Malayalam Cinema : Narratives of Despair, Disquiet & Dissent

Malayalam Cinema
Narratives of Despair, Disquiet & Dissent

Kerala is a tiny state in the southernmost tip of India, with a population of around 35 million, whose official language is Malayalam. Kerala is known for its multi-religious demography (its population consists of 55 per cent Hindus, 27 per cent Muslims and 18 per cent Christians), universal literacy, socialist legacy in politics, long and rich cosmopolitan history of maritime trade and colonial incursions, and a sizeable diaspora across the world. All these have contributed to the evolution of the modern Malayalee mindset, that is essentially secular, pluralistic and democratic.

Malayalam film industry, which will celebrate its centenary in 2028, was always known for its thematic diversity and aesthetic vigour. It also remains one of the most prolific film industries in the country in terms of number of films produced: from an average of 6.5 films per annum in the 1950s, and 27.2 in the 1960s, it jumped to 81.8 in the 1970s. In the 1980s it peaked with 113.7 films. By the 1990s, due to various factors including the advent of television, it went down to 78.6 films. But in the first decades of the new millennium, with the industry completely shifting to digital, there has again been a resurgence in Malayalam film production. If in the 5-year period 2005-09 it was around 82 films, it jumped to 156 in the next five years, and peaked to over 182 in 2015-19.

The 1950s and 1960s – Literary Decades of Social Realism

Though the first movie - “Vigathakumaran” (“The Lost Child”) by JC Daniel was made in 1928, as an industry and art form Malayalam movies fully emerged only in the 1950s. And right from the beginning, Malayalam cinema’s thematic accent was on social themes and its aesthetic bent, towards realism. In the 1950s one can see an array of films dealing with issues like feudal oppression, caste discrimination, disintegration of traditional joint families and migration to the city. Those were the major concerns of a society freeing itself from the shackles of colonialism and trying to seek a social identity and political vision of its own. Literature and theatre were the major sources of inspiration and most films of the period were adaptations and were influenced by theatrical traditions and acting styles. Notable films of the ‘50s like “Jeevitanouka” ( “Boat of Life”, K Vembu, 1951), “Neelakkuyil” (“Blue Koel”, P Bhaskaran/Ramu Kariat, 1954), “Rarichan Enna Pouran” (1956), and “Newspaper Boy” (P Ramadas/1956) were all animated by the nationalist and socialist projects, caste and class exploitation, struggles against the feudal oppression and obscurantist beliefs, and disintegration of the joint family. In the 1960s the same trend continued. Along with the film narratives, film songs too contributed to the creation of a film industry and culture that became immensely popular. Breaking all social barriers, movies visualised, narrated and created a modern, secular society.

The 70s – The ‘Cinematic’ Decade

The 1970s saw a new awakening in cinema due to various factors: several institutions like Film Finance Corporation, Film & Television Institute of India, and National Film Archives were set up at the national level to support serious cinema, preserve film heritage and to provide professional training in filmmaking. A bunch of film school graduates, who were exposed to the current trends in world cinema, made a series of films that broke away from conventional narrative and visual formats. Films like Swayamvaram (1972) by Adoor Gopalakrishnan about the trials and tribulations of a runaway couple, K P Kumaran's Athithi (The Guest, 1974), dealing with the abstract yet down-to-earth theme of waiting, and G Aravindan's Utharayanam (Throne of Capricorn/1974) about the loss of ideals and the disillusionment of the youth in a society that was becoming deeply corrupt and soul-less, were pathbreaking films that inaugurated the ‘new wave’ in Malayalam. Filmmakers working in different styles and exploring diverse socio-political and aesthetic terrains also emerged: for instance, P A Backer expanded and explored the social-realist project, consistently dealing with the oppressed and the marginalised in society like the orphans, sex workers, landless peasants, labourers and rebels (Kabani Nadi Chuvannappol (When River Kabani turned Red/1975), Chuvanna Vithukal (Red Seeds), Manimuzhakkam (1976), and Sanghagaanam (Chorus, 1979); MT Vasudevan Nair’s Nirmalyam (Yesterday’s Offerings/1973) was about a temple oracle finding the sacred and social universe crumbling around him; Swapnadanam (Journey through a Dream/1975) by K G George) dealt with the sexual anxieties of a young man. Aswathamavu (1978) by K R Mohanan) and Yaro Oral (Someone Unknown/1978) by Pavithran explored the existential angst of the period through characters who were alienated, spiritually and socially. Celebrated as the ‘new wave’, these films were thematically daring and stylistically distinct, invoking a new sensibility and self-consciousness with regard to form and treatment. Apart from 'what', 'how' to tell also became crucial. If the protagonists of the earlier decades fought against the system and looked forward to the future, the heroes of the seventies were disillusioned with the system.

