When script trumps superstars: How Malayalam cinema has changed in the last decade

At the start of the millennium, Malayalam cinema had reached the nadir of mediocrity, with directors and filmmakers pandering to the superstar cult.
When script trumps superstars: How Malayalam cinema has changed in the last decade
When script trumps superstars: How Malayalam cinema has changed in the last decade
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In a career spanning over four decades and 400 films, Mammootty – one half of the big two Ms of Mollywood – has donned the khaki on the silver screen several times. But his latest cop avatar as SI Mani in Khalid Rahman's Unda sprung more than a few surprises. With a slight paunch and gentle mannerisms, SI Mani – fondly called Mani Sir by his colleagues – is anything but the flamboyant macho cop that we see so often in Malayalam movies.

Tasked with leading a bunch of rookie Kerala policemen from Kerala on election duty in the Naxal hotbed of Bastar, SI Mani is a man full of insecurities and vulnerabilities. When the naxalites open fire unexpectedly at their camp, in the middle of the night, SI Mani doesn't take charge. In fact, he goes numb and stays back, silently watching his subordinates struggling to retaliate.

The biggest coup pulled off by director Khalid Rahman is his decision to cast a superstar as an ordinary cop. And by doing so, the director has made a bold statement: content and not stardom is the new king in Kerala's film industry. A few years ago, to do anything of this sort would have been unimaginable, almost sacrilegious in an industry that literally worshipped its superstars. Khaild Rahman in Unda boldly denies Mammootty the grand entry that was almost a ritual at one point of time. He directly pans the camera to the actor's face without any loud background score, deflating any hopes of a dramatic introduction.

The shift

At the onset of this millennium, Malayalam cinema was plagued by its worst crisis and things didn't improve in the first decade either. Only 15 of the 75-odd movies released in 2009 managed to break even or make profits at the box office. On the quality front too, Malayalam cinema had reached the nadir of mediocrity, with directors and filmmakers refusing to come up with fresh ideas and pandering to the superstar cult.

Moustache twirling hypermasculine protagonists beating a dozen baddies to pulp single-handedly, oozing with misogyny in films driven by insane levels of testosterone meant that the audiences could no longer connect to the characters or the story being told on the screen. So, while Mohanlal was seen playing the alpha male Induchoodan in Narasimham, Mammootty was content playing the irreverent, hot-headed, foul-mouthed IAS officer in Renji Panicker's The King. In Narasimham, Mohanlal's character says he wants a woman whom he can kick around after being sloshed and who can also deliver and take care of his babies. On the other hand, in one of the most blatantly chauvinistic scenes, Mammootty's IAS Alex in The King, ends an argument with a junior IAS officer by saying 'you are just a woman'.

On 7 January, 2011, Rajesh Pillai's Traffic hit the screens. The film, which went on to win critical acclaim and achieve box office success, breathed fresh life into the near dead industry. Drawing inspiration from a series of real life incidents that unfolded in Chennai, Traffic is an emotional thriller, scripted by the duo Bobby-Sanjay and directed by Rajesh Pillai. A seminal movie, Traffic dealt with the sensitive issue of organ donation, and followed a hyperlink narrative format linking the lives of its different characters together: a journalist on the deathbed, a traffic cop, a movie superstar full of hubris and a leading cardiac surgeon.

Traffic was one of the first films in Malayalam and Indian regional cinema that incorporated multiple narratives hyperlinked with each other, similar to foreign films.The film rewrote the set formulae and rules of storytelling; it simply narrated the events leading to the tragedy, linking four distinctive families and realistic characters through a coincidence, with no unpredictable twists or turns in the plot. The cinematic rebirth marked the arrival of films that were no longer subservient to the superstar cult and did not portray larger than life characters but had characters that looked and behaved in a manner to which the ordinary people watching the film could relate. 

Director Aashiq Abu rightly remarked thus about the changing tastes and expectations of the Malayali audiences in a panel discussion after the screening of the movie Virus: "People (in Kerala) do not look at the star, they look at the writer and director and the content. You cannot get away with shit now."

New wave cinema

Often called 'new generation' or 'new wave' films, these films by a young crop of filmmakers and actors have been experimenting heavily, slaying stereotypes. With a string of movies failing to click, Malayalam cinema had started to lose its audiences to Bollywood and Tamil films. This mass exodus coincided with the entry of a fresh crop of filmmakers who made movies inspired by global cinema, yet rooted in the Malayali life and ethos, maintaining the local flavour. Realistic, contemporary, slice of life stories about ordinary men and women replaced the over the top stories about larger than life characters.

