After a dismal 2020, there were questions of whether Malayalam cinema (and cinema in general) would ever find its way back to the good ol’ days. Days when people thronged to the theatres and stood in long lines at the box office counter. Days when theatre owners and distributors had to choose between a handful of Malayalam films every Friday. Days when we as viewers were spoilt for choice vis-a-vis big-screen entertainment.
But 2021 arrived, and in a reassuring fashion, showed us that all hope is not lost. After the second wave, there were Malayalam films like Priest and Kala that drew first blood and attracted a bunch of people to the theatres. Post the next shutdown, towards the end of the year, we had Kurup, Jan.E.Man and Ajagajantharam which again did phenomenal numbers at the box office. Meanwhile, the OTT space continued to enthral us with great and original content – a bunch of major releases happened direct-to-OTT, including Drishyam 2, Malik, Joji, Minnal Murali and Churuli. The OTT space also gave us some unexpected highs through content-driven small films such as The Great Indian Kitchen, Love, Thinkalazhcha Nischayam and Thirike.
Across all mediums, as per Wikipedia, there have been around 150 odd Malayalam films that have found a release this year – it’s a commendable turnaround for the industry, that makes 2021 a significant year in its history. So as we march into the next year with greater expectations (as we always do), why not take a retrospective look at the year bygone?
Here’s presenting 9 things that we may have learnt from last year’s Malayalam films, about the future of the industry.
Even ‘small films’ can make their mark in theatres in a post-Covid world.
Contrary to the belief that small Malayalam films would have to be restricted to OTT platforms here on, this film – with no A-listers or pre-release hype – made heads turn with its unique blend of comedy and emotions. While the dark comedy premise in itself was novel, where Jan.E.Man truly excelled is that it gave many people the old “social” feeling that they’d long missed at the theatres – the joy of emoting along with (and thereby forging a shared connection with) a hundred unknown others within the confines of a common space.
There is so much space and scope for representation in cinema.
It was remarkable that the film decided to not sympathise with differently-abled people but rather celebrate their personalities. Gopi, who has Down syndrome in real life, comes up with a memorable performance as Ismu – a performance that makes the viewers (and hopefully filmmakers as well) crave more authentic representation of various groups in cinema. There is definitely a space for such inclusive scripts, and we really hope that producers and distributors see potential in this space.
Our Take On Thirike: Thirike: This Heartwarming Tale of Brotherhood Has Its Moments
There is nothing wrong with adaptations as long as they’re masterfully executed.
There was some skepticism when it was announced that Dileesh Pothan was going to adapt Macbeth for a film starring Fahadh Faasil. After all, this was a combo that had made a name for themselves with two strikingly original films (Maheshinte Pratikaram and Thondimuthalum Driksakshiyum) – and here they were, adapting Shakespeare like a hundred other filmmakers have. And yet, Joji turned out to be a well-crafted version of the epic that has already descended into pop culture (I see the “Nee anallo kodathi” sticker almost everyday). Be it Justin Varghese’s chilling background score, Shyju Khalid’s frames (and use of spaces) or the terrific cast, Joji was a riveting watch even for those who knew where the plot was going. The acclaim of Joji just goes on to prove that remakes and adaptations can work, if seen through an original lens.
The Great Indian Kitchen
There is nothing more cathartic than a political stance being supported by a great cinematic vision.
One of the biggest surprises of the year was this Jeo Baby-directed film that held a mirror to society and made all the men think hard about their own actions. Feminism in cinema isn’t new; we have had many tales of empowerment and emancipation before. And yet, what makes The Great Indian Kitchen a notch above the rest, is its cinematic brilliance. The director conveys a lot of things without actually putting them into words – he lets his images do the talking, sometimes through strong imagery or through subtle symbolism. And when this level of craft backs the politics that the film stands for, it offers a very cathartic experience for the viewer.
If the writing is strong and rooted, nothing – lack of marketing, lack of known faces, limited release – can stop the film from getting noticed.
True, the film did get some attention after winning the State Awards this year. But there was little pre-release hype surrounding the film’s public release on SonyLiv. However, as some people witnessed this witty gem of a film, they suggested the film to their friends and slowly, it became a case of good ol’ word-of-mouth success – one of the most meritorious feats in Malayalam cinema in recent times. The world-building by Senna Hegde – that too in the not-so-explored Kasaragod terrain – paved the way for some authentic, memorable characters who became the backbone of the film.
It is definitely possible to make ‘big’ films with a global appeal, as long as the makers keep it simple, rooted and unpretentious.
Over its two years of production, through promos and updates, the film had built for itself a loyal fan base. The hype only got bigger when Netflix took up the project and marketed it on a grand scale. Everyone seemed to want the film to succeed because it was a never-before-seen attempt in Malayalam (I’d daresay Indian) cinema. The film was released to glowing reviews from all over the country, with multiple media calling it the best superhero film of the year – and this was the year we had Spiderman: No Way Home, Shang-Chi and Venom!
So what made Minnal Murali a roaring global success? Basil Joseph mentioned in the promo interviews that the film has an emotional thread at its core, and the superhero element is nothing but a layer on it. The wow factor, of course, was the universality of this thread – that of love, and the philosophy of what it means to truly be a “superhero” in life – as well as its hyperlocal execution (did we expect a mundu-clad supervillain by the name of Shibu?). Navigating his way through budget constraints and evading the already-tread paths of the overused superhero genre, Basil Joseph creates a quirky unassuming film for the ages.
The 90s formula for mass movies, however stylishly packaged, has its limitations in capturing the imagination of the current generation.
The mid-90s was when Suresh Gopi truly came into his own, with films like Ekalavyan and Commissioner giving him the space to mouth explosive dialogues against the wrongdoers, land a few punches in their gut and save the day. Kaaval was touted to mark Suresh Gopi’s return to the action genre. However, it ultimately turned out to be an attempt to recreate the success of the ’90s by using the aforementioned tried-and-tested tropes on a bland, extremely predictable plot. This does not mean a dead end for mass films; it just means that the genre needs to update itself to stay engaging for the viewers.
High-budget spectacle films should focus on the writing mostly because it is the aspect that makes or breaks the viewing experience.
What we cannot take away from Marakkar is its visual brilliance. The cinematography and special effects – especially during the war sequences that happen at sea – are spectacular. But visual brilliance alone is not sufficient; below these layers of pomp and splendour, Marakkar was weak at the screenplay level, and this really affected the viewing experience. The dialogues seemed very theatrical, and even within that space, did not manage to create an impact on many viewers…This makes us wonder if producers should reallocate some of that marketing budget into the writers’ room the next time they conceive a ‘big-budget project’.
Yes, Kurup was the highest-grossing Malayalam film of the year and it definitely had its technical high points. But considering that it was marketed as one that was inspired by real events, we believe that the final output did not do justice to the genre that they promised in the promos. Maybe marketing played spoilsport to our expectations of the film!
Films that transpired during the lockdown (plot-wise) will, in the future years, become a significant marker of this time in our history.
Even simple stories have a large impact.
Slow and steady can win the race if executed the right way.
Even a technically weak movie can be a critical hit if written well.
These were some of our thoughts on Malayalam films released in 2021, and we’re looking forward to hearing yours’ in the comment section!