‘New age’ Malayalam cinema has many fans, but does the older generation feel left out?

Each era has been witness to new waves in Malayalam cinema. But have themes and storytelling techniques ever been as novel as they are now?
Rep image of elderly person watching television
Rep image of elderly person watching television
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Eight years ago, when we were watching Premam in the now-defunct Sri Visakh theatre in Thiruvananthapuram, my mother and my seven-year-old nephew both sat with gloomy faces. The seven-year-old wrapped the end of my shawl around him, choosing to drown his gloom in sleep. His grandmother stayed awake, straining to follow what the younger lot in the audience appeared to enjoy so much. It was not that she did not like the film, but that she could hardly make out what was being told.

In the last decade or so, when movies in Malayalam rolled out in all different hues and forms, many things happened. Audiences, who had in the decade before that chose to stick to their television sets and give the theatres a miss, began tumbling out of their homes and into the movie houses. Malayalam cinema, written off as going through the worst of times in the 2000s, suddenly found itself in the limelight. A whole new crop of talented actors and technicians sprang up, creating movies with varied themes and beautiful performances. Along with all the good news though, the new age cinema also appeared to distance a chunk of its older viewers.

“While I know films have become more realistic, it is not easy for people of my generation to follow the changing techniques, such as the feeble sound of the dialogues (sync sound), or the way music starts right in the middle of a conversation,” says Bindu, a resident of Thiruvananthapuram, who had from her childhood been an ardent follower of Malayalam cinema, keeping in her trunks the old song books they used to give out at every film screening.  But the new bundle of films which have won international acclaim somehow failed to touch her. 

Watch: Song from Premam

"I don't understand half the things they say, when it sounds like they are mumbling under their breath," she complains. Sync sound, while making the whole setting relatable, often affects the clarity of dialogues, which have always been a prominent feature of Malayalam movies. Heroes were loved for their loud and angry retorts. Female characters, though they were mostly heard in a dubbing artist's voice when their own voices were not "sweet" enough, were still loud and clear. 

New age movies also resort to authentic dialects, true to the region it is set in, making it difficult for viewers from another part of the state to follow every word, Bindu adds. It is not criticism — she understands that this only adds value to the film. But these are the reasons she lists for her difficulty with new age cinema.

When the term was increasingly used a decade ago – new generation or new age cinema – it was frowned upon. There have always been new waves in cinema every few years; that is how the medium evolves. In the 70s, Adoor Gopalakrishnan and others from film schools pioneered art house movies, beginning with Swayamvaram. The 80s saw filmmakers like Bharathan, KG George, and Padmarajan placing beautiful stories in realistic settings, blending serious cinema with mainstream influences. Parallely, several genres were popularised — romance and relationships in Fazil’s films, village and family stories from Sathyan Anthikad, sentimental works of Sibi Malayil, and the comedies of Priyadarshan.

Watch: Scene from KG George's Yavanika

Even through the sea of change of the 70s and 80s – performance methods evolving drastically, "natural acting" becoming the mantra, easing in of parallel tracks meant for comedy to mostly linear storytelling – Malayalam cinema seemed to draw in people of all age groups. There were the stray complaints of new films coming nowhere near the old classics, but this had little to do with the aged being unable to follow newer formats. That happened in the 2010s.

"Storytelling has changed. Fractured, non-linear, hyperlink, and experimental narratives (Thallumaala for example) are more common now, where the audience is required to piece together what happened. Young people, who have more exposure to international content, may not find this confusing, but the older generation does. The latter probably prefers a more straightforward screenplay," says film critic and writer Sowmya Rajendran.

It is not just the techniques, either, that pull the older viewers away. Sowmya attributes it to the themes too. "The themes in new wave cinema do not present themself in binaries, as was the case with mainstream films a couple of decades ago. So, hero-villain or good-evils aren't clearly demarcated as they used to be. The symbols, metaphors, and cues used to indicate these have also changed and so has the moral landscape. It's possible to see a woman who leaves her family behind as a good person in Kumbalangi Nights, for example, or to view someone so cynical as Tovino's character in Dear Friend with empathy," she says.

Watch: Scene from Dear Friend

That is one reason Lalithambika, a Kochi resident in her 80s, is not too fond of new wave cinema. "There used to be a message, something we could learn from watching films. Now, it has become a timepass," she says.