A coming of age story about the camaraderie among three cousins (Bangalore Days), a photographer in a sleepy village who vows to not wear chappals till he has taken revenge for a petty fight (Maheshinte Prathikaaram), an aspiring pilot’s struggles after an acid attack by her ex boyfriend (Uyare), a nerdy software engineer's struggles with OCD (North 24 Kaatham) and an out of favour cop's battles with alcoholism while trying to nab a serial killer (Memories); these are the offbeat and unconventional plotlines of some recent Malayalam movies that have won accolades from all quarters.

While a lot of time and words have been devoted to the less star focussed and content driven nature, offbeat plots and unconventional storytelling techniques of new generation movies, there is yet another feature that deserves attention: progressive ethos.

In a much discussed scene from Kumbalangi Nights, the clean-shaven but thickly moustached Shammi, superbly portrayed by Fahadh Faasil, looks admiringly at himself into a bathroom mirror and proudly proclaims, "Raymond, the complete man." Shammi is the prototype Malayali macho male that we have seen so often in our movies. He shouts at children who play football near his house, he pokes fun at men who cook, commenting that such tasks are only meant for women, he loves twirling his thick walrus moustache and is proud about his role as the patriarch of his family.

What distinguishes Kumbalangi Nights from all the other older Malayalam movies that are guilty of normalising, vindicating and even glorifying characters like Shammi, is that Madhu C Narayanan’s movie doesn't celebrate but destroys Shammi's notions of toxic masculinity. Shammi is the caricature of the alpha male seen so often on celluloid.

Several Malayalam movies in the past have portrayed women as chattel and normalised sexual assault in the name of love. In Meesha Madhavan (2002), actor Dileep mutters to himself if he should rape the heroine who is sleeping, in a scene that is supposed to be 'funny.' As against this, the 2018 thriller Varathan, engages with subjects like sexual assault and the lecherous male gaze in a serious manner.

Women in the lead

In many ways, with their progressive ethos and outlook, new generation movies are rebelling against and correcting the wrongs of the previous generation of Malayalam movies. While Bollywood and even some older Malayalam movies have exploited the idea of an intense relationship turning toxic to the hilt for box office success, by glorifying the man’s solitude, his alcoholism and even violence, the new generation movies have remarkably rebelled against the norm.

Contrast a movie like Kabir Singh/ Arjun Reddy with the 2019 Parvathy starrer Uyare. While the former celebrates, glorfies and even justifies the actions of a toxic jilted lover, the latter makes no attempt to deify the assaulter but portrays him as an utterly despicable character. When Kabir Singh was shattering box office records, another small budget Malayalam movie bereft of a star cast, Thamaasha, was educating the audience on the perils of body shaming without being too preachy. A remake of the 2017 Kannada film Ondu Motteya Kathe, the makers of Thamaasha dealt with the topic of body shaming with a lot of sensitivity, which the original failed to do as it makes it characters look like cinematic caricatures towards the end.

Several Malayalam movies in the past had pigeonholed women characters - suffering mothers and submissive wives were a common sight. Recent releases have broken that norm - women characters are no longer written to help ‘him’ achieve ‘his dreams’ and to tell ‘his story’, but for showing stories of strong women fighting against all odds, overcoming fears to fulfill their dreams and aspirations.

In Aashiq Abu’s 22 Female Kottayam, Rima Kallingal plays Tessa, a naive nurse living in Bengaluru, who has ambitions of flying out of the country for a job overseas. But all her dreams are dashed when she is raped and locked up for a crime she has not even committed. With everything falling apart, Tessa chooses to assert her agency, exacting revenge on her culprits. Manju Warrier’s portrayal of Nirupama in How Old Are You, as an ordinary government employee who fights against all odds to become an entrepreneur without any support from her husband and while dealing with her teenage daughter’s mood swings, has to feature in the list of Malayalam cinema’s greatest performances ever - what makes it even more special is that this was her return to films after a 14-year long sabbatical.

A shift in sensibilities has led to slow, subtle yet significant evolution of the female lead and actors like Parvathy (Uyare), Aishwarya Lekshmi (Mayaanadhi), Rajisha Vijayan (June) and more recently Anna Ben (Helen) have been leading the change.

Politics within the industry

Interestingly, many big names like Parvathy, Rima Kallingal, Geetu Mohandas, Dileesh Pothen, Rajiv Ravi, Amal Neerad, Anwar Rasheed, Aashiq Abu, Anjali Menon and Shyju Kahild, who are associated with the new-wave/new generation movies that are slaying stereotypes and propagating progressive ethos, have also been actively involved in the sweeping changes taking place in the Malayalam film industry.

