The Experience Called Malayalam Cinema

December 31st 2015. Growing up, I've never been a fan of celebrating the final day of a year or the first day of the new year. Have always felt that it is putting too much pressure on myself to reminisce about the last 365 days for no reason because the next day is going to be exactly the same. 16 years of age was the time I started questioning about capitalist driven ideas which we don't profit on and the amount of rationalism and hypocrisy that we need to forgive to be that regular person on this face of the Earth. It was particularly a bad year and I was left alone at home not knowing what to do, when I remembered that I had a couple of CDs from one Thiruttuvcd kadai 2 streets away (no Prime or Netflix when we were crossing 15 and I couldn't find any subtitles for non-Tamil films on Torrents). In that list was Sallu Bhai's Bajrangi Bhaijaan, Pixar's Inside Out (Don't even start. I'll start bawling) and a film that changed everything for me. Preman. 


 Premam was a huge deal at that time. I think it still is but it was a "running in Sathyam Cinemas over a 100 days' ' level big deal appo (It ran for 275 days in Sathyam). That is massive for any film, let alone a Malayalam film with relatively new actors. Premam was advertised with the faces of 3 beautiful women, this dude, the title meaning love in a butterfly font. Very cheesy stuff that invited me to see what it really has. I've never watched a Malayalam film until then and I'm a sucker for good romance because that was the time when I was building up expectations for a love in the future (Spoiler alert. Bad idea. Don't.). Hence 9 pm in the night after my dinner, I turned on the TV, pushed the CD inside, rechecked the subtitles sync and started watching. The very first frame was a colourful Special Thanks to God followed by Sun, Time and Love. Then followed a never-ending train of Thank You notes to people ranging from Rajinikanth to Tea Shop Owners to Mammooty to Ex-girlfriends and so on for the next 2 minutes at least. But then I never wanted to skip it because it was very cute. In a world that was plagiarising movies left and right, there was this director who wanted to say thank you to random people who helped him in the film and his own life. And then with Rajesh Murugesan's Idhu Puthen Kaalam - the unbelievable soundtrack that will always be a landmark in my cinema journey, I took my first stride into a genre named Malayalam Cinema.

This is a language. Not a genre. Nope. Absolutely not. Regardless of what/where/when and all the Question words that follow, a genre called life is prevalent in all their films. To be more precise, all films fall under a genre where a movie watcher learns to appreciate his life even if he isn’t completely relating to the plotline. The modern age of Malayalam Cinema (as they call it) starting from the likes of Anjali Menon, Alphonse Puthren, Vineeth Srinivasan, Dileesh Pothan, has proved again and again for years that storytelling is more important than the story itself. The budget of the movie, the predictability of the storylines, the tone, the pace, nothing really matters if the audience sees the director's name in the end credits with a smile on their face. Be it a very simple preface like a Police Man's routine in Action Hero Biju or an African descent football player's adventures in Sudani from Nigeria, this philosophy is something that Malayalam cinema has mastered in and actually even got better at in the coming years.

That, in turn, leads us into the conversation as to what really differentiates it from Tamil Cinema.

We also have our fair share of films which make us smile on our way out, probably more than just smile. Of Course yes, a handful of them but for every film like that we also see a star vehicle with so much hero worship, the identity of the actor is attached to his onscreen persona somehow in alternate films. The beauty of Malayalam Cinema is that it stands on a pillar of actors and actresses who mold their career as an actor rather than a hero. They act in ensembles, supporting roles, sometimes even in a shade that no one has ever touched upon (pfft. Fahadh Fassil. pfft). With respect to the actresses, they are more involved in showing variety and range rather than showing off a portfolio with some 100 crore films. A Parvathy Thiruvothu would have never done an Uyare if not to bring a part of herself to tell a story that she feels the world needs to know rather than just acting for a director. This way, not only do these films remain in our heart,but we also subconsciously start associating the actors and actresses with brilliantly written characters and justified character arcs.

