These are exciting times for Malayalam cinema. Audiences for long besotted with superstars and established directors have begun to give a thumbs up to newbie actors and young filmmakers brimming with refreshing ideas and themes.
Seven low-budget films released in 2016 and 2017 that have won critical acclaim are Maheshinte Prathikaram, Kammatipaadam, Anuraga Karikkin Vellam, Kaadu Pookunna Neram, Angamaly Diaries, Thondimuthalum Drikshakshiyum and the Onam release Njandukalude Naatil Oru Idavela.
The box office response to these films have not been uniform and some have fetched better returns than others but each of them has added a new dimension to Malayalam cinema.
This film which marked the directorial debut of Dileesh Pothan had a simple plot. A young photographer Mahesh is slighted by a rival who bashes him up when he intervenes in a tiff. Mahesh takes a vow to avenge his humiliation and also decides to shun chappals till he extracts his revenge.
Fahadh Faasil as the protagonist slipped into the skin of the character with consummate ease. The USP of the film was the taut screenplay by Shyam Pushkaran which won him a National Award. With a strong undercurrent of comedy, satire and emotional content, Maheshinte also won the National Award for the Best Malayalam film.
Sterling performances from the heroines Anusree and Aparna Balamurali too propped up the film which turned out to be a commercial success as well. Bijibalâ€™s music score and Shyju Khalidâ€™s photography were the other positives.
A film on small-time gangsters helmed by acclaimed cinematographer Rajeev Ravi, a self-confessed admirer of Tarantino, Kammatipaadam was multi-layered with references to exploitation of the Dalits. It also had a theme focused on abiding friendships and lasting loyalty.
Dulquer Salman essayed the main role of Krishnan and was ably supported by the rest of the cast including Vinayakan and Manikandan, a theatre artist. Revenge is swift and brutal, the action sequences slick and stylishly choreographed, the frames half-lit yet absorbing and the dialogues hard-hitting and pungent.
Set against the backdrop of slums in Ernakulam, the film also boasts of excellent photography by Madhu Neelakantan. The climax where Krishnan avenges his friend Gangaâ€™s (Vinayakan) murder was chillingly picturised with the villain sent crashing to his doom from a high rise building.
Anuraga Karikkin Vellam
This small budget film warmed the cockles of many a viewerâ€™s heart with it tale of a closely knit family comprising a police officer, his wife, their architect son and his girlfriend. Directed by debutant Khalid Rahman, it had actors Biju Menon, Asif Ali, Asha Sharath and a newcomer Rajisha Vijayan portraying the principal characters.
What lifted the film from the mundane was the interplay of emotions, a toast to family values and a fine thread of humour interwoven into the plot. The film fetched Rajisha the Kerala State Award for Best Actress and the lively script by Naveen Bhaskar too won kudos from critics and the audience alike.
Intricately nuanced, it scored as a commentary on contemporary lives.
Kaadu Pookunna Neram
Homeopath turned director Dr Bijuâ€™s films like Saira and Veetilekku Ulla Vazhi have been screened at international film festivals and have also reaped a rich harvest of awards.
His venture Kaadu Pookunna Neram too had its premiere at the Montreal World Film Festival in 2016. The wild jungles with endless, long stretches provided a perfect backdrop for the the story - that of an inspector who has been given the assignment to track down radicals cooped up in the forests and striking at vulnerable targets.
The cop realises that his main target is a woman and in a strange denouement, they find themselves estranged from their teams and only the woman knows the way out of the jungle, leaving the hunter at the mercy of the hunted.
Indrajith as the policeman and the fiery Rima Kallingal as a Naxal have done full justice to their roles. The film maintains its tempo throughout and is a celebration of the forest, its tranquility and tribal life. It also vividly depicts the fight between those in authority and the oppressed who are deemed to be security risks and outlaws.
The dense forests come alive in a blaze of colour, with a series of montages exquisitely shot by cinematographer M J Radhakrishnan. Hard hitting dialogues characterised the film, which also struck an emotional chord.
Hailed as one of the box-office hits of 2017, this unpretentious film was directed by Lijo Jose Pellissery of Amen fame. Angamaly Diaries was a film that explored the dark, squalid underbelly of Angamaly and its gang wars. But what was unique about this effort was that it introduced to the screen more than eighty new stars and also boasted of a climax featuring over a 1000 artists.
Based on a script by actor Chemban Vinod Jose, the film had Antony Varghese nursing ambitions of attaining supremacy among the gangster clans. AD is a dark comedy with fast paced action, riveting frames and the cast, all still wet behind the ears, matched up to the expectations.
Prashant Pillaiâ€™s music score, technical finesse and Lijoâ€™s deft directorial touches all contributed in equal measure to the filmâ€™s box-office success and accounted for the plaudits that came its way. More than anything else, it proved that marquee names, exotic locations and so on are not necessary for box-office success.
This film, the second directorial venture of Dileesh Pothan, proves in ample measure that his debut Maheshinte Prathikaram was no flash in the pan.
A black comedy laced with satire, the story credited to Sajeev Pazhoor revolves around an inter-caste couple fleeing town to escape the wrath of their kin. The theft of the brideâ€™s gold chain which they had hoped to pawn for their sustenance leaves them helpless.
Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan play the unfortunate couple and Fahadh Faasil plays the petty thief who snatches the chain and swallows it for good measure. A number of scenes in the film were shot in an actual police station.
The film takes potshots at social mores, police interrogation etc. A stellar performance from Fahadh who takes up from where he left off in Maheshinte Prathikaram, cinematography by Rajeev Ravi and Bijibalâ€™s pleasing tunes turned this film into a great entertainer.
Njandukalude Naattil Oridavela
One of the four releases this Onam, this Nivin Pauly production was also the comeback vehicle for yesteryear actor Shanthi Krishna. Playing Sheela, a mother of three grown up children - a son (Nivin) and two daughters - she is the vital cog in the family. Their cozy little world turns topsy turvy when it is discovered that she is suffering from breast cancer.
Althaf Salim who acted in the smash hit Premam and the more recent Sakhavu has directed and co-written the film which is full of light and serious moments. Lal as Sheelaâ€™s husband and Aishwarya Lekshmi as Paulyâ€™s love interest have also made their presence felt in the film.
The film has recieved its share of bouquets and brickbats but still awaits its real test at the box office.
At a time when multi-crore extravaganzas are biting the dust, these small films are verily re-writing the history of Malayalam cinema.