work culture that exists here," said filmmaker Anjali Menon, member of the WCC, referring to an entrenched ecosystem where men are not used to having women on a film set except as an actresses or in the hair department, and hence, given them very little say in the work process.

This, Menon said, has created a skewed power equation that lays the grounds for exploitation and discrimination of all kinds which is not acceptable anymore, especially considering that women are keenly working in many departments.

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