Lalithambika’s favourites are still 60s classics such as Bharya, featuring Sathyan and Rajasree, and KS Sethumadhavan’s Yakshi, adapted from Malayattoor Ramakrishnan’s short story by the same name. “The charm and intrigue of those films still haven’t been erased from my mind,” she says. She acknowledges that it could also be the nostalgia of watching these films in her 20s with her husband Madhavan, who never missed a new release. Bharya and Yakshi, both Sathyan films, had been unique in the way one made a villain of the hero and the other called out blind beliefs, forming the new wave of the time. 

Watch: Song from Yakshi

The last new-wave as viewers and critics recognised it, came in the early 2010s, when young directors turned up with unique stories and curious ways of telling them. Linear storytelling was not the norm anymore. Scripts came in various forms, sometimes entirely absent, with directors trusting the actors to come up with the lines when presented a situation. Most of it seemed to work too — the end product was not just novel, but cleverly made. 

"During the early 2010s, Malayalam cinema went through a 'rebellious teenager' phase, with an influx of films portraying young people in urban settings engaging in morally dubious behaviour, which may have left some older movie-goers feeling disconnected. Even Premam, a movie with a traditional perspective on love and marriage, had a distinct texture that was primarily created in post-production," says the film critic Aswathy Gopalakrishnan.

Among the new movies would also be those made by filmmakers who began in earlier decades and whose works are still acceptable to the older generation of viewers. Bindu says she still makes it a point to watch Sathyan Anthikad movies as they continue to come in a form she understood and enjoyed. But then Sathyan Anthikad's storytelling formula did not exactly change with the times, even as he chose new actors to play the characters and incorporated technological advances. 

Watch: Scene from Njan Prakashan

"Families and people of older generations come in plenty for Sathyettan's movies," says Girish, manager of Sri Padmanabha Theatre in Thiruvananthapuram. "And for one of his previous films, Njan Prakashan, there were also a lot of young people in the audience, perhaps because Fahadh Faasil played the lead in it."

Fahadh Faasil is easily the most identified with new age cinema. A number of his early films refused to follow familiar formulas of filmmaking, often casting him in shades of grey. While Prithviraj Sukumaran, another actor of the same age group, is known for his loud dialogues and larger than life presence in movies, Fahadh sometimes spoke in whispers, barely making himself heard. "Young women actors of these days are also not always audible. But it is appreciable that they all dub for their characters. This was not the case some years ago," Bindu adds.

Both she and Lalithambika raise “lack of good music” as another reason for disliking movies of recent years. “Today’s songs don’t have the evergreen quality of older films. The lines penned by lyricists like P Bhaskaran are still etched into our minds. There is no emphasis on such poetic lines anymore,” Lalithambika says.  There are always exceptions like 'Azhalinte Azhangalil' from Ayalum Njanum Thammil and 'Aaradhike' from Ambili.

Watch: Song from Ambili

When they tell family-oriented stories, new age films tend to attract the older generation, even though they have to sit through the nuances of storytelling they don't understand. Bindu cites Bangalore Days and Om Shanthi Oshana as examples.

"Films with many important characters can be confusing for an older generation that's used to following the story through one or two characters. We also have more open-ended films now, where the audience may not have all the answers at the end of it. They may feel cheated of the satisfaction you're supposed to get at the end of a good film," Sowmya says.

Films catering to such needs, films which are tagged "feel good" have takers across age groups. Movies made by Vineeth Sreenivasan, and those echoing the vibes of 90s cinema are eagerly watched. Girish says that when Varane Avashyamundu, a film woven around relationships and told through straightforward narrative, came out, people of every age group embraced it. 

Watch: Scene from Varane Avashyamundu

"Recent movies have returned to depicting the insides of middle-class households and exploring familial tales, often employing the humour popularised through small-screen comedies," Aswathy says.

After a while, there is also the adaptability factor that humans seem so good at. When you are fed with a new kind of cinema for years on end, you learn to adapt to it, picking up the pieces you earlier thought you could not and even enjoying them little by little. Lalithambika says she actually enjoyed Premam, watching it the day of its release with her grand-daughters. "The film is just another love story, with little to offer in terms of a message. But the way it captured the beauty in little things, the way those butterflies flutter through the frames, it was all very beautiful to look at."

(With inputs from Lakshmi Priya)

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