Made with all the limitations that COVID-19 brought, these films still glowed with the kind of surprising brilliance Malayalam cinema is known for.

Collage of three posters, left one showing a number of people in Janeman, middle one showing a couple in The great indian kitchen and third one showing tovino in a superhero costume
Flix Mollywood Friday, December 31, 2021 - 13:16

Even with the theatres closed for more than half the year, movies in Kerala found a way to reach audiences. Over-the-Top (OTT) platforms, new in 2020, became as common as social media. With Netflix and Amazon Prime becoming household names. Made with all the limitations that COVID-19 brought, quite a few of the films that were released in 2021, still glowed with the kind of surprising brilliance Malayalam cinema is known for. Here are a few we enjoyed and some that were popular during this eventful year.

The Great Indian Kitchen: It’s still unbelievable that the big OTT players had at first rejected this significant movie. A script that almost entirely devoted itself to a woman’s housework might have seemed unattractive. And yet, it appears to be the very same drudgery that appealed to the tens of thousands who embraced the film, across Kerala, and across the country even. Jeo Baby, the director who’s known for the stand he takes in his movies and outside of it, became a popular figure. Nimisha Sajayan played the woman walking into a life she could never live, like lakhs of others in real life, and her decision to walk out of it became one many women pinned their hopes on.

Read: ‘The Great Indian Kitchen’: When women are not ready to wait

Operation Java: Sadly, this movie didn’t get the attention it deserved in the first few days of its release. But good movies seem to have a way of somehow reaching people, and day by day it grew popular. All it did was tell the story of two unemployed young men (adorably played by Lukman Lukku and Balu Varghese) and the technical brilliance they show in solving crimes. But like a reality that is quietly shoved under the carpet, it reveals an ugly truth in the end – it is not always the deserving that wins the race. This film made debut director Tharun Moorthy, a name to look out for.

Read: ‘Premam’ leak to morphing: Tharun Moorthy’s ‘Operation Java’ is on cyber crimes

Drishyam 2: The sequel to a very famous movie, director Jeethu Joseph had to open up a story he thought he had closed for good. He pulls off a decent part two. Though perhaps, not as well made as the first one, it is an engaging, surprising takeoff from where things had ended before. People have changed within the movie, as people do, in a gap of seven years. There is also the effect the crime, which took place in the first part, has taken on the various characters involved in it. Mohanlal, bearded and thinner, once again becomes the shrewd Georgekutty you don’t expect him to be. Meena, Esther, Ansiba and other actors reprise roles while a new set of characters add newer possibilities to the story.

Read: 'Drishyam 2': What the sequel gets right on sexual violence that the first film didn't

Biriyaani:  The awards had come first, the movie later. But those who saw it came to appreciate the actor – Kani Kusruti – who plays the lead, as much or even more than the movie itself. It is all Kani in the movie, even with very little for her to speak or express. It is the quietness with which she welcomes her situations – many of them drastic and life-changing – that makes the film so eerily real. This is the untold story of so many women and director Sajin Baabu tells it with daring honesty.

Read: ‘Biriyaani’ review: Kani brilliantly portrays a suspected ISIS joinee’s sister

Aarkkariyam: Though slow, the movie had a depth in it like the guarded secret of its main character, a 73-year-old man played by Biju Menon. Parvathy Thiruvothu and Sharaf U Dheen play the daughter and son-in-law of the old man, who are visiting home just ahead of the COVID-19 lockdown. Performances especially by Biju Menon made it a smooth watch that thrills at places but refuses to break the slow pace it started with.

Read: Years away from Kerala makes you appreciate it better: 'Aarkariyam' director Sanu intv

Joji: Despite all the anticipation of the movie that combined director Dileesh Pothan and actor Fahadh Faasil, it did not fail to impress. It did the opposite. Loosely based on Macbeth, the story takes place in a hill town. Everything happens within the confines of a big home and its neighbourhood. Where a modern-day patriarch rules over his family. Fahadh plays the young man driven to madness by his merciless father. Anything that mixes crazy with dark humour and a little bit of villainy seems like the recipe for the perfect Fahadh character. And he does it gloriously well. Unnimaya, seen in the premises of Pothan movies before, got out into the open and presented herself as one more young talent Malayalam cinema can bank on.

Read: 'Joji' review: Fahadh and Dileesh Pothan deliver a brilliant adaptation of 'Macbeth'

Nayattu: As engaging and well-appreciated as the movie was, there was criticism on its treatment of Dalit characters and certain insinuations made by some characters. The film does not try to condemn this dig against the oppressed caste but lets it pass off as something the character – a villain in the film – deserved. The rest of the film tells a very important tale, a chase of police officials who accidentally get involved in a murder, opening up holes in the system. Joju George is exceptional as a police officer who dotes on his daughter. Nimisha Sajayan and Kunchacko Boban play their parts well.

Read: ‘Nayattu’ review: Joju, Kunchacko, Nimisha are excellent in a tightly packed film

Sara's: It was not quite in the line of Jude Anthany Joseph’s other movies although the director kept to his track of female-centric films. While his first movie, Om Shanthi Oshana stuck to a safe conventional path, the second took a leap into the little-explored territory of old women stories (Oru Muthassi Gadha). The third –Sara's – took a further leap into the taboo subject of abortion. It was the subject more than the treatment that made the film appreciable. And of course Anna Ben's unforgettable performance as Sara, the aspiring filmmaker who just wouldn't budge when it came to her thoughts about children. 