 

The phenomenon named Fahadh Fassil playing an urban family man in Varathan and playing a rural conman in Njan Prakashan in the same year 

This February 2020, Bong Joon Ho stood on the world's biggest stage with 2 academy awards in his hand and quoted his inspiration Martin Scorsese, "The most personal is the most creative." How he went on to make his country proud with this simple ideology is for another blog but it really is that simple! What Bong Joon Ho proved with Parasite on the international stage, some of our own talents have been proving here, be it Vetri Maaran in Tamil or Lijo Jose Pellissery in Malayalam. 

Talking only about Malayalam cinema, this doctrine is all over the films of the past 5 years where most movies are movies revolving around just people. And their lives. And their emotions. And all the conflicts a person or a group of people face. This may branch out for a social cause like the movies based on Communism or into a 2 headed drama like Ayyapanum Koshiyum or may even deal with relationships man-man, woman-man, father-son, daughter-father, stranger-man, Soubin Shahir-The Universe and countless others share. With these many stories amongst us with unfathomable depths all with a little change of perspective and a lovely sight of the god's own country, they demonstrate that you don't need to go to outer space or erect an 8 digit number set to make something beautiful. 


Koode (2018) was my first Malayalam film in the theatre and it showed arguably one of the best brother-sister relationships I’ve ever seen on the screen.

I talked about the directors and actors but I forgot to mention about the most beautiful aspect of the entire Malayalam Film industry - Kerala itself! One of the biggest blessings of Malayalam films is their state. Scenic beauty doesn't only lie in places travelled by Helicopters or places restricted to VIPs. The setting between the rains, trees and rivers play a role in their films by making us live with the character in second person rather than to see the film in third person. How the world saw Kumblangi in Kumbalangi Nights or Idukki in Maheshinte Prathikaram is evidence of this feeling. The greens, the wet roads, the use of natural light, the walks into coconut tree sunsets, the pazhampuris in chai shops, the backwaters which we could smell from from the screen are a part and parcel of a Malayalam film and makes you feel there is no bad shot because you can't show this place in a vexing way! 

 

Idukki song, Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016)

The music perfectly complements the visuals to heighten our senses even more, which is a rare occasion in any other industry. There is a lot of use of Acoustic Guitars and strings, whistling and sounds of the nature to personify the music and very less of choruses in which the voices overpower the music out. The closest any other language song has come to giving this emotion is AR Rahman's Moongil Thottam. Cinematography, Music, Actors, Storytelling - The fruitful marriage of all of the above is what that defines Malayalam Cinema and sure does give us a constant dose of pleasure for the whole time for a gratifying experience. 

Frames of Cherathukal, Kumbalangi Nights (2019)

After 5 years of watching my first Malayalam film, I've watched over a 100 now. This lockdown especially has got me on a marathon that I don't want to end at all. On one side the last film I saw in the theatre was this insane fucked up ride named Trance all praise to Fahadh Faasil. While the last Malayalam film that I saw was Anna Ben's Kappela on Netflix, a first of its genre love thriller narrated in a way that a major part of the audience hasn't seen before but still didn't get its credit to the outside world. Malayalam cinema hasn't set a bar high for the other industries to cross it, they've set a bar far far away from the rest of the world into the interior parts of Kerala. 

A few months back his year, #5YearsOfPremam was celebrated all over Social Media with great pompous. People were talking about Shambu, Koya and George's friendship or how Malar Teacher is the dream college lecturer we never got. June 9, 2020, I watched the film again at the stroke of 12 on my birthday. I'm 21 now. My love life today is no more a work of fiction but has entered the based on true stories genre. It has been almost 3 years since I bought my last CD because they don't exist anymore (and Puratchi thalapathy Vishal has taught me to say no to Piracy. Duh.) I'm still searching for answers about my life, but weirdly enough the difference is that I'm positive I'll find it someday. Yet when I saw Celine eat Red Velvet the same way she ate it when she was a kid or the rain along with George's life going in reverse to Govind Vasantha's Unfinished Hope, I feel some things are made to be felt and some moments are meant to be treasured so that they don't get lost along the way. Life is certainly a box of chocolates and we never know what we are going to get. If we are talking about Malayalam Cinema, beware, you may expect a chocolate and may end up finding a chocolate box for yourself.

 

Written by

-Vishnu Aravind

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