Genre-Sliding In Malayalam Cinema: Exploring Rorschach and Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey

Most movies are crafted to fit within particular genres. CID Moosa is a comedy movie. Some movies fit into two or more genres, such as crime comedies, action thrillers, etc. The genre of a movie is conveyed through its plot, the characters, the setting and the overall story. Over time, filmmakers have leaned on certain filmmaking styles and tropes to express the genre of movies, and we, as audiences, have come to identify and relate to specific ones.

So why does any of this matter?

Well, understanding the constraints of the genre allows us to break and reshape them in delightful ways. For instance, Manichitrathazhu is a psychological thriller, but through the plot, characters and setting, it deftly weaves comedic and dramatic elements.

Shaun of the Dead is a great Hollywood example of the same. It combines the (light) scares of the horror genre with brilliant comedy to give us a funny zombie movie, as opposed to the regular kind served by the undead.

Genre-Sliding In Malayalam Cinema

Some movies fit into a specific genre, and then some movies combine multiple genres in excellent ways. It could be argued that Rorschach and Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey belong in a third, exciting category: genre-sliding movies.

Though the term might need some work, what it conveys is on a more sound footing. Genre-sliding movies begin within a particular genre and then deftly transition into another, likely adjacent genre, mostly mid-way through the runtime.

Without giving spoilers, it’s safe to say that Rorschach was advertised and started on the screen as a moody, enigmatic psychological thriller. However, halfway through, it embraces a supernatural element and never lets it go.

Similarly, Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey is packaged as a domestic drama, akin to The Great Indian Kitchen, and then spectacularly kicks off into a whole new direction (did you catch the pun?).

Check out: Kitchens as a narrative device in Malayalam movies

So what exactly constitutes a genre-slider, and how do filmmakers benefit by executing them well?

First, it’s important to note that genre sliders should not be confused with another prominent phenomenon in Malayalam movies, especially in the 90s. Many films back then were constructed so that the movie’s first half was filled with burst-out loud comedy moments, and then the second half would completely flip into a tear-jerker.

While that technique can be used and abused equally, they require a different scriptwriting style than genre sliders. In the case of Rorschach and Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey, the challenge is to start laying the foundations for the slide in tone and style right from the beginning of the movie. Instead of writing to make people (primarily the kids) laugh first and then make them (primarily the elders) cry, the filmmakers have to craft a movie where the genre slide is both earned and enjoyable.

This is often done through dialogue, specific plot points, and subtle acting, editing, cinematography and sound design changes. In Rorschach, one of the main characters talks about how a person’s soul isn’t at rest after death. That concept is given enough screen time to be explored so that it changes from just something a character believes to something valid within the internal universe of the movie.

Genre-Sliding In Malayalam Cinema

To a lesser extent, Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey foreshadows the slide in the genre by stressing to us how anyone can learn anything on YouTube and showing us how the main character is dreading her husband’s physical abuse and contemplating ways to escape it.

Genre-Sliding In Malayalam Cinema
Genre-Sliding In Malayalam Cinema

No matter how subtle or numerous, or elaborate the clues may be in the first half of the movie, there’s a joyous part in any genre-sliding movie. It’s the slide itself.

The slide is those few minutes of a pivotal scene where the filmmakers finally make the transition or the great leap forward. It’s both risky and exciting. Remember, people who bought tickets to watch Rorschach, and Jaya Jaya Jaya Jaya Hey weren’t expecting the change. Some theatre-goers wanted a straightforward thriller or domestic drama grounded in reality. Instead, they now realized that the whole tone and style of the movies had been switched.

The slide is exciting for the same reason a car driving off a ramp is – for a few moments, neither the audience nor the filmmakers can be certain it will land safely. What if the change in tone or style annoys the audience? Or don’t find it believable enough?

That’s where every element of the movie is recruited to sell the switch. Mammootty commits to the fact that he can see a ghost, just like Basil Joseph commits to being a bewildered, beaten-up husband. The camera, the soundtrack, the set decorations….everything needs to commit.

So why take this risk? Why give the audience something they didn’t necessarily sign up for? Because the reward is just as high. If the slide works, audiences are surprised, intrigued and ultimately delighted by what they see unfold on screen. The concept of genre-sliding is fantastic because they surprise the viewer and allow the filmmakers to rush off in a different direction than expected.

Here’s hoping that more movies in Malayalam embrace genre-sliding and, more importantly, pull it off well!

Musthafa Azeez
Indian born and raised in Qatar and currently making plans to be buried in Canada. Voracious reader, avid cinephile, self-published author of a crime novel and a freelance journalist.

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