More than 230 Malayalam films came out in 2023, most of these released in theatres while a few premiered on Over The Top platforms. A small selection stood out with unusual themes, beautiful portrayals and performances, or simply great writing. Interestingly, Malayalam cinema’s senior-most star and art house veteran Mammootty had a good year with three of his movies doing wonderfully well and being hailed among fans as well as critics. Here, we pick out a list of the best movies in Malayalam this year.
Nanpakal Nerathu Mayakkam – Mammootty had begun his run of critically acclaimed films already with the likes of Puzhu and Bheeshma Parvam last year. Performance-wise, he takes it a notch up with Nanpakal, playing a common man falling asleep on a bus and waking up as an entirely different person. Lijo Jose Pellissery, known for his unusual characterisations, has Mammootty in his best form, twiddling between a Malayali James on a pilgrim trip and a Tamilian Sundaram delivering milk in a village. You get your own Alice-in-wonderland, only without the visible props.
Thankam – Thankam is more here for the performances of its two lead actors, Vineeth Sreenivasan and Biju Menon, than the making itself. Syam Pushkaran’s script brings out an arresting narrative, full of unexpected twists and turns, as it takes the story of two businessmen dealing with gold to another level. What begins as a harmless fun story suddenly turns midway into a murder mystery. Saheed Arafath is a director to look forward to.
Iratta – A slow burn whodunit with a chilling climax, Iratta features an exceptional Joju George in a dual role as twin brothers, both police officers with starkly different personalities. Director Rohit Krishnan, who has written the film as a thriller that cuts between the past and present of its protagonists, gradually builds a searing character study of the two protagonists – at least one of them a seemingly irredeemable criminal, haunted by his traumatic childhood. Though the script falters at times, the ending more than makes up for it, posing scathing questions about how a criminal is made and the unfathomable extent to which one’s actions can affect the people around them.
Romancham – Romancham was a surprise, the way it took off after coming out without fanfare. Soubin Shahir and a pack of six men, playing young IT professionals in the Bengaluru of 2007, struck a chord with the thousands of Malayalis still leading or knowing those leading similar lives. Their shabby house and lifestyles became relatable, and the horror element, soaked in humour, only added to the charm. Arjun Ashokan had a sudden burst in popularity, playing the peculiar cousin to Soubin. Jithu Madhavan, the director, makes a stellar debut, helped by some lovely performances and the music of Sushin Syam.
Ntikkakkakkoru Premandaarnnu – Watching Bhavana’s comeback film is like medicine prescribed for mental peace. Six years after her last Malayalam film, she walks into the film like she had never been away, effortless in her role as a woman in her 30s and mother of a little boy. Sharafudheen and Bhavana present a beautiful love story, as straightforward and comforting as it can get, without the drama or the cheesiness you fear of romantic comedies. Writer-director Adhil M Asharaf also places a little girl at the centre, narrating her big brother's love story.
Thuramukham – Rajeev Ravi’s period film is a detailed and captivating retelling of a time when workers in Fort Kochi were paid with the inhuman chappa system, of throwing coins in the air and letting the workers fight for it. Nivin Pauly, Arjun Ashokan, Nimisha Sajayan and Joju all gave some of their best performances but Poornima Indrajith, as the ageing single parent, received the most praise.
Purusha Pretham – Krishand, the filmmaker who made the surrealistic Aavasavyuham, comes back with a humorous mystery drama called Purusha Pretham, releasing it on OTT. Prasanth Alexander, playing the lead character – a boastful cop telling tall tales to a coterie of subordinates – has been clearly underutilised for years. He and Darshana Rajendran, who plays a woman with an unusual demand from the police, make a pair of interesting adversaries, in this dark and joyous ride of a thriller.
B 32 Muthal 44 Vare – Shruthi Sharanyam’s debut feature, made as part of the Kerala government’s project to fund women filmmakers, gives you the stories of five women and a transman, connected beautifully through a thread of body politics. Anarkali Marikkar, Zarin Shihab, Ashwathy, Ramya Nambeesan, Krishna Kurup and Raina Radhakrishnan lead the stories.
Pachuvum Athbutha Vilakkum – Too hastily judged as the ‘feel-good’ type his father specialised in, Akhil Sathyan manages to turn the tables and spring a surprise with Pachubum Athbutha Vilakkum. With a bankable Fahadh Faasil leading the show and an unexpected elderly woman, (played by Viji Venkatesh) taking his side, Akhil experiments with the familiar genre, shakes it and gives a wonderful entertainer.
Thrishanku – Just the one-liner gist of the film will give you a hint of the comedy that Thrishanku is: Two young people plan to elope and somehow end up doing that in the company of two uncles who have no clue about it. Anna Ben and Arjun Ashokan play the unfortunate couple, and tagging along with them are actors Nandhu and Suresh Krishna in one of their funniest performances. Director Achuth Vinayak makes an enjoyable entertainer of the resulting confusion.
Baakki Vannavar – Made by a young crew, Baaki Vannavar manages to give painful reminders of the struggles of unemployed youth through the portrayal of a gig worker. Amal Prasi, the director, Salmanul, who plays the lead character and co-wrote the script, and many others in the cast and crew are former students of the Maharaja's College in Ernakulam. Graduates of recent years, they were able to convey the realistic picture of an average young person, fresh out of college and without a proper job.
Kannur Squad – Mammootty, in a role slightly reminiscent of his character in Unda, leads a gang of young policemen that makes rapid investigations. Set on a very realistic frame, the film is as much about the unacknowledged work and limitations the police team goes through, as it is about their heroic endeavours. Roby Varghese Raj, the director, casts his brother and actor Rony David, Shabareesh Varma and Azeez Nedumangad as the other team members in this grounded thriller.
Falimy – Falimy is as organic as it is funny, and that is a great combination to work with, especially when you have a team of reliable performers. Basil Joseph leads the story, only the way he can, playing a commoner going through hard times, taking his family on a trip to Varanasi. Joining him are Jagadish, playing the father, Manju Pillai, the mother and two wonderful newcomers—Sandeep Pradeep, playing the younger brother, and Meenaraj Palluruthy, an amazing grandpa. Nithish Sahadev makes a helluva debut, directing the comic drama.
Kaathal The Core – Just when you think Mammootty has perhaps done it all, the man surprises you by taking the lead yet again, going into unchartered territories. He teams up with Jyothika in a film directed by Jeo Baby and gives you a touching story of lost chances and living double lives.