Malayalam movies have a certain charm to them that is quite unique. We have seen all kinds of concepts in Malayalam movies, from ultra-orthodox ones to highly progressive ideas. Today, Mollywood movies are making waves with their sophisticated stories and discussions of relevant social issues. Let’s look at pre-2000s Malayalam Movies that were way ahead of their time.
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The idea that life isn’t necessarily anthropocentric (Bhoomiyude Avakashikal 2012), that a woman could break free from an oppressive marriage (The Great Indian Kitchen 2021), that she could rediscover life in her middle ages (How Old Are You 2014), that masculinity can be toxic at times (Kumbalangi Nights 2019), and that transgender is not something that has to be oppressed (Njan Marykutty 2018) are all excellent examples of the winds of change in Mollywood.
However, there are several old Malayalam movies that touted themes and techniques that were ahead of their time that shouldn’t be forgotten. Here is a list of pre-2000’s Malayalam movies, two from each decade from the 1950s to 2000.
The 2004 Hollywood movie The Butterfly Effect is famous for its portrayal of alternate timelines. The movie itself has several endings, depending on which version you watch. Such experimentation is quite rare in Malayalam. When it’s done, as in movies Gramaphone (2003) and Chakkaramuthu (2006), it is mostly due to financial reasons or to satisfy fans, as in Harikrishnans (1998).
However, the first time a Malayalam movie toyed with this idea was way back in the 1950s, the time when the film era was just budding in Kerala. Thiramala, directed by Vimal Kumar had an unexceptional story that focused on the tragic romance of star-crossed lovers Venu and Lakshmi. What set the movie apart was that it had two endings. Both tragedies as far as Venu is concerned; One was shown in southern Kerala and one in the north. In one of them, Venu dies saving Lakshmi and in the other Venu survives but Lakshmi lives happily with another man.
Newspaper Boy (1955)
Newspaper Boy was a critically acclaimed Malayalam drama movie that showcased the struggles of the common man. Having said that, it was also a commercial failure. What makes this movie so special is that it was one of the first movies in the world to be produced entirely by students.
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Today’s students are equally artistic, but we have easy mediums to share our talent, like YouTube and TikTok. Newspaper Boy was made in an era where video making was a luxury. Something that required a lot of commitment. Despite the difficulty, it had an exceptional story boasting elements of Italian neo-realism.
Of course, the director P Ramdas lost a lot of money on it. But it was a milestone in how progressive it was in abandoning set industry formulas.
Malayalam film industry has a good amount of anthology movies, the most popular of which include Naalu Pennungal, Kerala Cafe, and 5 Sundarikal. Chitramela was the Malayalam film that began the tradition back in 1967 and starred veterans like Prem Nazeer and Adoor Bhasi.
One particular short film in Chitramela that is really unique for the time is Penninte Prapancham. It followed actors Adoor Bhasi, Manavalan Joseph, and Bahadoor learning driving from S P Pillai only to somehow awake 50 years in the future. And guess what? In this future, women, not men run the world. A pretty progressive premise for the 1960s. The sad fact is even after 50 years in the future, women still have to struggle for equality. Chitramela as a movie was quite a success. Apart from Penninte Prapancham, there are two other short films in the anthology.
Kannur Deluxe (1969)
This Prem Nazeer-Sheela starrer is a one-of-a-kind movie in its time. It is believed to be the first road movie in Malayalam, setting a precedent for the newer road movies we have come to adore today. A real-life incident in Cherthala, Alappuzha inspired the events in Kannur Deluxe. Like the movie’s title cards once proclaimed, the movie is purely two and a half hours of exciting entertainment. You may not even see the final twist coming!
Malayalam film actors generally have fixed roles, or at least they used to in yesteryears. This is why a film that had a beloved hero playing the villain belongs on this list. Unlike modern ‘villain’ centred stories, Nizhalattam’s protagonist is not an anti-hero or a reluctant villain. There is no motion to dilute the villainy of Prem Nazeer’s character or any whitewashing of his crimes to maintain the star’s heroic image.
The story is also not twisted around Prem Nazeer’s star power. Nizhalattam is not the first movie to use this formula, even though it was the first in the decade. Movies like Jailpully (1957) and Bharya (1962) have also had similar stories.
