(As anyone who has talked cinema with me in recent times knows, I have watched more Malayalam films in the last three years than films in any other language. [Well, among *new* films anyway.] The latest issue of Outlook magazine has a special package on Malayalam cinema, and I have contributed a “new entrant to this world” essay. Here it is.)
In a key scene in the 2019 Malayalam film Driving Licence, a popular movie star named Hareendran is in a televised face-off against a motor vehicle inspector. The MVI has long been a big fan of the actor, but things have turned ugly between them over the issuing of a new driving licence. Now Hareendran has to pass a learner’s test that involves a quiz-style Q and A session. Ten questions, and he must answer six correctly.
The scene builds and pulses with tension until, with two questions left, Hareendran needs one correct answer. In almost any such dramatic movie scene, the moment would be milked for all it was worth, taken down to the wire. But it doesn’t happen that way here – the star simply gets the ninth answer right, meaning he has won this bout. Only for now, though. Because this is just one of many unpredictable little moments in the film’s screenplay (by the late KR Sachidanandan, or Sachy) – the narrative, about two people divided by misunderstandings, might be broadly familiar, but the journey is sinuous and clever.
A few days before Driving Licence, I watched the intense action film Kala, co-produced by and starring the hunky Tovino Thomas, one of the industry’s more popular leading men. Without giving away spoilers, around forty-five minutes through this film something happens that shifts the focus away from the Tovino character Shaji (who, to all intents and purposes, was the story’s protagonist) and to another, unnamed person. With this change in perspective, the film roars into a new gear: just as we thought we knew where the narrative was going, our ideas about the characters, their circumstances and what is at stake, are upended. Kala is easily described as a “home-invasion thriller”, but whose home has been invaded? This question hangs over the film.
I mention these two moments because they represent something I have enjoyed about the high-quality Malayalam cinema of the past few years: the willingness of a screenplay to take playful detours, to do unexpected things organically, without making a fuss about it. And also because, on the surface both these films are glossy and relatively commercial – they have pace, masala, visual flourishes (Kala’s second half has some marvellously staged fight scenes), and charismatic leads (Prithviraj Sukumaran, a big star himself, plays the much-worshipped Hareendran in Driving Licence). They are different in tone and texture from the more grounded Malayalam films that get fetishized in some quarters. Yet they have a knack for the counterintuitive moment and for the rupturing of a narrative.
As is the case for many others who don’t know the language, my acquaintance with Malayalam films has been facilitated by greater accessibility on OTT platforms, good subtitling, and occasional context-providing by south Indian friends (though this last factor can be a double-edged one, in the same way that one must be careful not to get bullied by Bengalis who have unshakeable views on Ray or Ghatak!). The journey has been both exhilarating, as a viewer, and a little nerve-wracking as a professional critic. Because encountering a completely new cinematic landscape – and through it, a less familiar culture – when you’re in your forties is very different from doing so as an energetic teenager (which is what I was when I first dived into “world” cinemas). You tend to be more set in your ways, lower on patience; it takes more time to make sense of something new, to work your way into it by identifying recurring themes, tropes, personalities and behaviours, and connecting dots across a variety of films.
But after the initial barriers, it has been smooth going. It helps that the canvas is large and no genre or tone seems to be off-limits; the main requirement seems to be conviction in a project and the ability to execute it whole-heartedly. Thus, on one hand there is the slice-of-life tale that makes for the most unobtrusive type of great film: driven by small incidents and whimsies of character, with the true depth of the storytelling slowly sneaking up on you. The films of Dileesh Pothan – including Maheshinte Prathikaaram (Mahesh’s Revenge), about a photographer determined to regain his dignity after being knocked down during a brawl, and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (The Mainour and the Witness), about a small-time thief crossing paths with a married couple during a bus ride – are good examples, as is the acclaimed Kumbalangi Nights (directed by Madhu C Narayanan), about the intersecting lives of a dysfunctional all-male family and a seemingly “normal” family unit in a fishing village.
Elsewhere in the spectrum are the Big Issue films such as Virus (about the Nipah virus outbreak and those who investigated and contained it) and The Great Indian Kitchen (about a progressive young woman in a patriarchal environment after marriage), as well as the much more formally adventurous, stylised works such as those of Lijo Jose Pellissery (Angamaly Diaries and Jallikattu being among the most feted, though my personal favourite is Ee.Ma.Yau.) – full of showy camerawork, long takes, fast-paced editing, and the use of elaborate animated sequences, even as they retain a storytelling directness.
