The village as setting: How Malayalam cinema has evolved in depicting rural life

With time, the village in Malayalam cinema has grown in size to accommodate a more multidimensional group of characters and ideas.
The village as setting: How Malayalam cinema has evolved in depicting rural life
The village as setting: How Malayalam cinema has evolved in depicting rural life
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Directors often have the annoying habit of creating oversimplified backgrounds to set their stories. Take, for example, the village in early Malayalam cinema, often depicted as an idyllic, pristine small town featuring a host of simple, straightforward characters. But with time, the village in Malayalam cinema has grown in size to accommodate a more multidimensional group of characters and ideas. Here, we take a look at this evolution of Malayalam cinema's rustic locales.

Untarred roads, elongated tiled-roof homes, paddy fields, decadent temples, makeshift tea shops, and ponds form the backdrop of the nameless village in Sathyan Anthikad’s Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu. In fact, every Anthikad film village brims with all things cheerful and ordinary, amongst which he finds his unusual story. Everyone knows their way around the village and strangers are met with an almost intrusive welcoming smile.

The villagers are charmingly sketched—Thattaan Baskaran (Sreenivasan), the local goldsmith who is besotted with Snehalatha (Urvashi), watched over by her greedy father, the village astrologer (Innocent). The tea shop owner (Mammukoya), home-grown trader (Oduvil Unnikrishnan), the Velichapadu (Jagathy Sreekumar), the elderly Hajiar (Karamana Janardhanan) who has just brought a young bride (Parvathy) home. It’s an intricately sketched narrative, with the characters organically occupying their spaces, conversations flowing humorously with the village posing as the soothradhaar.

Three decades later, Dileesh Pothan and Syam Pushkaran recreated a similar village in the backdrop of Idukki, with a narrative built around a farcical thread, about a young man who swears to wear his chappals only after he gets even with his rival. The villages in both films stand testimony to the humiliation and vengeance of these two men. If Bhaskaran gets swindled by Snehalatha and her father, Mahesh Bhavana (Fahadh Faasil) also has a similar story of heartbreak and the task of repairing his reputation in front of his village.

However, Pothan and Pushkaran tweak their village to accommodate the modern milieu. It’s original, rooted, and houses a cross-section of people. Perhaps the characters and conversations are more nuanced and less rhetorical in Maheshinte Prathikaram. Mahesh and Bhaskaran have a coming-of-age arc which are intrinsically linked to their work. Snehalatha and Sowmya (Anushree) are cut from the same cloth, while Jimsy (Aparna Balamurali) gets an audaciously fun sketch as opposed to Shari’s stereotypical teacher. She is the one who provides the breakthrough for Mahesh to rediscover the essence of photography.

Every single character crafted in Maheshinte Prathikaram is a keepsake, much like Ponmuttayidunna Tharavu, but the latter was more meticulous. The Velichapadu and Baby play the role of mentors in their own ways. Or even the wickedly original Crispin (Soubin Shahir). If in the final scene the villagers came together to fight and witness Bhaskaran’s dramatic gambit, in Maheshinte…, the conflicts are more spontaneous and random—like that phone call to decide who gets to look after a plot of land or the one where a possible fist fight gets diverted by the national anthem. But at its core, it’s all feel-good, infused by the indigeneity and naivety of the characters of the village. They also use all the available motifs in the village to string the narrative together. 

The evolution of the village

In the '80s, if the village was often the milieu for warm, fuzzy relationships and innocuous men and women in Sathyan Anthikad films, Priyadarshan crafted narratives where characters were transplanted from village into cities (Poochakkoru Mookuthi, Aram +Aram = Kinnaram) and their hilarious struggles with it. Or in the '90s and 2000s, he created imaginary villages with real and imaginary characters and presented them in psychedelic costumes. He created an aboriginal tribe in the narrative and caricatured them for laughs (Thenmavin Kombathu).

The village in Midhun Manuel Thomas's Aadu Oru Bheekara Jeeviyanu too remains ambiguous, though the characters are hilarious oddballs who keep the narrative going with their irreverent humour and situations. Lijo Jose Pellisery’s musical Amen, is placed in an imaginary village called Kumaran Kari in Central Kerala, with its large glorious church, its music band players and the rest of the characters, topped by the happy pastor Fr. Vattoli (Indrajith Sukumaran) who mediates a romance. Inspired from a Serbian film, Guca!, Pellisery sprinkles spirituality and magic into the narrative, and the villagers and village thrive in the new-age mysticism.

