The recent superhit film Angamaly Diaries which has been making waves across the country for its extraordinary storytelling and direction, has a bar fight right at the beginning. As the brawl grows bigger and the men fall on each other, the scene acquires its atmosphere because of the music which is played at this juncture - Ilaiyaraaja's Ilamai idho idho from Sakalakalavallavan.
This is a Malayalam film and is firmly located in a specific town with rich details about its local culture - from dialect to cuisine. And yet, the Raaja number does not strike a discordant note. In fact, the headiness of that score sets the mood for the rest of the film. This is about the hot-blooded youth of Angamaly and this is how they swing.
Considering how popular Tamil films are in Kerala, especially in recent times, it's not surprising that a Malayalam film turned to a landmark Tamil song to highlight an emotion. Later in the film, as Vincent Peppe and his friends are talking, we see the Mona Gasolina song from Lingaa playing on TV; another scene has Sarakku vacchuruken from Vijay's Shajahan playing in the background. Angamaly, like the rest of Kerala, likes its Tamil cinema, it would seem.
Tamil films do brisk business in Kerala and get huge openings, too. Actors like Vijay, Suriya, Vikram, and Ajith have a substantial fan-base in Kerala - a prime reason why promotional activities for upcoming films are carried out in the state as well. Hit Tamil films are played on Malayalam channels frequently, even during festival times.
Tamil Nadu and Kerala are neighboring states and this cultural association is not entirely new. In fact, JC Daniel, who is known as the Father of Malayalam Cinema, was born in a Tamil Christian family in Travancore, and MGR, one of the biggest superstars of Tamil cinema, was a Malayali.
To a certain extent, Tamil films have accommodated the Malayali character. There's the quintessential "Nair" in the tea-shop but there have also been heroines playing Malayali characters (Asin in M Kumaran S/o Mahalakshmi, Trisha in Vinnai Thaandi Varuvaaya to name a few) and the occasional hero (who can forget Palakkattu Madhavan from Andha Ezhu Naatkal?).
However, though there have been Malayalam films in the past which have had Tamil pop culture references, Tamil characters or have even been set partly in Tamil Nadu (like No 20 Madras Mail), there was always an emphasis on the differences. If Tamil films stereotyped (and fetishized) Malayali women as "Omanakutty", Malayalam films stereotyped Tamils as "Annachi". This despite both industries having people - actors, filmmakers, and technicians - from the other state working within.
But new age Malayalam filmmakers are rapidly bridging the cultural gap on screen. The Malayalam blockbuster Premam is perhaps the best example for how seamlessly the two cultures have blended in the popular imagination in Kerala. Not only was one of the heroines a Tamil speaking woman with a very Tamil name like Malar (Sai Pallavi), the film had a "kuthu" (Rockankuthu) song to boot. In the scene when George and Malar meet for the first time, George's "Thamizha?!" exclamation comes with an immediate expression of interest. Among the best comedy scenes from the film is Mava/Vimal Sir (Vinay Forrt) singing Ennavaley from Kadhalan in an attempt to impress Malar. Premam enjoyed a dream run in Kerala as well as Tamil Nadu and it was the Malar-George pair that was a favourite for most people across the two states.
The influence of Tamil culture in Premam is not surprising considering Alphonse Puthren, the director, made his debut with Neram, a bilingual shot in Tamil and Malayalam. Indeed, with many young directors and actors from Kerala having grown up in Tamil Nadu or studied or worked in the state for at least a few years, the cultural gap doesn't exist when it comes to an expression of their creativity.
The recently released Dulquer Salmaan film, Jomonte Suvisheshangal, has a Tamil heroine (Aishwarya Rajesh), too. And in fact, it is she who gets a much bigger role in the film, relegating Anupama Parameswaran who plays a Malayali Christian girl and Dulquer's first love, to second spot.
The alien city for the Malayali audience is not Chennai any more, it's quite firmly Bengaluru - Kerala's current land of dreams. But who's complaining? Certainly, not the fans of Thala, Thalapathy or Thalaivar in Kerala or those who don't understand a word of Chayakadakkara (Angamaly Diaries) or Malarey (Premam) but are humming the tune anyway under a hot Madras sun.