Vayanadan Thamban (1978)
A young, rich man makes a deal with the devil for youth. No, it’s not just Dorian Gray’s story. We have a Malayali character who actually made a similar story memorable – Vayanadan Thamban. Vayanadan Thamban had a well-packed story with elements of folklore from several communities spanning several decades. However, being one of the first horror movies in Malayalam, it was not very horrifying. With such a good story and a male ‘ghost’, not the regular white-saree-clad female apparition, Vayanadan Thamban would have done well in this decade. Especially since more people are open to watching interesting horror films.
Our society is currently locked in the process of a slow transition from the orthodoxy of the past to the liberalism of the future. Yet, even today, mental health issues are taboo.
An old mother locked in an attic because she went mad due to debt and unmarried daughters is a common motif in several pre-2000’s Malayalam movies. It can also be a won’t-talk-to-anyone old ammayi whose lover got killed by her relatives and nobody identifies her condition as depression. Or it is an uncle, who was ‘cursed’ by a family deity as in the case of Thaniyavarthanam. Thaniyavarthanam is an excellent discussion of society’s prejudice towards mental illnesses. In the story, this prejudice is influenced by superstition and it is so bad that it drives a very sane man to his end.
The movie’s rural, joint family setting is an excellent backdrop to the subject because superstition often thrives unchecked in this sort of setting. Another great movie with a similar story, only that the protagonist is actually mentally challenged is Iruttinte Athmavu (1967). In Thaniyavarthanam the setting is the villain – it is used to condemn a sane man out of fear of mental disorders while in another movie of the same decade Elipathayam (1989), a similar setting acts as a trigger for the protagonist’s paranoia.
Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu (1984)
Carpe Diem, seize the moment, might have been Girly’s thought as she boarded the train from Mumbai to come meet her grandmother. Of course, she was inspired by the waning of her days. Even so, the notion that one can just abandon the set order of life-in Girly’s case an operation that might save her life-seems rather out of place in the 80’s when everybody, especially women had set roles in their life.
Girly came, she conquered and she left, leaving us with a masterpiece of a song Aayiram Kannumai, and making us appreciate the simple joys in life. Kunjukunjamma, Girly’s grandmother portrays what it is to be lonely and misunderstood, and possibly depressed. Nokketha Doorathu Kannum Nattu was rather feministic too, considering how it is the story of Girly and Kunjukunjamma, and Mohanlal’s Sreekanth only serves to further Girly’s story. Note that this movie existed in a time when heroines were mere plot devices for heroes most of the time.
Manathe Vellitheru (1994)
Crazy stalker violently disrupts the life of a lady pop star. Sounds like something right out of Hollywood. Still, it is the premise of the Vineeth-Shobhana starrer Manathe Vellitheru. Today, when stalking has become much more varied and unfortunately way easier, we need more art that prompts discussion on the topic. Like Manathe Villitheru, had it been filmed recently.
The movie also encourages progressive discussion on another equally important topic-how childhood trauma such as domestic abuse and alcoholic parents cause mental health issues and how that leads to crime. Several other movies like Pranamam (1986), Aham (1992) and Time (2007) portray how bad childhoods influence criminal behaviour. Vineeth’s portrayal of Ramesh, the psychotic stalker, leaves ample room for both fear and pity. Another great reason to love the movie is composer Johnson’s music, especially Manasin Madiyile.
Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu (1999)
It was a tough choice, deciding which 1990’s movie goes on this list. Guru (1999) or Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu. Guru is most definitely better in terms of ideology and raw cinematic power. However, being the first Malayalam movie to be submitted by India for the Oscars, Guru already receives ample love.
On the other hand, a young girl taking charge of her own life to take revenge on powerful men who wronged her is rather unseen in pre-2000’s Malayalam movies. Bhadra, played by Manju Warrier is the protagonist of Kannezhuthi Pottum Thottu. She does literally what the title says, the only difference is that Bhadra lines her eyes and puts the ‘pottu’ on to wreak havoc, not impress men. Compare this to some of Manju Warrier’s other works in that decade, like Aaram Thampuran (1997), where she plays Unnimaya, a grumbling damsel in distress. The strength that Bhadra shows to mete out justice is what makes this movie stand out, from a feministic point of view.
We hope you liked this list of pre-2000s Malayalam movies that were exceptional in terms of their storyline.