21 October 2011: It was a begrudgingly embarrassing day for the cinephiles of Kerala. The weekend charts were on display, and the biggest grosser, a term that was on the brink of alienation from Malayalees, was a low-budget, poorly shot, measly scripted pet project of an over-ambitious man who was the talk of the town at the time. His name was Santhosh Pandit. It all started with a single from his film, passionately titled Krishnanum Radhayum, implying it was a love story for all ages.
The numbers were shocking. The movies that released along with Pandit's flick were no better than sub-par. One of them being the Kunchako Boban starrer Sandwich, a film as forgettable as a bad sandwich at an upmarket café. Almost two weeks after the release of critically acclaimed Prithviraj Sukumaran starrer Indian Rupee, which opened to poor box office numbers but good reviews, Krishnanum Radhayum grossed more than its actual budget.
And the reason? Catharsis. For those who cringed at the site of Pandit's music video, who wanted to pay the money, buy a ticket and sit through a 2-hour film, just so that they can shout obscenities at the screen as some sort of venting process. Guess the joke wasn't really on Santhosh Pandit, who grossed around 1 Cr INR, from a 5-lakh budget. The list of films that led up to this fateful day wasn't so grand either.
A lineage that followed the likes master-class films like Kireedam, Vidheyan, Vaanaprastham and much more diluted itself to mere imitations of films from other industry, where the mass action hero formula was recreated, only to fail repeatedly.
Two years passed. We now open in a Club FM Radio Station. The guest for the day was Indrajith Sukumaran, who has joined the occasion to promote his upcoming political drama Left Right Left. The RJ, ever so humbly asks him the question. "If there is one thing you would like to change about the Malayalam film Industry, what would it be?" Indrajith being the meek one of the Sukumaran brothers, took the diplomatic route. Within his diplomacy, there was a pill Malayalees found hard to swallow.
"Our Industry has come a long way from where it was a few years ago," he stated.
"There are good movies being made now that deserve Pan-Indian acceptance. Having said that, the one thing that might be stopping us from achieving such acclaim is distribution. It hurts me to see that theatres in Kerala are barely available for our own films, while a lavish number of screens are allocated for Other Language Films (OLF). I'm not saying, we should refrain from watching Tamil or Hindi films, but do we not owe it to our thriving industry to have more screens for the exhibition?”
Indrajith's film later went on to be lauded by critics while the political premise drew controversy. The ruling party at the time made claims suggesting that the film was an act of defamation and had to be banned from the exhibition. Any publicity is good publicity. Or so it seemed. Left Right Left, proclaimed as one of the best films of the decade, was a box-office failure.
Fast forward another two years into the future. The festive season of Onam was upon Kerala, as part of the new age tradition. The proud people of Kerala were ready to take the festivities to the cinemas. The contenders for the coveted title of "Onam winner" was the Suriya starrer Masss engira Masilamani, Shyamaprasad's much-hyped crime-drama Ivide, starring two big stars - Prithviraj and Nivin Pauly set in the US. There was another small film that garnered more buzz than both films combined with just a music video and some posters. The film was called Premam. Directed by Alphonse Putharen, this thoroughly entertaining romantic comedy took theatres by storm. It became the most talked about film in Kerala until its rampant fever spread to other states. Premam turned out to be a cult classic and a blockbuster hit while the other two films tanked!
Premam became history as it became the longest running Malayalam film in a cine complex outside Kerala, with a record-breaking run of 200 plus days at the iconic Sathyam Cinemas in Chennai. The overwhelming success of Premam was the beginning of a new era in Malayalam cinema. The concept of nationwide distribution for a Malayalam movie was no longer a dream. Premam was so widely acclaimed across the country, that the idea of remaking the film was greeted with heavy-hitting backlash.
The journey now brings us to present day Malayalam cinema. Films are distributed to centres outside Kerala with a subtitled format, thereby welcoming a larger audience and it works. The beginning of the year started with yet another flavourful Malayalam film, that is a strong representative of the grounded, deep undertone our films proudly adopt to its screenplays. The film in the discussion here is the slice-of-life comedy/drama Kumbalangi Nights starring Shane Nigam, Soubin Shahir and Fahadh Faasil. The film is directed by Madhu C Narayanan and went on to earn the status of a blockbuster in Kerala as well as in cities across India.
The films that followed in 2019 were in their own right, path-breaking ones. To name a few, several films exploring human conditions like the gripping social issue-based romance Ishq starring Shane Nigam, where Toxic Masculinity is briefly discussed. Thamasha, a warm candy-like film that talks about body-shaming, another pressing issue modern society faces.
The Parvathy Thiruvoth starrer Uyare also addressed the concept of beauty standards being a hindrance for ambitious youngsters to reach for their dreams. But among a lot of genre-defining films that took 2019 by storm, one that caught pan-Indian attention is the film Virus. Director Ashiq Abu's documented dramatic portrayal of the events revolving around the dastardly Nipah Virus that plagued the northern parts of Kerala in 2018. The film sold itself sans any multi-faceted marketing campaign as the cast itself included some of M-towns elite young actors like Tovino Thomas, Indrajith Sukumaran, Asif Ali, Soubin Shahir etc.
And now, the latest addition to the list of grounded, fairly fresh treatment is the film is the Khalid Rahman comedy Unda, starring Megastar Mammootty. The fact that such a big name is attached to a very humble project such as this one is indeed something to take pride in. While, Mollywood takes pride in making films with a heartfelt, humanised texture it also does a great job catering to the mass audience. With the jaw-dropping success of superstar Mohanlal's Lucifer and Megastar Mammootty's Madhura Raja, both of which were typical popcorn flicks for the summer, it is safe to assume that, our thriving industry has a place for all kinds of audiences and has the finesse to balance between both "mass" and "class" as the layman movie-goer says.
From a moment of shame, when lovers of good cinema lost faith, Mollywood rose from imminent death and became the most talked about industry in the country, in terms of quality and content. This is the story of Malayalam Cinema collective. Unda, Virus, Uyare, Thamasha and Ishq are now running in cinemas near you.
The writer is a Film Critic and also works as an Assistant Director in the Malayalam film industry.