Find yourself lost around friends from Kerala who keep incessantly slipping into discussions about ‘classics’ of Malayalam cinema, making references that you simply can’t follow, picking up one word and descending into a rant about complex film study discussions? Worry not.
Here we present a beginner’s guide to some of the most talked about Malayalam films that would ideally transcend the boundary of language. Films that would ease you into Kerala’s culture, humour, aesthetics and cinematic art.
This list isn’t necessarily about the greatest films, but it’s just enough for you to understand and enjoy Malayalam cinema.
1) Manichithrathazhu (1993, Mainstream classic)
Directed by Fazil, with an ensemble cast (Shobhana, Mohanlal, Suresh Gopy), the film more than being an epic psychological thriller also takes us back to Malayali nostalgia— forgotten folktales, decadent bungalows, love affair with literature, black magic and the mystical romance of kings and courtesans.
That’s probably why the film was completely lost in translation when it was remade in other languages. Not even Priyadarshan could bring out the essence of what the film truly represented—a romance with a culturally rooted past.
2) Premam (2015, Rom-com)
It sort of acted as an easy crossover film for non-Malayali cinephiles. Alphonse Putharen gives a fresh spin to an otherwise ordinary coming-of-age tale of a young man.
Premam rests a lot on little nuggets of everyday life—a childhood crush, a college romance, many heartbreaks and a culmination into love and marriage as an adult—it’s a story that can be placed anywhere in India. Nivin Pauly became an overnight sensation. It’s fun, cheeky and just so relatable.
3) Ustad Hotel (2012, Feel-good)
Scripted by Anjali Menon, directed by Anwar Rasheed, Ustad Hotel set in Kozhikode, one of the cultural capitals of Kerala, digs into the warm bond between a granddad and his globe-trotting grandson. They bond over a common passion for food—both chefs, they stand poles apart in their ideology and politics of food.
The film leads us through the evolution of their relationship and how it thaws a generation of ill will between a son and dad, with some help from steaming cups of a specially brewed Suleimani tea.
Eventually the lad learns the invaluable lesson of giving from the patriarch. With many montages of delicious food, conversations about secret recipes and some fine performances, Ustad Hotel is a cinematic treasure.
4) Piravi (1989, Arthouse/Drama)
It’s a fine example of arthouse transcending the mainstream in Malayalam cinema. Shaji N Karun’s brilliant directorial centres around an absent hero, an engineering student, at the state capital. His father, who lives in a remote coastal village, awaits his imminent return, journeys each evening to the bus stop, only to be disappointed.
83-year-old Premji is heartbreakingly authentic, reflecting the pain and indecisiveness of a father’s wait for his son. Rain is an important metaphor that adds a sheath of gloom to the proceedings.
The film also addresses the politics of the time, the infringement of guaranteed rights of the modern world by traditional beliefs, a corrupt establishment, the role of women and education. A master of nuance and mood, Shaji values grace and the human spirit, but the film ends on a tragically ambivalent note. Quiet and contemplative in its narrative style, it is deeply moving in effect.
5) Yavanika (1982, Crime thriller)
It’s considered to be one of the finest mystery crime thrillers to have been made in Malayalam cinema. Directed by KG George, who is said to have made a strong presence in the new wave movement, Yavanika explores the backstage drama of a travelling theatre group.
The plot is structured around the mysterious disappearance of the troupe’s unpopular tabla player. This evenly paced, finely crafted thriller also boasts of some of the most relatable yet, unusual characters and they are all brought alive on screen by a fabulous set of actors.
The auteur KG George’s films continued to be discussed with more clarity 30 years later.
6) Oru Vadakkan Veeragadha (1989, Period drama)
Scriptwriter MT Vasudevan Nair does what not many would have dared to do in OVV—he gives a fresh, crafty twist on the old North Kerala folklore of swindler Chandu Chekavar.
MT rewrote his story and gave him a new lease of life—as a victim and a fallen hero. It’s one of the most well-made epic films in Malayalam, with heavy prose, stylised performances (Mammootty won the National award), music and a setting that is very rooted in Kerala.
7) Thaniyavarthanam (1987, Drama)
The story is, once again, entrenched in the culture and ethos of our people. A perfectly sane man is branded a lunatic for belonging to a family with a history of mental illness. When his own family fails to have faith in his normalcy, he is chained to bed.
