Looking back at Indian film in 2017, it seems clear that the year belonged to Malayalam cinema. Two films from Kerala—Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Angamaly Diaries and Dileesh Pothan’s Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum—were amongst the year’s best, and would have featured on more top 10 lists if it were humanly possible to keep up with all the different language cinemas of India. Director Mahesh Narayan debuted with the tense Take Off (available on Hotstar), about the rescue of Indian nurses held by ISIS in Iraq, an incident which also formed the basis for the execrable Salman Khan starrer Tiger Zinda Hai. And the year ended strong with Aashiq Abu’s Mayaanadhi, which released on 22 December to excellent reviews.
The Kerala film community was also the one pushing the establishment, testing boundaries. Sanal Sasidharan’s festival indie S Durga (original title: Sexy Durga) was the year’s most controversial film after Padmavat, thanks to the Central Board of Film Certification—which asked for multiple cuts—and the International Film Festival of India, which dropped the title after announcing it as part of the festival lineup. The Malayalam film community rallied behind Sasidharan, with Rajeev Ravi, Aashiq Abu, Pellissery, Pothan, Geethu Mohandas, Ajithkumar B., Anwar Ali and others signing a petition protesting the exclusion of the film. And it was a Kerala institution—the Kodungallur Film Society—which filed a petition in the Supreme Court to recall its controversial November 2016 judgement that made the playing of the national anthem mandatory in cinema halls.
Angamaly Diaries (available on DVD) opened in Kerala in March, and through unusually strong word of mouth, played in isolated screenings in cities across the country. A kinetic film about small-town hooligans in Angamaly in Ernakulum, Kerala, Pellissery’s fifth feature had a tapestry reminiscent of Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund’s City Of God, but soaked in local colour, slang and food, with a gallows humour all its own. A breathtaking 11-minute unbroken take capped it all, but one of the biggest compliments one could pay this film is that, even without the shot, Angamaly Diaries would have been the most visually and sonically dazzling cinematic experience of 2017.
Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (available on Hotstar)—quiet, sly, measured— could not be more different on the surface from Angamaly Diaries. Yet, it is, in its own way, just as audacious, building from a straightforward incident of chain-snatching and adding detail upon detail until the moral complexity attains a level of uncommon richness. Fahadh Faasil (who’s also in Take Off ) gives a mercurial performance as the fatalistic chain-snatcher, and director Pothan and cinematographer Rajeev Ravi continue the unfussy style that one historically associates with Malayalam cinema. Its excoriation of small-town police work and the way its narrative hinges on the intersection of crime and destiny brings to mind Vetrimaaran’s Visaranai—albeit a far more easy-going (though no less empathetic) experience than the 2015 Tamil release which was India’s Oscar entry and arguably the best film of the year.
Ravi, best known for his partnership with Anurag Kashyap (Dev.D, Gangs Of Wasseypur), is from Kochi, Kerala. In addition to shooting Thondimuthalum, he directed the atmospheric 2016 neo-noir Kammatti Paadam, his third Malayalam film. “For the next five years you should see interesting films come out of Kerala,” he says over the phone. “We lost our way in the 1990s, copying Tamil, Telugu cinema. Now that we’re making original stories, looking at whatever is happening around, we’re back to making good films.”
With a roster that includes Adoor Gopalakrishnan, G. Aravindan, John Abraham and Shaji N. Karun, Malayalam cinema has always had a tradition of quality—an idea of which might be gained from the fact that it follows Bengali (22) and Hindi (14) with 11 wins for National Award for Best Feature Film. Where these recent films perhaps deviate from this lineage is in their accessibility to the multiplex, rather than the festival, viewer (not that Kerala audiences are resistant to a little art cinema).
With a crop of talented actors (Faasil, Nivin Pauly, Parvathy, Dulquer Salmaan), boundary-pushing directors like Pellissery and Sasidharan, and a willingness to seek out rooted, resonant stories, Malayalam cinema is where it all seems to be happening. Unsurprisingly, Bollywood has come knocking: Parvathy starred opposite Irrfan Khan in Qarib Qarib Singlle last year, and Salmaan is making his Hindi film debut with Akash Khurana’s Karwaan. Pauly will star in the Malayalam-Hindi Moothon by Geethu Mohandas, director of Liar’s Dice, India’s official Oscar entry for 2014. And, according to Ravi, there’s a palpable energy now in the industry. “I worked there (Kerala) after a long time,” Ravi says of shooting Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum. “There is excitement, and the market is opening up. It’s a good scene.”