Sex, Violence & Political Corruption

While the 'new wave' filmmakers were hogging all the attention and putting Malayalam cinema on the world map, the commercial, mainstream was also undergoing slow but significant changes. Along with commercially successful filmmakers like IV Sasi, Sasikumar, Hariharan etc, a new crop of filmmakers – the practitioners of the 'middle cinema' – burst into the scene like Mohan, Bharathan, P Padmarajan, Fazil, Sathyan Anthikkad, Lenin Rajendran and Balachandra Menon. Man-woman relationship, marital conflicts, infidelity, conflicts arising from sexual awakenings, jealousy and suspicion etc were the most popular themes. Malayalam film industry was at its peak during this period with the number of theatres rising and box office collections surging. That the first 3D film in India was made in Malayalam (“My Dear Kuttichthan”/ “My Dear Little Goblin”/ Jijo/1984) is an indicator of the industry’s vigour.

The Nineties – Decade of Television & Globalization

The nineties saw a sea change in Indian politics as well as visual media, impacting upon thematic choices of cinema as well as audience expectations and tastes. The New Economic Policies implemented by the Government of India brought about a shift towards economic liberalization, privatization and globalization. The fall of the Soviet Union and the Communist Bloc was yet another event that had tremendous impact upon the Malayalee political imagination. Kerala, being one of the states that voted a communist government to power through the ballot, has a long and rich history of socialist and communist political struggles, with vibrant ideological discourses and art practices accompanying them.

At the visual media front, the entry of satellite television had a huge impact upon visual entertainment patterns and preferences. The plethora of popular tele-serials, most of which were family/love melodramas, forced the film industry to change tracks, and search for new narratives and formats to attract the audience back to the theatres. With the sobs and soaps invading the drawing rooms, there was a withdrawal of the family audience from the cinemas. A new crop of filmmakers who transcended or bridged the gap between ‘art’ and ‘commercial’ cinema, entered the scene. The prominent among them were Sibi Malayil, Priyadarsan, Srinivasan, Kamal, Shyamaprasad, Ranjith, Jayaraj, Balachandra Menon and Lohitadas. Their films were full length comedies, family dramas and social satires that were emotionally intense and had popular appeal. This decade also witnessed the rise of actors like Mammootty and Mohanlal as ‘super stars’, who began their careers in the earlier decades but went on to dominate the next one too.

The New Millennium – Analog to Digital

In the new millennium, visual culture industry witnessed another major shift - from analog to digital technologies, with all the domains of cinema industry – production, distribution, exhibition and reception – undergoing huge transformations. With the influx of global visual entertainment products into the market, the local film industry had to cater to the changing and highly globalised tastes and expectations of the new audience. Despite these limitations, Malayalam film industry, witnessed the rise of a slew of ‘small’ films, especially by youngsters, who were at ease with new technologies and its formats, and were making earnest attempts to create sensible and sensitive ‘regional’ film expressions of their own. Though their formats and styles were deeply influenced by the global and national trends, their thematics were firmly rooted in Malayalee life and times. Shot largely in the exteriors, these films succeeded in breaking out of the home / interiors-bound atmosphere of the films of the earlier decades. Moreover, they also moved out into marginalised spaces like city slums, rural and suburban outliers and fringes. Such spaces are to a large extent ‘secular’; but also much more volatile, ’free’ and easily prone to violence. Most importantly, these films liberated Malayalam cinema from the macho superstar-centred themes and the upper/middle class/caste social spaces, and brought back to screen the mundane, everyday life of common folk, their conflicts, dreams, dilemmas and struggles.

The selection at VIFFAC

This package of New Malayalam Cinema showcases a cross section of films that represent the different trends and themes referred to above. Issues and conflicts arising from subterranean but socially oppressive forms of casteism, gender inequalities, migration, abuse of social media, and the impact of all these upon individual, familial and social relationships constitute the crux of most of these narratives. They present the contemporary in dark but true colours; they do not glorify or gloat over the past or tradition, nor do they desist from critiquing the various forms of oppression and unfreedom that loom upon society. They seldom nurse any dreams about the future, nor do they never indulge in any form of idealism. What makes these films contemporary is their brutal honesty about the present, and the readiness to face truth.

