Why Are We Not Preserving Malayalam Cinema?

The more I think about it, the more I wonder why nothing has been done about it!

To explain what I’m talking about, here’s a little background. I am a Malayalee born and brought up in the Middle East. For some reason, I ended up watching mostly English movies and TV shows (maybe because we didn’t have Asianet at home then).

So once, when I was 20 years old, I asked my brother-in-law (who was born and brought up in Trivandrum) if he could fix my laptop. He inspected it for a moment, then chuckled and said, “Ippo Sheriyakki Tharam!”

I laughed and grinned. Though I had no idea what was so funny about that sentence.

Later, at a family party, someone was trying to have a Skype video call but the audio kept breaking. Immediately my cousin brother started yelling, “Kambili Puthappu! Kambili Puthappu!”

Everyone burst out laughing. Except me.

Now, here’s my question.

How would you educate me, a Malayalee who was never able to watch the right Malayalam movies at the right time, about the importance and comedic genius behind those dialogues?

The Greatest Movies List

Once, when I was 13 years old, a movie came on T.V. I remember a lady sitting at a bench, and crows gathering behind her. I didn’t understand what was happening. It felt a little scary.

I would have forgotten that scene within half a day, if my father hadn’t passed by. He said that this was a great movie by someone named Hitchcock.

That was all the information I had. A movie called The Birds. Directed by someone named Hitchcock.

Within the next two years, I knew about Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurasaw, Steven Spielberg and Martin Scorsese. How?

Because when I used my dial up internet connection and AskJeeves.com to search for Alfred Hitchcock, I came across a page of the greatest movies ever made. I read about how this director had made many acclaimed thrillers. Then I read about other movies that were regarded as masterpieces. So I wondered who directed those films. And what other films they’d directed.

A definitive list of the greatest American movies ever made is compiled by the American Film Institute (AFI). The closest equivalent to the AFI would be the Kerala State Chalachitra Academy, which does not have a definitive list compiled by polling artists from the film industry.

When you are a curious fan hungry to explore the world of American Cinema, you can google “Greatest Movies of All Time”, and be guided by 1,500 artists who formed the AFI Top 100 List. Or the BBC Sight & Sound Poll shaped by critics and filmmakers all over the world. Over even more commercial lists from Rolling Stones Magazine and Empire Magazine, legendary publications that harness the opinion of their huge readership to guide newcomers through the world of cinema.

If you google “Greatest Malayalam Movies of All Time”, the top results are an imDB list made by a collection of online fans and a ScoopWhoop article formed by an online editorial team.

Is that really enough?

How To Watch The Classics?

Forget the lists. Forget the fact that we don’t have an organized introductory guide to Malayalam cinema. Like our ancestors, Kerala society is now operating on the oral tradition. You and I rely on the savvy movie fan in our friend circle, or the uncle who knew Sathyan Anthikad when he was just starting out. They tell you to watch Nammukku Parkaam Mundarithopukal, or Mathilukal.

How are you going to watch it? Until a few years ago, we as a society seemed to depend on CD Rental shops. There’s one near my house, and the owner is now using half the space to sell hardware appliances. Why? Because no one is renting CDs anymore.

So how else are we supposed to watch the best movies in Malayalam? Right now the best way is by searching on YouTube, of course. Where classic movies are scattered across countless channels, some poorly formatted, others badly cataloged. The best works of cinema from our state, dumped onto a video sharing platform alongside make up tutorials and viral cat videos…

Why aren’t we doing something about this? Why aren’t we making sure these movies are preserved, remastered, curated and distributed so that every boy and girl in the state can today and in the future know that they belong to a society that created some of the finest movies not just in the region or the country but the world itself?

I don’t know how this should be done. But I don’t have a shred of doubt that it should have been done a long time ago. The CD Rental shop owner told me how some brilliant movies from the 70s and 80s are no longer available for public consumption. Because the master copy is stored in the house of the producer, who does not find it profitable or worthwhile to release it.

Why can’t we push for the State Government to pass legislation to fix this travesty? Isn’t it possible to regulate copyright of films so that anything released more than 15 years ago can now be accessible to the public through a paid platform rather than hoarded by producers?

Or should we be praying that some enterprising youngsters will form a company like Netflix that will establish a film catalogue, app and streaming service so that everyone in the state can watch the movies they fondly remember? Imagine being able to walk up to your father, who looks up from his newspaper to see you holding out a mobile phone that has a screen crawling with thumbnails of every Prem Nasir, Jayan and Adoor Gopalakrishnan movie?

Sadly, right now it’s only through our collective memories, expressed in signature dialogues amidst roars of laughter that the classics survive. And with each passing year, that memory fades. Yes, Malayalam cinema is in a robust position today. But what good is creating art in the present if we cannot respect the art that shaped us in the past?

There is a strain of bitterness in these words, for I consider it a huge lost opportunity. By preserving and promoting Kerala’s nearly 70 year history of cinema, we as a society would benefit economically, financially and artistically. We could respect the artists who made such art possible while simultaneously inspiring the next generation. Instead of letting our youngsters be lured away by mediocre Hollywood movies about fast cars and flashy clothes, we could provide them a chance to learn the possibilities of brilliant cinema.

It was also a lost opportunity for me. For, approximately around the time I saw that scene with the birds, I also saw a scene where Mammooty was wearing white, prison clothes and standing next to a wall. My father and his friends talked about how great a movie that was, and I tried to catch as much information as possible. But then I never could find out what that movie was. If I could find out, I wouldn’t have been able to understand why that movie was so acclaimed. And if I finally understood why, I’d have been heartbroken to know there was no way for me to see it then.

Mathilukal is now available on YouTube, with the only commentary about it’s cinematic brilliance being one line comments by eager fans. “Superb movie! Classic film! Evergreen!” are not words that do justice. And as a friend informed me when I was preparing this article, films like Balan and Vigathakumaran were landmark movies in our state’s history that are now forever lost…

So the question becomes, what do we do about this situation? Will the lawmakers empower the necessary film institutions to promote the classics? Will entrepreneurs with a passion for cinema mobilize and create streaming services? Will ordinary fans like you and me read, discuss and share this so that the word gets around?

Or do we all just smile and say, “Ippo sheriyakki tharam!”

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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