Whether it's the award-winning 'Ee.Ma.Yau', the touching 'Sudani from Nigeria' or the little known 'Kunju Daivam', Malayalam cinema had a rich harvest this year.

Films that made us cry laugh and think Best of Malayalam cinema in 2018
Flix Mollywood Wednesday, December 26, 2018 - 15:47

Year 2018 woke up with a sweet hangover. The year before had left behind the taste of a dose of good cinema – Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum for one, Mayaanadhi for another. So then 2018 had the burden of proving itself, and it would, in the months that passed, give to Malayalam cinema some pure and unalloyed art - Sudani from Nigeria for one, Ee. Ma. Yau. for another.

It’s unfair to quote just two titles from a year that gave quite a bunch of nice, little surprises. But these two movies also made a mark by becoming the only two Malayalam films to be selected for competing in the state’s own prestigious international film festival, the IFFK. And this time around, there appeared to be no dissenting voices which the fest is never short of.

The two wonders that Sudani from Nigeria and Ee. Ma. Yau were

These films are among the best movies of not just the year that passed, but all of Malayalam cinema. Sudani from Nigeria is that rare movie that appealed to every kind of audience – the serious movie lover, the entertainment cravers and those folks who just want to pass time. Coming from a debutant like Zakariya, it managed to tell a simple story of the love shown by two adorable, old mothers towards a foreigner and stranger who lands in their home. Soubin Shahir who is known and loved for his versatile characters, was adored by the audience all over again. The two aged women making their film debut – Savithri and Sarassa - also got loved. So did Samuel, who played the Nigerian.

Still from Sudani from Nigeria

Ee. Ma. Yau. wasn’t as unexpected as Sudani. It came from Lijo Jose Pellissery, the man who is always bringing new surprises into your movie halls. He is like Santa, taking out new toys from a bag every year. Ee. Ma. Yau. is a dark comedy, it’s about death, and the panic of a son to give his dad the best funeral he could get. Chemban, when put together with Lijo, does the usual haunting magic of capturing a part of your heart with his performance.

Beautifully portrayed trans characters

Two movies came out of the shell – that’s what you might call it when a subject so relevant had to be hidden from public glare for so long. We are talking about trans characters. It is not that they were avoided in cinema before, but they were misrepresented so much that it was more an insult than an acknowledgment of their rights.

Alorukkam came and went more quietly than Njan Marykutty, perhaps because of the award cinema tag it had already received, with Indrans winning the honours. Indrans plays the conventional, narrow-minded dad who cannot accept his transgender child. The son he knew had always been a woman within. Director Abhilash brought out the trans woman (played by Sreekanth Menon) beautifully on screen, without the usual exaggeration filmmakers end up giving to trans characters. She is sari-clad, speaks softly and beams with motherly expressions. It all seems so natural, you don't find anything amiss here (as you shouldn't), and you wait for Indrans to follow suit.

Poster of Aalorukkam

Njan Marykutty was the more popular, more mainstream one, with a known actor like Jayasurya playing Marykutty, taking care of the minutest of details, such as the nail polish. Here again, director Ranjith Sankar, did not make Marykutty an exaggeration. Jayasurya emoted, expressed only enough to touch the human in you and make you question your prejudices. The pains the actor had taken to become Marykutty have been written about extensively. It is easily one of his best performances.

Tovino Thomas continues the Mayaanadhi impact

If Mayaanadhi recognised Tovino as more than just a well-built actor, Maradona sort of sealed it for him. But then, it felt like a spin off. Tovino is again the run-away culprit, but much tougher, crueler than poor Mathan was. He shows bad as bad and repels you, no glorification of it. Considering he began his acting career as a villain and then moved on to nice-guy roles, it is a risk, but one the actor knows will not discredit him.

In Theevandi, he plays a smoker, and though the film was not impressive entirely, Tovino did his part well, transforming convincingly from the high school boy with the funky haircut to the bearded, irresponsible adult that his character becomes.