Looking at all these films through an outsider’s gaze, I get a sense of an ecosystem that is constantly replenishing itself. Producer-directors such as Aashiq Abu, writers like Syam Pushkaran, cinematographers like Shyju Khalid (also a producer), and a number of talented performers have cast a strong influence and multi-tasked across a range of films, and the acknowledgements lists in the opening credits can be very telling. One should be cautious while comparing cinematic cultures, but I am sometimes reminded of the French film industry of the late 50s and 60s, made up of artists who were expressing very distinct visions and sensibilities but also riffing off each other’s work: on the one hand there was an avant-garde Godard, on the other a deliberately verbose Rohmer, and so much in between. Or the American directors – the “kids with beards” – of the early 70s, watching each other’s rough cuts and offering support and suggestions even as they made varied films (from Coppola’s gangster epics to George Lucas’s “space opera” Star Wars).
The creative energies in Malayalam cinema can also be seen in the willingness to do something on the fly, or to seize a moment. Consider the “computer-screen thriller” CU Soon – about a man taking his cousin’s help to digitally track a woman who has gone missing – which was made in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic and turned the period’s shooting limitations into a virtue; Fahadh Faasil, one of the industry’s biggest names, not only starred in this experimental work but also made his apartment available for the shoot. Another Faasil starrer, the Dileesh Pothan-directed Joji, is actually set during the pandemic, with the plot even affected by it; in the opening scene, a youngster takes delivery of an important package meant for his grandfather by telling the courier boy that the old man is in quarantine.
While there are many things to cherish in these films, for me personally one of the warmest aspects of Malayalam cinema is its depiction of the natural world and the interconnectedness between its different elements. This is explicitly done in films like Jayraj’s Ottaal (about a boy destined to be cruelly separated from his environment, the Kuttanad backwaters), Jallikattu (about a village trying to hunt down a vagrant bull) and Kala, which will turn out to centre on the fate of a dog, and includes many shots of animals and insects in their natural setting, appearing to watch impassively while self-important humans go about their work. But the awareness of our ecology – and our attitude to our ecology – as being inseparable from our existence is a refrain in many other films. Even a story like Virus – which cross-cuts urgently between subplots in portraying a human crisis – manages to end with a lovely, tender, morally complex scene involving an encounter between a man and a baby bat that has fallen off its tree.
In a way, perhaps, this attentiveness to other life forms ties in with the broader theme of otherness – the many ways of being different, and of assimilating different-seeming things. And this theme can extend beyond the natural world, even to the use of a non-living thing as a metaphor. I am thinking of the 2019 comedy-drama-fantasy Android Kunjappan Version 5.25, in which the wonderful actor Suraj Venjaramoodu plays a man nearly twice his age – the crabby Bhaskaran, who finds himself saddled with a robot as nurse and house help.
The idea of a sentient humanoid waddling around making tea, chattering away, and even having a mundu draped around it, can be jarring if you love Malayalam films for their grounded, naturalistic treatment. But Android Kunjappan Ver 5.25 has some wonderfully observed moments enroute to becoming a story about insularity and outsider-ness. While other recent films like the excellent Nayattu or Unda (both about cops in peril) or Sudani from Nigeria (about an African footballer adrift in Kerala when his passport goes missing) deal in direct and “realistic” ways with caste or class prejudice, this one does so tangentially, starting with facile humour – including a joke about the android being an “upper-caste Japanese” – but building up to something more thoughtful. This machine will bring disgrace to the temple, a haughty priest says, barring the robot’s way, much as religious leaders do to lower-caste people or to menstruating women.
In a sort of counterpoint, the android later asks the old man if he would like to live in the future. “There will be no caste or religion in the future,” it says, “So if you stop believing in these things now, you will already be living in the future.” No time machines required. Moments like these are a reminder – among many others – of the possibilities in this dynamic filmmaking world, and how the best of it manages to be simple yet insightful, inclusive, quirky and thought-provoking all at once.
(Also did this long piece on a few favourite Malayalam films for the Cinemaazi website last year. Other related posts: Kumbalangi Nights/men in barbershops; thoughts on Joji; nostalgia and imagination in Ottaal)