Once upon a time, Malayalam cinema played to the tunes of the incredible hero, the ever-green Prem Nazir, who never tired of wooing heroines, running around trees with damsels half his age, and wiping out a dozen villains single-handedly as the film climaxed. Those were the early 1970s, when assembly-line formula films had rubbed off from Bollywood to the South of India, complete with hackneyed story-lines the future course of which could be predicted with ease. The only other choice was to view fares doled out by directors infatuated with Marxist-Leninist ideology who produced absolute tear-jerkers on the rich-poor divide.
Today, a new wind is blowing over Malayalam cinema. Call it fresh, avante garde, or whatever, it is fetching golden moments for Malayalam films. The brightest could be Marana Simhasanam that saw Murali Nair bag the coveted Camera d’Or Award at Cannes earlier in the year. The movie tells the tale of a poor labourer who is apprehended while stealing coconuts, and then slapped with murder charges. The 33-year-old London-based Murali now has production offers pouring in, and is receiving invitations to prestigious film festivals across the globe. Says film historian P.K. Nair of the younger Nair, “He has a certain vision that is different from other filmmakers. He captures visuals and moods rather than being stuck in dramatic developments.”
Then there is Jayaraj, whose Kaliyaatam, based on the Shakespearean play Othello, attracted rave reviews at the International Film Festival in New Delhi in 1998. Visual opulence takes centrestage in Kaliyaatam where the characters are exponents of Theyyam, the spectacular ritual dance of northern Kerala. Aided by a tight script and some brilliant performances, Jayaraj and cinematographer Radhakrishnan have expertly exploited the bizarre, stylised costumes of Theyyam.
Shaji M. Karun is another Malayalam director who has been making waves in international circles. Acclaimed for his Piravi and Swaham, Shaji’s latest offering is Vanaprastham, an Indo-French production, and the costliest Malayalam film to date (USD 1 million/INR 42 million). The film is based on Kerala’s well-known Kathakali dance, and as Shaji says, “My major challenge was to make a film which was not just a documentary on Kathakali and to ensure that the form did not overshadow the content.”
Kathakali dancer Kunjukuttan is at the centre of the movie, who finds himself an odd victim of art colluding with reality. Kunjukuttan’s fiancee Subhadra is enamoured of his dancing role as the legendary Arjun, and not him. Things come to a head when Subhadra does not allow him to see their daughters unless he comes in his stage finery. Unable to cope with the series of tragedies piling up, Kunjukuttan kills himself. This is his vanaprastham (the last dance).
For top-notch hero Mohan Lal, who took Kathakali lessons to understand the spirit behind the dance, it is a “life-time role”, an attempt to “break the tradition of people from mainstream cinema investing only in commercial projects”.
Adoor Gopalakrishnan, the Satyajit Ray of the South if you will, has always been quietly subversive in his work. So quiet that you have to magnify Adoor’s cinematic murmurs and gentle probing into the nature of oppression to understand the true import of what he is saying. kathapurushan (Man of the Story), co-produced by NHK of Japan, is perhaps his most subtle and cinematically, the most stunning. And paradoxically enough, the strongest indictment of authority as well as an eloquent plea for the human spirit and individual freedom, a pat on the back for idealism in an increasingly cynical age.
Adoor is undoubtedly traversing a ground he and other filmmakers from Kerala have often trod before changing social orders. But what does make Kathapurushan such an outstanding film is its scope, and the control the director has over the medium. It is not the story of one man in isolation as the title may indicate, but of a generation of men growing up in post-Independence Kerala. For someone whose cinema has always been elliptical, and admirably restrained, it is also perhaps Adoor’s most abstract film so far, and his most personal the protagonist’s father leaves his mother before he is born and we never find out why. “My father and mother separated and till today I don’t know why,” says Adoor.
More recently, Balachandra Menon, known more for his ‘commercial’ ventures, has broken his own mould and come up with what he says is his magnum opus.
Sammantharangal, which Menon produced, directed, edited, wrote the screenplay and music for, and also played the lead in, is devoid of stereotype. The actor-director plays an upright and principled railway stationmaster who is in conflict with the unscrupulous world outside. Both in content and form, Samaantharangal marks a distinct departure from Menon’s earlier films.
But even as these filmmakers experiment with different modes of expression, there is a pack of savvy Malayalam directors infusing their style and professionalism into Bollywood cinema. They are experimenting with both content and form, and having been toasted commercially and critically, they are becoming marquee brand names. This heavily Hollywoodised generation has created a vigorous cinema of visual nuances and exuberance and are the ones almost single-handedly responsible for Bollywood’s adoption of song-as-setpiece (that is, using fantastic locales to picturise songs, regardless of the story).
For these directors, the crossing over makes perfect sense. Bollywood is a great chance to go global, with a bigger market, more budget and arguably better crew. And all this with a super-fast work ethic —films are finished within a stipulated time frame, and reshooting is almost unheard of. Says Keralite director Priyadarshan, “Cinema needs no languages. Only feelings… There are 26 cultures in 26 states. You have to think like an Indian and find universal themes.”
Therein lies the contradiction of Malayalam films. While one set of directors are busy rewriting the rules for commercial cinema, their peers are creating waves in the film festival circuit. But then, contradictions are what Malayalam cinema is all about —it comes up with all kinds of movies. At 12 noon, in front of many halls in Kerala, you can see an intense all-male queue (with the exception of those plying the oldest profession) beating the heat to get to watch an “A” movie, where the rape scene is goaded on by whistles; and at the matinee, you can find the serious types trying to size up an Adoor Gopalakrishnan presentation.
Mohan Lal and Mammooty
While the Rajesh Khannas and the Dharmendras were busy stealing the thunder up north with their fair-handsome looks, the Malayalee hero was at best portly, dressed in the simplest attire, sometimes in a rinted lungi and bare torso, a specimen that could not be digested by the Hindi film fan. But the superstar syndrome did not escape the Malayalee, who found in Mohan Lal and Mammooty two different personalities worthy of hero worship.
Thick at the waist and sporting moustaches and hairstyles that have the coconut oil sheen, their faces reflect what the audience want a whole gamut of emotions from anything between a love-struck young man to a hen-pecked husband angling for another woman. Both also have a sizeable fan following among the Malayalee migrants in the Gulf, whose nostalgia is fed by the lush green native setting in which their heroes operate. Well entrenched in the roots of Kerala’s tradition and history, the characters played by both Mammooty and Mohan Lal could be any of your Malayalee next door. Which is the reason for their earthy appeal.