Read: Personal freedom is like breathing: 'Sara's' director Jude interview

Malik: Directed by Mahesh Narayanan, this film starring Fahadh Faasil, Nimisha Sajayan, Vinay Forrt and Joju George, is loosely based on the 2009 Beemapally police shooting. Spanning several decades, the thriller follows the life of Sulaiman, from his years growing up in Ramadapally to how he rises to become a powerful gangster and the events that lead to his fall. The film weaves together politics, religion, communalism and state violence in a non-linear narrative. It was released on Amazon Prime Video and received mostly positive reviews from critics.

Read: Winnowing of fact and fiction in 'Malik' shakes up Kerala’s collective amnesia

Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam: Don Palathara worked with actors Rima Kallingal and Jitin Puthencherry to write the script of this movie is mostly a long, long dialogue between two people. All that the viewer sees is the car they are travelling in and of course the couple themselves, for the most part. The onus of keeping it interesting fell on Don – the director and scriptwriter – and on the two actors. The premise itself is gripping. The couple is discussing pregnancy, and unplanned pregnancy. They are on their way to the hospital to confirm it. It becomes a series of what-ifs, throwing blame, a draining conversation that never ends. It became too real for the viewer to lose interest or not be affected enough to take sides. 

Read: 'Santhoshathinte Onnam Rahasyam': When a woman isn't ready for motherhood

Home: This film was not exactly everyone's cup of tea. It had a certain slowness to it. But it brought up the reality of the growing gap between parents and children that has come with technology. Indrans playing the father to adult children is adorable with his new smartphone. Sreenath Bhasi, Naslen, Manju Pillai, Johny Antony are all terrific in their respective roles. Only the backstory sits unfittingly exaggerated against what is a very convincing plot, directed by Rojin Thomas.

Read: 'I am not technologically savvy, neither is my character': Indrans interview

Thinkalazhcha Nishchayam: The award for the movie came before the movie itself got an OTT release date. But after a preview at the last International Film Festival of Kerala, word got out about the cosy Kasargod film. Most of the actors are new and all of them in and around Kanhangad where the movie is set and where its director – Senna Hegde – comes from. On the face of it, it is not an unusual story – a young woman being pulled into an arranged marriage against her wishes, a strict old-fashioned father, a mother working endlessly at home, and an elder sister who had eloped and “humiliated” the family. But the telling, so naturally laced with humour, makes it a very dear film.

Read: Meet Senna Hegde, director of the authentic Kanhangad film ‘Thingalazcha Nishchayam’

Kurup: The film was released with a lot of hype and quite a lot of it worked, it turned out to be hugely popular. It told a very famous crime story from decades ago and put a leading star into the thick of it to play not the poor victim but the manipulative calculating villain. Dulquer Salmaan used all his famous style to play Kurup -- the movie version of the real-life Sukumara Kurup. The script has been written after a lot of research with carefully mixed fiction. However, the portrayal of the villainous character appeared to be celebratory, as the film treats him as a hero.

Read: Portrayal of negative character versus glorification of it: Kurup in context

Jan.E.Man.: Poor Balu Varghese. It seems all his well-made films take time to get attention (a reference to Operation Java here). This is a nice small film circling around two houses in an Idukki neighbourhood, with such easy dialogue and spontaneous humour, that you wonder why there can’t be more of these. It is a bunch of young men and their individual stories coming out on a drunken night when one of them celebrates his birthday and the other comes home for his dad’s death. As director Chidambaram said, it is about finding silliness in dark situations. Memorable performances came from the actors, including Balu, Ganapathy, Arjun Ashokan and especially Basil Joseph, who is a director as well.

Read: ‘Idea is to find silliness in dark situations’: Jan.E.Man. director on making the comedy

Madhuram: A Christmas release among many others, Madhuram and its ‘sweetness’ should not be missed out on. The premise itself is interesting – a hospital with a bunch of bystanders finding comfort in each other’s company. Their stories are varied but they come with oodles of love. A husband boasting about his 40-year marriage as the wife stays unwell, a son waiting on his mother as he can’t accept the new wife, another man who cooks splendidly talking about loving a woman who sneaked into a hotel for biriyani and so goes the stories. Joju George takes on a different character in this film, proving he is not limited as an actor.

Read: Madhuram review: This Joju George film has a sweet story and unforgettable food

Minnal Murali: People were just waiting to love this superhero film, going by the kind of welcome it received even before it was released. Superhero movies had always seemed a thing of the West, something from Hollywood that we enjoyed from far away. So when Tovino Thomas put on a blue and red costume and stood on top of a building, people were happy there’s finally a local superhero. Director Basil Joseph just appears to know the pulse of the people when he puts a superhero in a place called Kurukkanmoola and makes him grow from a silly young fellow to a responsible man. Only the part about the villain seemed confusing for some. Guru Somasundaram did super well as Shibu. But there was no confusing him for anything other than what he was clearly becoming in front of your eyes. He is Breaking Bad bad if you are looking for the kind of ‘bad’ that he becomes.

Read: Why Minnal Murali's portrayal of Shibu isn't glorifying stalking

(With inputs from Sowmya Rajendran)

Also read:

Jai Bhim to Maanaadu: Best Tamil cinema of 2021

Love Story to Pushpa: Best Telugu films of 2021

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