The growth of Malayalam cinema post-pandemic
Switch on the smart TV or tablet. Get some snacks ready. And, start watching a Malayalam film.
This has been the schedule of many cinephiles in the last year and a half, since the many pandemic-infused lockdowns made them dig up film material that they normally wouldn’t.
Leading Malayalam stars like Mohanlal and Mammootty are still around making interesting films, but the new crop of actors, backed by directors with some offbeat quirky ideas, are churning out content that seems to have got everyone’s attention. Thanks to their availability on OTT platforms, many films are being binge-watched by audiences and remake rights are being sought after. A spurt that probably started since Premam, a 2015 Malayalam film that did exceedingly well in other regions as well, has gained a lot of momentum since the outbreak of the pandemic. If films like Ayyapanum Koshiyum, Varane Avashyamund and Trance were among the much-loved movies of 2020, this year has also been good for both theatricals and OTT releases.
So, what sets Malayalam cinema apart? It’s probably the ability to showcase the everyday in a very rooted, non-filmi manner. Take The Great Indian Kitchen, for instance. A hard-hitting take against patriarchy, many shots in this 2021 release focussed on the everyday practises in the kitchen: a messy sink, leftover food and vegetables. Or, take the introduction song from Maheshinte Pratikaaram that romanticises the lush-green Idukki, where the film is set, so much so that it becomes a character.
Followers of Malayalam cinema might argue that this has always been the case, but what has changed in the last decade or so is that it has opened its doors for everyone to peek. Sitting in faraway places, audiences can now experience the naatu manam of God’s Own Country through films, thanks to some excellent cinematographers and music composers. The wonders of subtitling has helped these largely-local films gain global prominence. Stars like Fahadh Faasil, who ruled the OTT space with movies like the experimental CU Soon and Joji, have utilised the challenges thrown by the pandemic in a unique manner. Joji, for instance, was shot within the constraints imposed on shooting during the pandemic phase and even integrated a few elements of the situation into the script. CU Soon incorporated technological advancements into its storyline. The actor’s Irul, another OTT release, featured only three characters. Malik, on the other hand, was planned as a theatrical but was released on an OTT platform. In an interview to ‘The Hindu’, Fahadh said, “Any honest emotion gets there. I do films with emotion, and that, in turn, travels across borders and connects with people.”
All this is not to say that Malayalam films are just art; there is also a strong sense of commercialism mixed with its realistic elements. Mass moments here do not come only due to its protagonist, but also because of his/her interactions with other characters. The emotions dealt by filmmakers are also not so mainstream – like ego and revenge, which recent films like Ayyapanum Koshiyum and Driving License dealt extensively with. Mahesh Narayanan, director of films like CU Soon and Malik, wrote in ‘The Hindu’, "Till the pandemic, Malayalam cinema was trying to gain revenue in a haphazard way. There was quite a bit of indiscipline in filmmaking, including on my film sets. All that is going to change."
It already has, going by the exciting line-up on offer. If theatre-going audiences will get to watch Mohanal’s Marakkar: Arabikadalinte Simham, billed as Malayalam cinema’s most expensive film so far, this week, OTT is not far behind as well: Minnal Murali, starring Tovino as a ‘superhero that people can relate to’, is among the most expected Malayalam films on the trade. The future is certainly bright in God’s own country’s cinema.
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