Much before the #MeToo movement rocked the Indian entertainment industries and knocked off several assaulters posing as infallible heroes from their pedestals, the Malayalam industry was sharply divided when the all powerful cine artist’s body Association of Malayalam Movie Artists (AMMA) decided to revoke its ban and reinstate actor-producer Dileep, who is accused of being the mastermind behind the abduction and sexual assault of a leading woman actor from the industry in February 2017.

While the old guard of the industry firmly rooted for Dileep, the new crop of filmmakers and actors rebelled against AMMA - Rima Kallingal, Parvathy, Remya Nambeesan, director Geethu Mohandas (key members of the Women in Cinema Collective) quit in protest. Filmmakers Rajiv Ravi (Kamattipaadam), Aashiq Abu (Virus, Salt ‘N’ Pepper, 22 Female Kottayam) and Dileesh Pothan (Maheshinte Prathikaram, Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum) lashed out at AMMA, not even sparing the two Big Ms of the industry.

Conversation on making film units/ sets safer for women were started and filmmakers like Aashiq Abu have walked the talk - his production house, Originals Pixels in Motion, became the first in this industry to announce that an Internal Complaints Committee would be part of every set it creates.

For filmmaker Fazil's 1998 movie Harikrishnans, a love triangle among Mohanlal, Mammootty and Juhi Chawla, two climaxes were shot. While one climax meant for the southern part of the state had Juhi Chawla choose Mohanlal, in other parts of the state, it was Mammootty who was the lucky one. The decision to have two climaxes for different regions was purely driven by the need to appeal to the ardent fan bases of the two superstars.

15 years later, Fazil’s son, Fahadh Faasil, a superstar in his own right, commanding a massive fan base, played a small time thief in Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum (2017). Despite being the biggest name in the cast, he doesn't get a heroine or a duet. Leave that, he doesn't have a name of his own or an identity! At no point does the film pander to his stardom and the story mostly revolves around the newlywed couple played by Suraj Venjaramoodu and Nimisha Sajayan.

In the 2016 film Kammattipaadam, it was the turn of Mammootty's son, Dulquer Salmaan, another superstar with a massive fan following, to play second fiddle to actor Vinayakan. Interestingly, Fahadh won the National Award for Best Supporting Actor (and not Best Actor) while Vinayakan was nominated for Best Actor (and not Best Supporting Actor) for the National Awards.

Suraj Venjaramoodu and Vinayakan are not the biggest names in the star cast of Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum or Kammattipaadam. And yet their characters get more screen time than Fahadh or Dulquer’s characters. Kammattipaadam and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum are not aberrations - several Malayalam movies in the last few years have had actors who usually played character/supporting roles emerge as central protagonists. Soubin Sahir, an accidental actor who always wanted to be a director, became a household name with his roles in Premam (2015) and Maheshinte Prathikaaram (2016). And suddenly, he was playing the lead in movies like Sudani from Nigeria and Kumbalangi Nights. His co-actor from Premam, the FTII Pune graduate Vinay Forrt, was the unlikely lead in Thamaasha. All these movies not only received critical acclaim but also did remarkably well at the box office, busting the myth that commercial success without crowd-pulling stars is impossible.

From scripts being tweaked to exploit the demi-god like status of superstars to new generation superstars happily playing second fiddle, Kerala’s film industry in this decade, has undergone a sea change that has not only led to its emergence as the country’s best industry in terms of content but has also won it several awards and praise globally.

Cutting across the commercial, art-house/parallel cinema and linguistic divides, movies like Lijo Jose Pellissery’s Jallikattu and Geethu Mohandas’s Moothon that have themes and narrative styles firmly rooted in Malayali life and culture but are set in a language that also appeals to the wider non-Malayali audience, have been winning big at several international film festivals and also gaining popularity on OTT platforms. With Malayalam movies hogging more and more of the limelight, the new-gen stars like Nivin Pauly, Dulquer Salmaan, Parvathy, Fahadh Fassil and Tovino Thomas are also attracting offers from other film industries.

A man who surely knew more than a few things about filmmaking, once famously remarked, "To make a great film you need three things- the script, the script and the script". Many moons later, Kerala's cinema industry seems to be religiously following the advice of a certain Mr. Alfred Hitchcock.

This decade has surely belonged to Malayalam cinema that has come of age.

Omkar can be found chasing cats when he isn't fanboying over Anurag Kashyap, drooling over Dulquer Salman, or involved in a heated exchange on Indian politics. He has previously written for The Wire, The Quint, Arré and DailyO. 

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