His least convincing performance of the year perhaps came in Oru Kuprasidha Payyan where he plays the poor and orphan hotel waiter, falsely accused in a murder because of his helplessness. The emotions of a vulnerable hero do not look well on him in this film, it looks forced. There is also a permanent expression of naivety portrayed through folded creases and widened eyes. Madhupal, known for his realistic films, may have had his reasons to characterise his hero this way, given that it is based on a real life story, but it was not entirely convincing. Nimisha Sajayan's performance as his lawyer, however, elevated the film. 

Still from Oru Kuprasidha Payyan

Small wonder

Among the masterpieces that 2018 gave us, one little noticed film was Kunju Daivam. The title translates to 'Little God'. And the little boy playing the lead in the film - Adhish Praveen as Ouseppachan - appears to become just that when he does what he can to make things better for others. It is not stretched, or exaggerated. There is no typical sacrificial heroism. Ouseppachan is just being the spirited boy that he is, out to make amends for a wrong he believes he has done, by praying for the wrong reasons. An adorable one and a half hours directed by Jeo Baby, the film portrays children beautifully, without the usual annoying pranks kids are made to perform to appear "naughty" and therefore somehow "cute" on screen.

Movies worth a watch

While these may not have reached all the way to the top, they have done their part in keeping the audience glued to their seats, by way of romance or mystery. Hey Jude was a surprising romance developing between a man who cannot understand emotions (Nivin Pauly) and a woman who swings between the extremes of it (Trisha). Both actors play their parts without making the focus of the film their strangeness (kudos Shayamaprasad), and Trisha especially comes across as a talent caught too late by Malayalam cinema.

Amal Neerad’s Varathan evoked mixed reactions, but it was a film that managed to keep the viewers' interest to the end, mostly by scaring the daylights out of them. Aishwarya Lekshmi becomes third time lucky (after Njandukalude Naatil Oru Idavela and Mayaanadhi) with yet another movie she could perform in – the hot-headed, independent young woman, who is also lusted after by the creepy neighbours she grew up with. Fahadh Faasil transforms from the quiet and friendly geek into a fearsome man of action, although by doing that the movie becomes less convincing, suddenly making the hero more heroic. Nevertheless, it does what it meant to.

Still from Varathan

Koode from Anjali Menon stood apart from the Bangalore Days genre, in case you expected that. It came neatly packed with a story of relationships that Anjali is very good at writing. A brother, a sister, a family of four, a woman adored, a potential boyfriend, and a dog. And one more very important character, a van. Anjali cast director Ranjith as the caring but often helpless dad, Pauly Wilson as the gossiping aunt. Prithvi was contained as the man of many insecurities, Parvathy her usual easily-merging-into-the-role self, Nazriya a little overboard.

Movies that surprised

Joseph surprised. Especially in the form of Joju George, playing the superstar-like protagonist after years of excelling in supporting characters. The movie itself came with a tad bit of controversy with its climax taking away the effect of the build-up of the thriller up until then. But it became a movie to take note of. And Joju, an actor to watch out for.

Surprises can come either way. Poomaram worked for some, did not for others. Most were in agreement that it looked like a documentary that got made when director Abrid Shine left a camera on in the middle of a youth festival that colleges famously compete for in Ernakulam. Kochiites could relate more, given that most of them had spent their younger days like in the movie, working, thinking, and dreaming only about taking home the rolling trophy that year. So the small sequences, the continuity of one event after another, may strike a chord with some and leave others bored. The film also brought to screen the grown-up Kalidas Jayaram whom viewers had been waiting for, ever since his brilliant performances as a child actor.

Autorsha is another film that might have worked if the second half was treated as preciously as the first. With a woman protagonist, the film was already taking a stance. There is no main male lead, just characters to support the leading woman (Anusree). The first half pays incredible attention to the detailing, every line written with a lot of care. The promise quickly fades in the second half when the writers seem to have become lazy, wanting to finish the script half-heartedly, mixing a few revenge clichés together.

