Malayalam cinema pushes its boundaries
Shane Nigam and Shruthy in Kismath
Malayalam cinema is on a new high with big-ticket commercial hits and path-breaking indie films, writes Deepa Gauri
Year 2017 opened on a low note for the Malayalam cinema with theatre owners playing spoilsport and delaying the release of Christmas films that ordinarily set the tempo for the New Year. While the crisis spilled over, an indie film, Kaadu Pookkunna Neram by Dr Biju made its theatrical release, and earned a fair share of profit.
This could be perceived as one's woes being another's gain. But from a bigger perspective, the fact that Kaadu Pookkunna Neram fetched theatre audiences is also a sign of how Malayalam cinema has evolved considerably in the past years.
Reminiscent of the golden era of the industry in the '80s and early '90s, when offbeat films such as Chidambaram, Vasthuhara and Anantharam opened to full houses, independent films, even those without any stellar star cast, are making a mark.
The tone was set in 2016 with a positive reception that films such as Ozhivu Divasathe Kali by Sanal Kumar Sasidharan, and Munroe Thuruthu directed by PS Manu, received in theatres. A key driver in this was social media, which now enables filmmakers to generate widespread publicity for their films, which otherwise was too cost-prohibitive for small-budget flicks.
Talking about new trends in the industry and for the support that indie films receive from other filmmakers, Sanal told Khaleej Times: "The camaraderie in the industry is absolutely encouraging. These are people who are confident of their work and their space in film. They do not feel threatened encouraging others."
The fact that there is room for acceptance and popularity for both big budget commercial entertainers and experimental films was further highlighted in the 'big news' of 2017 that actor Nivin Pauly is collaborating with director Geethu Mohandas for her film Moothon. The highpoint of the news was that Bollywood's path-breaking director Anurag Kashyap is also collaborating on the film's script.
While it could be argued that Nivin Pauly brings in a 'star appeal,' the trend of young actors (much like their predecessors Mammootty and Mohanlal, who used to give bulk dates for serious filmmakers) joining hands with free-spirited directors shows the maturing of Malayalam cinema that was being strangled in the syrupy mediocrity of the so-called 'new generation' films.
In 2016, Rajeev Ravi proved that the marriage of art and commerce could bring outstanding results with the film Kammattipaadam that had Dulquer Salman in the lead role.
Two of Malayalam cinema's hot-shot young actors making discerning choices about their films augurs well for the industry - not just in having meaningful films with great commercial prospects - but also in expanding the industry's reach beyond the borders of Kerala.
In fact, Kammattipaadam has gained cult following beyond Kerala, with Kashyap listing it as one of his favourites of the year. And what better example than Fahadh Faasil's Maheshinte Prathikaram, directed by Dileesh Pothen, one of the finest films made with a perfect match of artistic sensibility and commercial viability. Abrid Shine's Nivin Pauly-starrer Action Hero Biju and debutant Shanavas Bavakutty's Kismath too attempted to break the mould in 2016.
For all the indie-spirited films that bring quality and gravitas to the industry, there is also the need to have out-and-out commercial flicks that sustain filmdom. This was proved unequivocally by Mohanlal with his stupendous hit Pulimurugan, which went on to become the first Malayalam film to cross the Rs100 crore mark, and became the only film from Kerala to rank in the top five list of South Indian films in terms of box office collections.
The film's director Vysakh told Khaleej Times: "I enjoyed Pulimurugan for the risks it had, for all the odds we had to fight against. If anyone hands me Rs500 crore and asks me to make Pulimurugan, what is the fun in that? The film was an unthinkable. It pains me to say this but people were against making such a film in Malayalam."
He has now proved the naysayers of big budget flicks wrong. It has opened up the prospects for films on a never-before scale with Mohanlal now announcing that legendary writer MT Vasudevan Nair has completed the script of Randamoozham, and it will be made on a budget of Rs600 crore with elaborate chariot races and other war sequences designed by an international crew.
The industry can aspire to make films on such lavish budgets; even a breathing space for productions that cost just a few lakhs is encouraging. It inspires filmmakers not only to think big but also to think creatively.
The line-up ahead looks promising. In addition to the delayed release of Mohanlal's Munthirivallikal Thalirkkumbol, Dulquer Salman's Jomonte Suvisheshangal, Prithviraj's Ezra, Mammootty's Puthenpanam, and Fahadh Faasil's Driksakshiyum Thondimuthalum, among others.
For the film industry to thrive, it needs a splendid mix of commercial and arthouse productions - and when good films succeed alongside mass entertainers - it sets the stage for a sustainable industry that does not have to go by trends.
As we have seen in the past, Malayalam cinema has often been held captive by unhealthy trends. For long, it was caught in the clutches of superstardom; then came the era of titillation, followed by lowbrow comedies, and then the new generation frivolousness.
While the industry might not have the tiers of stars or actors as Tamil cinema has to ensure commercial success, Malayalam has learned to overcome its odds thanks to some creative social media marketing and a greater sense of solidarity, especially among young filmmakers. Despite allegations of 'camps' operating in the industry, the variety of such caucuses is good enough to lend diversity to the industry.
Malayalam cinema now has all it takes to enter an era when it can win back the crown of great, outstanding cinema from other language films, including Bollywood, which has been stealing the thunder at award ceremonies. It is a great opportunity for the industry for sure; if only it can also break the shackles of greed that is stifling it in the name of exhibitor and distributor profit shares.
Rajeev Ravi on the sets of Kammattipaadam
Dileesh Pothen, Director of Maheshinte Prathkaram