If “Nayattu” (“The Hunt”) by Martin Prakkatt is a searing critique of present-day politics, one that is run by the short term ves- ted interests of political parties who want to hold on to power at any cost, while “Pada” by K M Kamal is about the betrayal of the system with regard to the protection of land rights to the indigenous people. “19 (1) (a)” by V S Indhu is about the atmosphere of fear that pervades a society where all expressions of dissent are crushed. The title refers to the article 19(1) (a) of the Constitution of India which states that, “all citizens shall have the right to freedom of speech and expression “.

Many films deal with the gender question and the struggles of women in a patriarchal society: Jeo Baby’s “The Great Indian Kitchen” interrogates the marital drama and the family system in the form of a bleak comedy. The film reveals how marriage and family make slaves out of women and how such slavery is naturalised and normalised. “1001 Lies” by Thamar KV adopts chamber drama mode to narrate the web of lies that marriage, families and friendships are mired in, asking the troubling question, is it possible to be totally and unconditionally honest in marriage and friendship? “Aanu” (“Yes”) by Sidharth Siva is about how women and men live in and out of love, and how the institutions of marriage and family work differently for men and women. “Vettappattikalum Ottakkarum” (“The Hounds and the Runners”) by Rarish G is an incisive and satirical take on the visual media culture we, our lives, mentalities and reactions, are mired in today, and how women become easy prey to media. If in “Vettappattikalum”, it is sensation-hungry television that preys upon people, in “Ariyippu” (“Declaration”) by Mahesh Narayanan, it is social media that plays a diabolical role. It is about a Malayalee couple working in a glove manufacturing factory in a north Indian city whose lives are turned upside down by a fabricated social media leak. At the centre of “Nishiddho” (“Forbidden”) by Tara Ramanujan too, there is a couple: a young woman and a man who are migrants who have come to Kerala. Both dream of a life together. But, as in the case of migrants anywhere, unpredictable things happen and their yearning to find one’s own home remains a dream. “Niraye Thathakalulla Maram” (“A tree full of Parrots”) by Jayaraj is a film stands out from the rest, both with regard to its narrative style, thematics and approach. Structured like a parable, every narrative element in the film – landscapes, people, incidents, objects – assume metaphorical resonance. It is about belonging and loneliness, despair of old age and hopefulness of childhood, death and rebirth.

What makes the above films contemporary is their intense engagement with the present, though they follow diverse narrative styles and are fired by different thematic concerns and aesthetic vision. Many of these films grapple with the visceral and the immediate, the here and now, while others contemplate upon history, nation, politics, gender, home and migration. All these films explore the world from different perspectives, often interrogating desire, patriarchy, violence, media, human relationships and also the links between the worldly and otherworldly. A deep undercurrent of despair, disquiet and dissent has been the hallmark of Malayalam cinema, that continues across decades, but also reappears and redefines itself constantly.

C S Venkiteswaran

Focus on indian cinema from Kerala

1001 Lies

Our Farmland

Wednesday, February 7th, 18:00 - Majestic 3
Saturday, February 10th, 9:45 - Majestic 4 


La jeune fille Xiao Xiao

Thursday, February 8th, 18:00 - Majestic 3
Saturday, February 10th, 13:45 - Majestic 3


Neige Noire

Wednesday, February 7th, 14:00 - Majestic 3
Thursday, February 8th, 10:00 - Majestic 4 


Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Sunday, February 11th, 9:45 - Majestic 3 
Monday, February 12th, 9:45 - Majestic 3

The Great Indian Kitchen

Un conte Mongole

Wednesday, February 7th, 10:00 - Majestic 5 
Saturday, February 10th, 20:30 - Majestic 4

The Hounds and the Runners

Chanson du Tibetb

Sunday, February 11th, 14:00 - Majestic 3
Monday, February 12th, 13h45 - Majestic 3 

The Hunt

Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Friday, February 9th, 20:30 - Majestic 3
Sunday, February 11th, 20:30 - Majestic 4


Un conte Mongole

Friday, February 9th, 14:00 - Majestic 3

The Tree full of Parrots

Chanson du Tibetb

Sunday, February 11th, 18:00 - Majestic 4
Tuesday, February 13th, 13:30 - Majestic 4 


Les Femmes du Lac aux Âmes Parfumées

Wednesday, February 7th, 16:00 - Majestic 4
Friday, February 9th, 10:00 - Majestic 3

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