The 10 ‘Firsts’ of Malayalam Cinema

In 1913, Dadasaheb Phalke released India’s first full-length movie Raja Harishchandra. But what he did not realise was that he was breathing life into the imagination of a culture deeply immersed in stories and tales passed down from generation to generation. From Raja Harishchandra to the present day, Indian cinema has made great leaps forward with technology, camera angles, and of course, innovative storytelling.

And Malayalam cinema played a major role in the history of Indian cinema. When the whole of India wanted to lose itself in magical fantasies and outworld dimensions through cinema, Mollywood stood different by quietly brewing movies seeped in realism so much that people’s sympathy turned into empathy. The characters were true to life, the struggles real and that was why emotions always overflowed in the cinema halls of quaint little Kerala.

Nothing was taboo for Malayalam cinema as seen especially through Padmarajan flicks. Be it in Namukku Parkan Munthirithoppukal, where the hero accepts a rape victim as his better half (a subject people preferred not to talk about in the 80s). Or a man who has complex relationships – with a sex-worker-to-be and the love of his life (again something unimaginable for the morality of the 80s) as portrayed in Thoovanathumbikal, Malayalam cinema was making leaps in the quiet shadows of Kerala’s coconut trees. 

Such was the extraordinary prowess of Malayalam cinema! In this post, I step back in time to unearth where it all began and travel through realms to bring out the ten firsts of Malayalam cinema.

Vigathakumaran

Vigathakumaran aka The Lost Child is the first Malayalam movie to be made and displayed across theatres in Kerala. The movie was directed by JC Daniel with him playing a key role. It was released in 1928 or 1930 (the exact release date and year is still a matter of contention) and would’ve been a masterpiece if not for the casteist and rigid orthodox norms prevalent in Kerala then. JC Daniel became the tragic hero at the end. Nothing exists of the movie except photographs and folktales. A movie called Celluloid was released in Malayalam portraying JC Daniels life with Prithviraj in the lead.

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Balan

Balan was the first Malayalam talkie. Talkies are movies with sound. With Balan, Malayalam cinema got its voice and the words “Hello Mister” reverberated across the Cinema Halls. Balan is also the first Malayalam movie from the melodrama genre.

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Newspaper Boy

The first Malayalam movie to experiment with Italian neo-realism. This film was the first to portray the lives of people who are living in utter squalor. Shot on a shoestring budget of Rs.1,75,000, the whole movie except direction was managed by students. This film is also regarded as the world’s first commercial film to be made by students.

Kandam Bacha Coat

Kandam Bacha Coat or The Patched-up coat was the first Malayalam movie to be released in colour. The story is based on a very famous stage play. The movie also uses the beautiful Kozhikode slang and received a certificate from the National Awards.

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Bhargavi Nilayam

Bhargavi Nilayam is a name that is known to every Malayali millennial. Any dilapidated house in your neighbourhood is automatically called ‘Bhargavi Nilayam’. But do you know how it all started? It’s because of Malayalam’s first horror movie. And it still is widely considered as one of the best in Malayalam horror genre

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Chemmeen

Pareekutty and Karuthamma are the Romeo and Juliet of Malayalam cinema. Moving performance from Madhu, Sheela, Kottarakara Sreedharan Nair, and Sathyan when combined with Thakazhi Siva Sankara Pilla’s story and Ramu Kariat’s direction made this a film that still reverberates love and betrayal. And therefore, Chemmeen went on to be the first Malayalam film to win the National Award for the Best feature film.

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Iruttinte Athmavu

Widely considered as one of Prem Nazir’s best performances, Iruttinte Athmavu was the first time Malayalam cinema ventured into sensitive storytelling. Prem Nazir’s portrayal of a mentally challenged person, Branthan Velayudhan, garnered praise from many cinema stalwarts and critiques alike. Coincidentally, it is also regarded as P. Bhaskaran’s best works.

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My Dear Kuttichathan

This rarely requires an introduction to a Malayali. The antiques of our very own Kuttichathan and especially the scene where the kids walk on walls was nothing short of magical. But My Dear Kuttichathan is also famous for another thing. It is the first 3D film not only just Malayalam but also in India cinema. I still remember when this movie was re-released in the 90s and the whole theatre was filled with ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ at every fire arrow flying at us from the screen.

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Swaham

The word Cannes and Palme D’ Or (The Golden Palm award) is quite familiar to us now. But do you know of Swaham, a Malayalam movie talking about poverty? This critically acclaimed movie was the first Malayalam movie to be nominated for Palme D’ Or at the ’94 Cannes film festival. It also won awards and accolades at various International film festivals.

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Guru

Guru was the first Malayalam movie to be submitted as India’s official entry to the Oscars to be considered for Best Foreign Language Film category in 1997. It was praised for the highly metaphorical and surrealistic environment created by Rajiv Anchal and the beauty of the story. It also bears some resemblance to Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. This movie has so many layers of storytelling that it’s impossible to describe them in mere words.

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