Anthikad seems to believe that his villagers were incapable of being immoral and clothed them in kindness and humour, all under the shelter of patriarchy. You could see elderly women making batches of homemade goodies, tending to the cows, young women making a living only till they find a man, sisters wailing over their share of property, mothers slaving in the kitchen or worrying about their family and boys and men galivanting doing nothing but odd jobs, and finally finding a purpose in life. His initially original supporting characters soon started stagnating and he began rehashing the character sketches of his earlier films.

Though Zachariah and Mushin Parari did work around the same feel-good template for Sudani from Nigeria, it’s again the narrative and characters which stopped them from being cloyingly sweet. If Anthikad mostly worked around the Valluvanadan belt, Zachariah placed Sudani in a village in Malappuram. Every character has been written keeping their roots deeply entrenched into the culture and ethnicity. The mother though remains the epitome of love and sacrifice, is so realistically written and performed that she ends up subverting the stereotypical melodramatic one-dimensional mom on screen. The village in Sudani.. looks so lived in, the characters tangible and situations so natural that we tear up at the most casual scenes.

Rajasenan's Meleparambil Aanveedu is set in an arbitrary village in Kerala, but the film is more about the characters who inhabit a sprawling decadent bungalow in it, fenced by local swimming pools and acres of paddy fields. It’s the kind of film where the village is hardly a character, it’s a mere background that bespoke the inherent patriarchy and heritage of the family.

Kumbalangi Nights, about four dysfunctional brothers, is closely intertwined with the coastal village they hail from. The brothers are unhappy about being identified by a stretch of land which used to be a dumping yard for stray animals. Pushkaran, again as in Maheshinte Prathikaram infuses the motifs of the village into the narrative apart from the authentic dialect and cuisine—local tourism, fishing, indigenous music bands, community and hand ball games.

Lijo Jose Pellisery's Ee Ma Yau, set in a coastal village in South Kerala, is a satire on death. It digs deeper into the history and ethnicity of the Syrian Christian community, exploring their ceremonies and rituals in detail. The villagers are sketched with an eye for detail, keeping them closer to the ethos and moral fabric of the society. A woman sits next to her husband’s dead body and breaks into a metrical weeping punctuated with conversations which sound like nagging, a young romance simmers, along with a tussle for the biggest cremation box, while the pastor plays detective.

K.G. George in Panchavadi Palam has a powerful political satire in the rural backdrop, with a bridge standing as the bone of contention for the panchayath president and a local politician. Sandesham, directed by Sathyan Anthikad and written by Sreenivasan, was also placed in a village where two brothers belonging to different political parties squabble, much to the dismay of their parents. The local politicians, political representatives and their hypocrisies are blended into a witty narrative that speaks about organic farming, idle youth, and other nuances of village life.

Golanthara Vartha, Oral Mathram, Thooval Kottaram, Rasathanthram, Manassinakkare (Sathyan Anthikad films) are about good Samaritan heroes in a village, who eventually get embroiled in situations against their will.

The 2017 film Rakshadhikari Baiju, has a main lead (Biju Menon) who symbolises kindness and generosity in the village, but he also doesn’t take himself too seriously. The writing is cheeky with a coat of humour and underplays the emotional upheavals in the narrative, yet each character leaves a lasting impression.

To cut a long story short, the village in Malayalam cinema has evolved beyond the stereotypical generic imagery of chivalry, kindness, generosity and naivety that was a nostalgic trope from the '80s and '90s. With time, the writing has turned more nuanced, ethnicity has gone beyond the Valluvanadan belt, and the men and women have emerged more complex and rounded.

Neelima Menon has worked in the newspaper industry for more than a decade. She has covered Hindi and Malayalam cinema for The New Indian Express and has worked briefly with She now writes exclusively about Malayalam cinema, contributing to and She is known for her detailed and insightful features on misogyny and the lack of representation of women in Malayalam cinema.

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