In the end, the distraught mother poisons him and herself. The traditional Nair tharavadu, the beliefs and deep-seated superstitions attached to them are all nicely captured in this Lohithadas scripted Sibi Malayil film. Mammootty’s Balan is rated as one of his finest performances.
8) Chithram (1988, Comedy/Drama)
Director Priyadarshan is credited to have introduced a whole new brand of screwball comedy to Malayalam cinema. He also lends a distinct colour grading to the frames, especially in Chithram.
A young man is hired to play a woman’s fake husband and the film chronicles the various complicated situations he lands in, coated with loads of humour. In the mid-80s Priyan-Mohanlal films were like a breath of fresh air for an audience fed on I V Sasi action dramas and literature heavy themes.
It has the Malayali brand of humour and that’s probably why when remade most of it got lost in translation.
9) My Dear Kuttichathan (1984, 3D fantasy)
The first ever 3D film in India, directed by Jijo Punnoose remains a motif of every 80s Malayali child. It’s about a little ghost/chathan who is rescued from the spell of an evil sorcerer by three children.
The film chronicles their journey, how they hoodwink the world and create a happy kingdom together. Jijo deftly crafts a world of fantasy with black magicians, friendly ghosts and seamlessly makes that trip through the mind of a child. It was dubbed in Hindi as Chota Chetan in 1997.
10) Vanaprastham (1999, Drama)
Directed by Shaji N Karun, with dialogues by Raghunath Paleri, Vanaprastham follows the life of a Kathakali artist - the man behind the varnish - and his impoverished existence.
Not only does Karun successfully blend in the aesthetics of the artform but also gives a nuanced account of an artist’s struggle to keep his mind and body together, his constant battle with self and the reality of living a life that has no identity apart from the various attams he dances on stage.
With a power-packed performance from Mohanlal and Suhasini, superb cinematography and music (Zakir Hussain), Vanaprastham is a must watch.
11) Vadakkunokkiyanthram (1989, Psycho drama/Satire)
Directed and written by Sreenivasan, the film is a satirical take on a man burdened with insecurities and how it affects his marital life. It has a cult following for its raw, humorous take on the complexities of the human mind.
12) Adaminte Variyellu (1983, Social drama)
Auteur KG George’s stark and realistic take on the daily struggles of three women belonging to different strata of the society to find a voice, dignity and identity of their own. They are judged, pressurised, exploited and forced to mute their voices of protests.
With superlative performances and a blunt narrative style, Adaminte Variyellu is a fine commentary on the role of women in society and not surprisingly it continues to be relevant even today.
13) Perumthachan (1990, Drama)
Perumthachan or the master carpenter, is part of Kerala’s folklore and MT Vasudevan Nair gave it a fine cinematic whirl with his pen.
Directed by Ajayan, the film tells the story of a master artisan who cautions his son against being carried away by his own blazing ambition. Superb performances (Thilakan and Nedumudi Venu) and great cinematography (Santosh Sivan), with a keen eye on capturing Kerala’s architecture and aesthetics, make Perumthachan an important milestone in the history of Malayalam cinema.
14) Namukku Parkkan Munthiri Thoppukal (1986, Romantic drama)
One of the greatest love stories of all times, Namukku Parkaan Muthiri Thoppukal also remains a landmark film as director Padmarajan breaks all cinematic stereotypes linked to a woman’s chastity.
It’s about Solomon and Sophie’s love and has an incredibly beautiful proposal scene which is also linked to the Bible. With fine performances, an enchanting background score and music, the film has a cult following today.
15) Thazhvaram (1990, Thriller)
In tune with the American films set in the generic Wild West, Thazhvaram is one of the finest revenge thrillers in Malayalam cinema. The mysterious stranger ambling into the valley is a nod to Sergio Leone’s man-with-no-name.
MT Vasudevan Nair gives it a slow-burner build-up, spacing segments of tension with snippets from Balan’s past. With only four principal characters and no surprises around the corner, MT builds Thazhvaram like a classic play where the spaces also define action.
16) Mathilukal (1990, Arthouse)
Adoor Gopalakrishnan’s superb adaptation of Vaikom Muhammed Basheer’s book of the same name, the film that falls in the arthouse genre is also an intense love story.
