Malayalam cinema in introspective mode for creative independence
The murky incidents in Malayalam cinema have opened the opportunity for operation clean-up and greater creative freedom
By Deepa Gauri
Published: Mon 14 Aug 2017, 6:00 PM
Last updated: Mon 14 Aug 2017, 8:00 PM
This Independence Day, Malayalam cinema is set for a rather muted celebration. That is not because the 'stars' are any less patriotic.The alleged involvement of actor Dileep in an assault case against an actress, and the high-level probes that go not just into his wealth, but also that of the Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA), have rattled nerves.
The industry-wide fissures are more than evident. The first voice of dissent came from a newly formed body, the Women in Cinema Collective (WCC), spearheaded by strong-willed women, who are determined not to be cowed down by the prevailing patriarchal order of the industry.
WCC was formed after the relatively low-key response from authorities to the actor-assault case. While the first-accused was almost immediately nabbed, questions relating to a conspiracy that involved bigger names in the industry were initially sidelined. Exerting pressure on the government, WCC set in motion a renewed wave of detailed probing that led to the detainment of Dileep.
That was only the beginning of the exposé of the rot that had been steadily eating into the industry's operations.
While the past five years had witnessed a 'Malayalam cinema renaissance' under a group of young directors and actors, who were primarily led by a passion for cinema and a deeper understanding of the technology that drives the medium, the shackles of stardom were never really broken off.
It is only normal that the film industry will have its share of 'super-stars' who win the big bucks. But the multitude of associations and the underhand dealings that vested interests played against upcoming talents have been rather rampant in Malayalam.
For an industry where an Rs10 crore return would have been considered a bonus not many years ago, Malayalam cinema has transformed into a money machine in the past five years. The superb success of Mohanlal's Drishyam was the game changer.
The first film to cross the Rs50 crore milestone, Drishyam opened a never-before possibility of 'big bucks' for the industry. In the next years, Prithviraj clocked Rs100 crore with three back-to-back successes, and Nivin Pauly's Premam hit the box-office jackpot. A new reality now dawned in Malayalam cinema: That it could be more ambitious in its aspirations.
The Baahubali moment came with Mohanlal's Pulimurugan, and now there was no stopping it. Malayalam cinema could not have asked for a better time with outright commercial (even regressive) potboilers minting money and new-gen, sensible films reporting a fair chance at the box office.
This was underlined by the success of director Dileesh Pothan's Fahadh Faasil starrer Maheshinte Prathikaram, a dream-run that has now been repeated with their second film together, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum, as well as several smaller, not-overtly-commercial films.
The entire Malayalam film order thus went through a transformational change.
While at the apex, there is Mammootty and Mohanlal still lording over their territory, the second rung that belonged to actors such as Suresh Gopi, Jayaram and Dileep, was practically busted.
Dileep was luckier, and did manage to secure a few hits thanks to his mind-numbing comedy that appealed to women and children - a base that stands challenged in current circumstances.
The middle-to-top order now belongs to a fresh crop of talent - from Prithviraj and Fahadh Faasil to Nivin Pauly and Dulquer Salman. Giving them neck-to-neck competition are Jayasurya and the upstart Tovino Thomas (gunning for the big league), while Biju Menon carved his own inimitable space that is unaffected by none of the others - making him perhaps one of the real but underrated stars. Also in the run, and making their presence occasionally felt, are Kunchacko Boban and Asif Ali.
In some ways, this mirrors the transformation in Tamil cinema and Bollywood, where today there are many rungs of stars, each with their own fan bases, creating a truly eclectic industry, and where there is room for all, with the space getting bigger as you go up the star-ladder.
Not surprisingly, the male order shake-up in Malayalam is not overtly reflected in women. Apart from Manju Warrier, who can command a box office initial, there have been few names that steer box office hits, although the bold voice of Rima Kallingal stands out for her guts and gumption to challenge the industry's patriarchal prejudices.
It is in this context of transformation that Dileep's arrest came, shaking up the industry and polarising it into distinctive camps.
Senior actors had 'loss of face' moments as the upstarts called for a re-haul of AMMA. Several new generation filmmakers, led by their political leanings, fight against sexism, and their own box-office losses because distributorship issues, questioned the old order.
It was not just a pro- and anti-Dileep camp that came to play. The bigger problems that run through the industry, where nepotism still has a big say (look at all the star-kids, talented or not), is now a focal point of discussion.
Also on the spotlight is the business deals of the actors: From old to young, every one worth their two cents, ventures into film production, distribution and the works. The more industrious open hotels and restaurants; some invest in retail abroad; others go for real estate and most have realised that not everyone can last as long as 'superstars' Mammootty or Mohanlal do, so it is better to make some 'hay' while the sun shines.
And in Malayalam cinema, where loyalties run deep, it is not easy to take a stand or to bring about unprecedented change. This is evident in the studied silence of the young stars - who refuse to be drawn into any controversy and happily post their family photos and new stills on Facebook, as if oblivious to the industry clamour.
Furthermore, the new generation of 'stars' is more preoccupied with crossing-over into Tamil and Telugu cinema, which brings bigger pay checks and more recognition.
They are also venturing into 'big budget' extravaganzas with an eye for a wider market, even as funds flow in from Mumbai's studio houses and from Tamil cinema (with actor Dhanush financing two projects in Malayalam, both starring Tovino). There are also the mega-ambitious projects such as the INR1,000 crore cinematic spectacle of MT Vasudevan Nair's Randamoozham helmed by Mohanlal.
Business is already as usual: The big and small names are returning to their locations; new projects are being announced, and actors are trying desperately to make some noise of their new films amid the 'Dileep din.'
It should, therefore, come as no surprise that irrespective of the outcome of the Dileep trial, nothing of consequence might happen at AMMA or the industry.
With big money on the loose, it is impractical to think that the industry would become more transparent. Murky deals are part of cinema across the country.
And no matter what one says or hopes for, it is not just talent or blind luck that drives the industry.
We could be living in Utopia to think that every talented young one would find a turf in cinema and achieve overnight success.
We would be simplistic to assume that every small film will find a theatre and be well-appreciated.
We would be outright naïve to believe that social media would become fair to all.
The very least we can hope for, at least as we mark a nation's Independence from the shackles of bondage, would be that the industry would not be discriminatory, that women can work in cinema without fear of assaults and blackmails, and that young people - male or female - are not denied an opportunity, on whatever ground, provided they have the passion and talent.
Maybe, in the aftermath of all that is happening, Malayalam actors - old and young - can give that thought some consideration.