Performers’ movies

Eeda worked for many reasons, but mainly because its lead pair – Nimisha Sajayan and Shane Nigam –did well. It’s tough to keep up to expectations when you have managed to impress much in the past. Nimisha and Shane pull that off in this Shakespearean romance, set surprisingly in Kannur, where the two characters grow up among political rivalry and violence. While the movie faced criticism for the way Kannur politics was portrayed, the performances were unanimously lauded.

Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil’s promise came with Antony Varghese, the man from the magical world of Angamaly Diaries. There's also the constantly excelling Chemban Vinod  and Vinayakan to support him. All three of them do not disappoint but then the movie itself, shot mostly inside a prison, does not have a lot of depth.

Swathanthryam Ardharathriyil

Films that made us laugh

Let’s not forget the importance of humour in the middle of all the seriousness. Padayottam was a fun watch that did not aspire for greatness but simply depended on good old situational comedy for laughs. It is about gangsters, and Biju Menon leads the show as a gangster who is afraid of his mom. But without the usual terrifying scenes that gangster movies come with (matter-of-fact killings for instance), the film shows an entertaining side of these characters.

Dakini too could fall into this category. It is special because it’s got really, really rare heroes – four elderly women. The two mothers we saw in Sudani, Pauly Wilson and Sethu Lakshmi – all talented and little recognised actors. Award winning director Rahul Riji Nair should be applauded for not just putting them at the centre of the film, but also making them do comedy, and not just sentiments that films mostly make elderly women do.

Good attempts

This is perhaps the least complimentary description but these efforts shouldn't be taken lightly. There have been quite a few movies which tried hard but did not altogether reach where they should have. Prithviraj’s Ranam, Nivin Pauly’s Kayamkulam Kochunni, Suraj Venjarammood’s Kuttanpillayude Sivarathri and Asif Ali’s Mandharam may fall broadly into this category.

Ranam came from debutant director Nirmal Sahadev, who showed promise with his script for Hey Jude, but he put on screen a largely artificial drama through the first half. Prithvi does well here though, even when his character was unfortunately typecast as the unemotional tough man with a sad past, fighting his fights. The movie, however, picks up pace in the second half.

Kayamkulam Kochunni had come with so much hype, with every little step in the movie-making becoming news, but it disappointed by not creating an “effect”. Nivin, who was adorable as Jude, becomes quite unconvincing as the tough Kochunni. Mohanlal in a smaller role as Ithikkara Pakki has quite a screen presence. But while the special effects and the grandeur cannot be belittled, the performances from the male and female leads leave quite a bit to be desired.

From Kayamkulam Kochunni

Mandharam comes in this category because it didn’t come with a lot of hype. It came without a lot of noise, but did well in parts. Director Vijesh Vijay gets some of it right when he puts three male friends in the centre, living the easy life of clueless students. Their conversations are easy to listen to. The women characters are, however, disappointing, and after the ease of the first half of the movie, the script goes messy.

Kuttanpillayude Sivarathri was again little noticed, but it came with new ideas and with several elements worthy of appreciation. Suraj shines as the tough Kuttanpilla. He may say he prefers doing comedy but when you see him doing serious characters, you can’t help wishing he did this more. The jackfruit tree (varikaplavu that he sings about lovingly in his own voice) in his backyard means everything to Kuttanpilla and he fights with his large family who try to cut it off and make money. It is only a sub-plot and there is the larger story lurking behind in the form of a motley bunch of ghosts that only Kuttanpilla can see. It is all fresh but somewhere the script loses track and tries to accommodate too much.

Movies that held promise

You could put Carbon here. With Venu’s Munnariyippu still fresh on your mind, and Fahadh playing the commoner he is so good at playing, there is already some promise. While there is newness in the form of treatment and setting, the film didn’t quite strike home.

Aravindante Athidhikal could also feature here. There is a huge temple and the lives of those making a living out of it. Vineeth Sreenivasan, the hero, works at a hotel where all sorts of visitors to the temple come to stay. Their stories, his interactions with them, his own story – there was scope for all that here, and some of it was neatly explored. But not all the way. It falls back on the familiar track of reuniting parent and child with a little convincing back story.

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