Basheer is jailed for treason and he falls for the woman, who remains only a voice behind a wall. He captures the scent of the woman beautifully on celluloid. Mammootty breathes life into Basheer while KPAC Lalitha lends her voice to the faceless stranger.
17) Panchavadi Palam (1984, Satire)
Directed and written by KG George, based on a short story of the same name by literary humorist Veloor Krishnankutty, it features an ensemble cast. The satire mocks the socio-political scenario in the state in the guise of hilarious caricatures and a farcical storyline.
A film ahead of its times, it exactly predicted the recurring disorders in Indian politics. Set in an imaginary Airavathakuzhi panchayat, the movie is a hilarious ride on how warring political groups rally together to construct a new bridge with the support of corrupt officials and contractors. It’s hailed as one of the greatest political satires in Indian cinema.
18) Sandesham (1991, Satire/Comedy)
Malayalam cinema’s best socio-political satire, Sandesham written by Sreenivasan and directed by Sathyan Anthikad, the film deals with the tale of two sons who belong to two opposing political parties and the hilarious mud-slinging that ensues between them.
In the middle of this mayhem stand their helpless parents. With terrific dialogues that touched on the hypocrisy and double standards of the society, Sandesham is still discussed among cinephiles and some of the dialogues have turned into superb memes.
19) Traffic (2011, Road thriller)
Regarded as one of the defining moments of new wave cinema in Malayalam, this Rajesh Pillai directorial, written by Bobby and Sanjay, based on real-life incident, follows a narrative that weaves together multiple stories around one incident.
Superb pacing ensures that Traffic remains one of the best thrillers in Malayalam cinema.
20) Ramji Rao Speaking (1989, Comedy)
The magical duo who brought a new brand of irreverent comedy into Malayalam cinema—Siddique-Lal. They weave a tale around middle-class woes and unemployment layering the issues with generous doses of humour.
Fine actors, super comic lines and the beauty of the middle-class all came together nicely in this film. It also stirred a bunch of mimicry artists out of anonymity into the world of cinema.
21) Varavelpu (1989, Black comedy)
One of the finest films from the Sathyan Anthikkad-Sreenivasan stable, Varavelpu dealt with the seldom discussed issues of Gulf Malayalees. And of course, with loads of humour and Mohanlal in fine nick.
22) Amen (2013, Fantasy/Romance)
Kumaramkari, a tiny village in Kuttanadu, is mediating a love story between a local music band player and the daughter of a wealthy contactor. Into this conflict enters a priest with a spring in his walk, determined to unite them.
With loads of humour, peculiar characters, and flavoursome music, director Lijo Jose Pellisery delectably captures the local flavour, aesthetics and naivety of that tiny church town and its people.
23) Kammatipaadam (2016, Crime/Drama)
Rajeev Ravi pans his camera on Kammatipaadam, a slum locality in Ernakulam, central Kerala, and digs deeper into the lives, friendships and conflicts of the residents, most of whom belong to the Dalit community.
How the real estate mafia takes over the green fertile land to make way for a concrete jungle. A longtime cameraman of Anurag Kashyap's, Ravi is evidently inspired from his filmmaking.
With stellar performances and Madhu Neelakandan’s cinematography, the film is a nuanced account of a community and people which occupies that patch of Kerala.
24) Maheshinte Prathikaram (2016, Comedy/Drama)
A man who vows to wear his chappals only after beating the hell out of his nemesis. It’s from this near farcical thread that director Dileesh Pothan textures a thoroughly entertaining film, skilfully placing ordinary situations and characters, swimming with humour in a terrain that rests somewhere on the hilly backdrop of Idukki in South Kerala.
The characters are so rooted to the village and its culture that Idukki is an important character in the film. A bit of family drama, father-son bonding, love, heartbreak, and how in the middle of it all, there is a profound theory being laid out about photography—and just like that they all blend impeccably in the film.
Editor’s note: We have received an overwhelming response from readers with suggestions for more classics to be added to this list. While this list does not claim to be comprehensive, a majority of readers said that Kireedam, Kilukkam, Yodha and Bangalore Days should be added to it. So watch those too if you’ve not caught them yet.
Note: This article was first published on Fullpicture.in. The News Minute has syndicated the content. You can read the original article here